Air transport (2007-2011): passengers and freight



The development of air transport has represented a major revolution for the people of the West Indies. Perfectly adapted to servicing the passenger transport needs of these scattered territories, it has established itself within four decades as the preferred, and often only, means of linking the islands to each other and to the rest of the world.

Omnipresent, the aeroplane is at the heart of the life of the Archipelago: a myriad of airports of all sizes, from the regional ‘hub' of San Juan to the tiny airfields of Saba, Canouan or Desirade, a proliferation of air routes and airlines, both large and small, ensure an incessant ‘Brownian' movement across skies that are rarely empty, and with a traffic that appears large when compared to the populations served. In these lands of emigration, the aeroplane and airport, replacing the steamship and seaport, are also places of emotion and affect: it is here that families are separated, sometimes for long periods, it is here also that they meet again. The interests represented by air transport in the Caribbean largely surpass those of the economic, and spill over into the political. Much more than a simple means of transport, the aeroplane is also a political and strategic instrument, a manifestation of sovereignty. It is one of the domains where states and local authorities are at their most interventionist. The spread of airlines serving the Archipelago is ever changing: recent years have seen increasing bankruptcies, restructuring, privatization, new companies, and mergers. It appears that a situation of relative stability has yet to be reached.

The configuration of networks, the direction and size of flows of traffic, reveal the different realities of the region, its structures and hierarchies, its barriers and ‘ruptures,' and preferential links with outside world. Similarly, it brings into play the different dependencies and loyalties, reveals the disparities in ratios like ‘time/distance' and ‘time/costs.' The imbalance between intra and extra-regional traffic underlies the strong outward looking nature of the region. Two aerial worlds are in contact: on the one side, the great international airlines, major carriers, attractive fares and services for long haul routes. On the other side, high cost per km; slow check-in procedures, flight connections and access time to airports, often mediocre services, are the common complaints of internal flights within the Archipelago, often likened to an obstacle course. Centrifugal forces massively prevail over the forces of regional integration. In the case of long distance flights, the United States not surprisingly occupies top position: indeed they have a tendency to regard intra-Caribbean links as an extension of their own internal network. Certainly, from its inaugural mail and passenger services in the late 1920s (Florida-Havana and Miami-San Juan), the role of Pan Am was looked on favourably by the US government as its 'chosen instrument' for foreign policy to facilitate economic expansion into the Caribbean.

Europe comes in second place. In terms of the principal directions and route destinations, very few of which have prolongations further west or to the south, the Archipelago has effectively become a terminus, a cul-de-sac. Its links with the rest of the world (Africa, Asia, Middle East) are very limited, almost non-existent. At the scale of the Caribbean basin itself, the two north-south axes, and those serving the isthmic mainland and the islands, are closely juxtaposed but with little inter-connection.

‘Disjunction' is the over-riding characteristic of the air transport network of the Caribbean.



Author: Patrice Roth
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith