Air Services in the Caribbean Basin: Continuity and Change
Translation: Brigitte Hervoche

Though easy to spot on a map, the Caribbean is not easy to circumscribe geographically, historically, geopolitically or culturally speaking (Fig. 1) . For French Caribbeans, it is usually limited to the West Indian archipelago. English-speaking Caribbeans add to it the three Guianas and Belize which have in common European colonisation and slavery (Williams, 1970). For Spanish-speaking Caribbeans it is composed of all the islands and continental countries bordered by the Caribbean Sea. A more comprehensive geographical definition extends it to the lands around the Gulf of Mexico, hence to Mexican and southern United States coastlines (M@ppemonde, 2003-4). When the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) was created in 1994, the Caribbeans agreed to define and delimit their regional space, adding Salvador and the Bahamas (geographically near) as well as the three Guianas (for historical reasons). The five southern United States, however, were not included, for they were felt to be a dominant power more than a partner sharing the same problems and interests (Bégot and al., 2009). Yet, their physical presence can be felt because of their coastlines, their multifarious influences and the strong flows of all kinds they generate within the "Greater Caribbean". Even though we have made ours the delimitation of the ACS, it is difficult to leave them aside altogether. Thus with the foundation of the ACS the old Pan Caribbean dream came true institutionally, even if its role is merely advisory (CRPLC, 1996-1997; Crusol, 2014).


Fig. 1. The Caribbean mosaic 
Réalisation : Bernard Gandrille

Thus the Caribbean Basin is geographically and politically fragmented and demographically, ethnically, culturally and economically heterogeneous. It is also an American and worldwide interface that external tutelage and influences (first European, then American) have shaped and subdivided historically and geopolitically for centuries. The air transport sector has to cope with these problems and it is not surprising that the ACS has from the start made the improvement of regional air networks one of its priorities. Air transport plays a key role in the whole of the Basin for many reasons: West Indian insularity, the size of major continental states, the poor quality of other modes of transport, the tourist boom since 1950, the importance of diasporas, integration to extra-regional centres (near ones, in the case of the United States, and faraway ones, in the case of Western Europe), etc. The orientation of traffic and networks, the fleets used and the importance of the companies reflect the geopolitics of this extraverted space. Globalisation tends to make this general pattern more complex, with the appearance of new actors and a reorientation of exchanges towards other places.

Objectives and methodology

This study aims at assessing the changes brought to a given historical and geographical situation by the organisation and the changes of air transport ( Goetz and Budd, 2016) , as well as the evolution of international and regional economic conditions. Has air transport reinforced extraversion or, on the contrary, improved cohesion in the Caribbean Basin? How are the near and the far articulated? This study relies on the analysis of air services networks as well as scientific and professional literature. For lack of a regional database, a list of lines in the main airports in the Caribbean Basin has been drawn up from Internet data concerning airports, air companies or specialised sites. Only direct flights have been retained as passengers consider them as the best air service and as they reflect "preferential" relationships between different territories. They also illustrate the connexity of a network and allow people to size up the attractiveness of spaces. Contrary to the incomplete monographical approach of the scanty studies found, this study enlarges the issue to the whole Basin – an approach that concerns mostly the French-speaking area (Chardon, 1987; Ranély Vergé-Dépré et Roth, 2011, 2015). Thus the air transport activity is one of the keys allowing further reflexion on the coherence and, ultimately, the very existence of a great Caribbean region (Gatzambide-Geigel, 1996; Girvan, 2013). It underlines the originality of this "American Mediterranean" compared with other basins in the world.

1. An ever increasing but still limited opening onto the exterior

1.1. The same old convergence of flows on North America and Europe

Airport networks show two permanent major features: first, extra-regional air traffic is far more superior to regional traffic; secondly, these networks are oriented towards North America and Europe (Ranély Vergé-Dépré et Roth, 2015). Geographical proximity and historical heritages explain such tendencies.

The power of attraction of the United States can be seen in the number of lines with this country and its wide contribution to the traffic of regional airports Indeed, nearly every country has at least one regular line with this powerful neighbour. To the first stopovers of Miami and New York, numerous other destinations have been added over time, as companies' strategies and customers' needs were evolving. Mexico, a member of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is an extreme case as 70% of the traffic of all of the Mexican airports is with the United States ( i.e. 27.4 million passengers in 2016) and 8% is with Canada (Dirección General de Aeronáutica Civil, 2017). Mexico airport is thus linked to more than twenty cities in the United States – Los Angeles, Houston and Miami being the busiest lines. The Canadian air service is secondary everywhere. It is concentrated on Toronto for English-speaking territories and Montreal for French-speaking ones.

Heritage from the past remains vivid in the relationship with faraway Europe. Generally speaking, the relationship between the units of each historical subdivision and the capital of the former "mother country" remains preferential, if not exclusive; thus airlines clearly converge on Paris in French-speaking territories, London in English-speaking ones, Amsterdam in Dutch-speaking ones or Madrid in Spanish-speaking ones. Among exceptions, Cuba, to do away with its isolation, and great Spanish-speaking countries have a more diversified network towards Europe. The Havana/Moscow line is the remnant of a political and historical past; the regular lines with Frankfurt that some countries offer show the economic power of Germany and its great tourism potential; there are also a few charter flights with Munich and Rome.

Apart from these privileged markets, the Caribbean really seems isolated at global level. Yet, links with South America outside of ACS seem to have been reinforced recently. A strengthening of the relationship between South American countries (Daniel, 2011) and the rise of Brazil make it easier to integrate networks and intensify flows from a dozen airports in the isthmus and in the Greater Antilles. Panama City airport is a case in point: in 2016, with 18 lines (among which 7 with Brazil) it already concentrated half the offer in the Basin and it has now become the unavoidable hub for links with Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, etc. ( Fig. 2 ).


Fig. 2. Panama City airport: geographical distribution of passenger traffic in 2016
Réalisation : Bernard Gandrille

The relationship of the Caribbean Basin with the rest of the world seems very limited. There is no offer of direct links with Africa. The Cubana de Aviación used to offer flights to "fellow" African countries, like Angola and Ethiopia in 1975-1976 to carry troops and war material.Only Mexico and Panama City have started offering flights to Asia (Tokyo, Guangzhou, Seoul and Beijing). Though still modest, this change is an indication of the increasing weight of East Asia in world exchanges and of the will of these airports to diversify their markets. 

1.2. An air activity relying on two types of extra-regional passengers

International tourism has replaced the plantation economy and become a key sector in the economy of numerous Caribbean territories. Air transport has placed the Basin within reach of source markets that were sometimes very far. Though it is certainly not the only factor in the development of tourism, it has played a crucial part in it (Gay, 2000; Page and Ge, 2009). As early as 1960-1970, the region became a major tropical destination and the main cruise basin in the world. The activity developed at the beginning of the XXth century in the territories that were closest to the United States (Mexico, the Bahamas, Cuba and Jamaica) and hence took advantage of the tourist expansion of Florida and the American prohibition laws to become winter holiday resorts and cruise destinations (Desse, 2013). But it was mainly the development of aviation (when jets and big carriers began to be operated) that extended this activity to the whole Basin and opened it to European passengers. Air activity is globally on the rise in spite of the recent epidemics due to the tiger mosquito (dengue, chickungunya and zika) and the damage inflicted by violent hurricanes to tourist destinations like Sint Maarten and Puerto Rico in 2017.

In 2016, 75.7 million international tourists visited ACS countries (UNWTO, 2017). The first destination is Mexico (34.9 million visitors), followed by the West Indian islands (25.2 million visitors), the isthmus countries (10.7 million visitors) and the South American countries bordering the ACS (4.8 million visitors). The proximity of the United States – the second biggest source market in the world today, after China – explains its preponderance This market supplies the West Indies with more than half their tourists ( Fig. 3 ) and influences the offer of air services. It represents between 80 and 90% of tourists in the Bahamas and in territories under American control, like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (CTO, 2017). However, this presence is not so strongly felt in the islands in the south of the archipelago, as they are more distant and have stronger cultural ties with Europe.


Fig. 3. The geographical origin of the tourists staying in the West Indian archipelago in 2016
Réalisation : Bernard Gandrille 

However, a few territories stand out. Cuba, which used to be the Americans' favourite destination before the breaking off of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, has more diversified visitors, mainly Canadians and Europeans; since 2011 more relaxed travelling conditions (a rise in the number of American airports allowed to offer direct flights, etc) have generated new flows. The French islands (Martinique, Guadeloupe) differ from their English-speaking neighbours insofar as their access to the North American market is made difficult by their higher cost of living; 80% of their tourists come from mainland France. The number of European visitors is rising in the whole of the Basin for many reasons: cheaper plane tickets offered by charter and low-cost companies, more all-inclusive packages including air-transport and accomodation and growing insecurity in Mediterranean countries that makes them less attractive, even though nearer.

The link between air transport and cruise tourism is also tight. Passengers fly into great ports in Florida for crowded cruises in the north of the Basin. Miami stands out as the world capital of cruise, in spite of the rise of neighbouring ports (like Port Canaveral, Fort Lauderdale, etc.) and secondary island hubs like San Juan in Puerto Rico and Bridgetown in Barbados for southbound cruises.

Tourism is a seasonal activity, which has an impact on airport activity, link offers and the companies' financial health. Some airports were built as close to seaside resorts as possible: Cancun (Mexico), Punta Cana, La Romana (Dominican Republic), Montego Bay (Jamaica), Varadero (Cuba), etc. In high season charter flights are even added to regular flights. Low-cost companies recently increased the number of flights, but to be able to operate throughout the year they also target business passengers and passengers visiting their families or friends. To these major extra-regional flows, intra-regional tourist flows have been added, namely linked to the difference in living standards between the French islands and the Dominican Republic or Saint Lucia, for example. They contribute to the maintenance of some regional lines, even though they remain secondary. The flexibility and reactivity of air transport make this tourist godsend potentially highly unstable. They create a climate of fierce competition between destinations, which makes attempts at cooperation (like "multi-destinations" packages, for example) difficult.

The Caribbean diasporas generate other flows for air transport. Since 1945, the whole Basin has been plagued by massive emigration to the capitals of former colonial powers and to the United States. There were economic and political reasons for these flows which coincided with the development of mass air transport. Apart from the poorest migrants from neighbouring islands (Haiti) who attempt to reach the United States by boat and those of the continental coastline who also use road transport, departing migrants take the plane and fuel massive "affinity" 1 flows of passengers who "come back home" regularly. Airport statistics hardly permit to measure up these seasonal flows (during the summer holidays in the French West Indies). Despite adverse economic conditions and more restrictive regulations in host countries, about 561,000 West Indians 2 (mainly Dominicans, Cubans, etc) and 749,400 migrants from Mexico and the isthmus migrated to OECD ( Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) between 2008 and 2010. Respectively, 75.5% and 85% of them went to the United States (mainly the north-east, Florida and the other southern states) and, respectively, 17% and 9% went to European countries (OIM, 2015). The proximity and the economic power of the American neighbour have thus reinforced its attractiveness over the last decades. The most important flows are between Mexico and the United States (494,000 between 2008 and 2010), where over 12 million Mexicans live. These figures do not include the numerous illegal migrants, but the latter do not travel by plane, fearing police controls in airports. In addition to these flows, there is migratory mobility within the Basin; it is linked to differences in living standards and represents a major source of activity for local air companies.

2. Regional air traffic still under exterior control

2.1. Main extra-regional actors

When aviation was born, the United States had already been for years the main power in the Caribbean Basin that it considered as its "backyard" and influenced in many ways. The rise of commercial aviation gave it the opportunity to reinforce its domination thanks to its air companies.

As early as 1927, Pan American Airways started operating the first mail line between Key West and Havana. It was the beginning of a long period of nearly total domination that reached a climax during the two post-war decades. However, the giant was severely impacted by the first oil shock, at the very moment when it was launching its Boeing 747 fleet. In 1980 when it bought National Airlines, which allowed it to open to the American domestic market thanks to deregulation, its financial difficulties worsened, which impelled it to reduce its West Indian network. When it disappeared in 1991, it was felt as a shock in the United States and in the sector of air transport everywhere in the world. An era was coming to an end – but were things really going to change?

Diverse American companies like United Airlines and American Airlines soon made up for the loss of Pan American Airways, taking up the latter's lines, structures (the hub of San Juan) and passengers. More recently, things took a new turn when the area was invaded with low-cost American companies (JetBlue, Southwest, Westjet, etc.), generating growing competition and new strategies.

Regional air activity thus remained dominated by American companies which had lines connecting airports everywhere on their territory with the whole Basin. In 2016, for example, they ensured 71.7% of the traffic between Mexico and the United States, against 28.3% for Mexican companies (Dirección General de Aeronáutica Civil, 2017). Apart from a few exceptions (the French West Indies, Panama), they ensured most of the traffic in a majority of airports.

Regional air transport is also impacted by the choices these companies make in terms of hubs and destinations. It is the case for San Juan whose traffic decreased severely not only because of the economic difficulties of Puerto Rico, but rather because American Eagle left San Juan, which had been its only hub in the West Indies since 1984. Uncompetitive against other American air companies based on the continent, it left San Juan in 2013 as American Airlines, its parent company, had redeployed its Caribbean network from Miami. Jetblue's policy since 2002 has impaired its activity, too. The dense network of direct lines that this company built in the Caribbean from its hubs of New York JFK and Fort Lauderdale (Fig. 4) reduced the role of regional hubs. In 2018 Jetblue served 20 islands (among which Cuba, since 2016) as well as Mexico, Costa Rica and Colombia. It has become the main company to serve Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and also offers diverse transport links between the islands ( J etblue A irways C orporation, 2017).


Fig. 4. JetBlue Airways' network in the Caribbean Basin in 2018 (direct links)
Réalisation : Bernard Gandrille

The American federal state played a central part in the drafting of international air transport legislation. The 1946 Bermuda Agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom served as a model for a few decades. It defined the modalities of access to the market (companies and authorised routes) and control of capacities and prices. It was a compromise between the liberal doctrine of the United States, whose aeronautics industry was overwhelmingly superior at the time, and the more protectionist attitude of the United Kingdom, ruined by the war (OCDE, 1988). Nonetheless, the United States managed to use its influence to get advantageous traffic rights for its companies.

In the 1970s, it imposed new rules of the game, as it felt its air supremacy jeopardized. Indeed, the context was unfavourable, what with the economic crisis, an excess of world air capacity and a more and more complex pricing system. Deregulation first concerned freight traffic (1976), then the American domestic market (in 1978), and it was extended to other continents (Goetz, 2002; Dobruszkes and Graham, 2015).

During the first years of commercial aviation, faraway Europe did not play a major part, as it was technically handicapped by the impossibility of a nonstop transatlantic flight. In 1950 it still took 26 hours to fly from Paris to the French West Indies (via New York) – still a much shorter journey than the ocean liner crossing which lasted seven days. In the late 1950s, when long-haul commercial jets able to do 700 miles an hour were first operated, it placed the West Indies 8 to 10 hours away from Europe. Great European long time national companies (Air France, KLM, BOAC, Iberia) opened lines not only with their West Indian possessions but also with the capitals of great continental states (as was the case for Lufthansa) and with a few tourist destinations (the Dominican Republic, Cuba). Ten years later, when big carriers were first operated, the era of mass air transport began (a Boeing 747 could carry up to 490 passengers). It allowed cheaper flight tickets and new tourists, more remote geographically and not so wealthy, could afford to travel. As airports were gradually enlarged and adapted, transatlantic ocean liners either disappeared or were turned into cruise ships. From 1987 onward, the European sky opened up to new private companies (Corsair, AOM, Air Liberté) whose life expectancy was sometimes very short. Charter companies and, more recently, European low-cost companies (Norwegian, Level, etc.) play a more limited part in the Caribbean than in other tourist areas in the world. 

2.2. Fragile regional actors

The first regional airlines were born as early as the 1930s (TACA, Transportes Aéreos Centro-Americanos, in Honduras, Aeronaves in Mexico City, etc.) on the continental coastline. From the 1960s onward, at the time when the British West Indies 3 became independent, they were joined by another wave of companies. Indeed, the new states saw air transport as a means of becoming visible, a sign of sovereignty and a tool allowing them to open up to the world, secure their relationships with other countries and develop. These budding public-funded national companies (Air Jamaica, BWIA, Air Guyana, etc.) had limited financial, economic and demographic wealth. With their sometimes oldish small capacity planes, they operated rather unprofitable local lines that were disregarded by the major actors. However, thanks to them, numerous domestic lines were opened or reinforced. Some of them even ventured out of the Basin, towards North America which was not very far, with unequal success. Conversely, the few attempts at transatlantic air services all failed (Air Jamaica, Air Martinique, etc.).

La Cubana is a case in point. When Cuba broke off with the United States in 1961, it put an end to the busiest air links in the area. Isolated from its neighbours by the blockade, Cuba and its national air company had no other choice but to establish long distance links with East European "fellow countries" (especially the Soviet Union) and the few countries willing to maintain relationships with Cuba (Canada, Mexico, Spain, etc.).

Though their tickets are expensive, most of the regional companies hardly manage to survive. They are extremely sensitive to the economic context and find it hard to adapt to the changes of all kinds in the sector. Since the 1970s deregulation severely impacted them. The relative opening of the West Indian sky had positive effects. It made it possible to multiply the number of lines and flights and to lower prices thanks to competition, but the regional states were against it, sensing that could not compete with powerful American airlines, namely new actors (charter and low-cost companies).

The new generations of planes, long-haul jets and big carriers were yet another difficulty for them, for they advantaged the most powerful companies, making them even more powerful. After the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks, regional companies faced a dilemma: should they acquire recent planes (that consumed less fuel, but were expensive) and jeopardize their financial balance or give it up and become less competitive?

Under such difficult circumstances, the often turbulent history of regional companies was made of nationalisation, privatisation, merging and bankruptcy ( Lipovich, 2016). Aeronaves de México was absorbed by Pan American Airways in 1934, then nationalised in 1959, before becoming Aeroméxico in 1972. The history of COPA (Compañia Panameña de Aviación) is also one of the most chaotic. Founded in 1947 by Panamean investors with a participation of Pan American Airways, it formed a strategic alliance with TACA Airlines (now Avianca El Salvador). In 1998, Continental Airlines acquired 49% of the capital, then became its main owner the following year, before gradually reducing its participation (10% in 2006). This company thus managed to get free from foreign grip to become (again) Panama’s national airline. In 2016, it operated 71% of the passenger traffic in Tocumen airport (Panama City) and is now one of the spearheads of Panama’s dynamism. A member of the world alliance, Star Alliance, it has been methodically implementing a policy of quick extension of its network for over a decade (Fig. 5) . Though meridional links between the three continental Americas remain its priority, it recently increased its links with the Greater Antilles. It served nearly 80 destinations in 2018 and dominates the whole isthmus. In the unstable context of the regional air sector, COPA has become the top regional company and its history is regarded as an outstanding success story .


Fig. 5. COPA Airlines network in 2018
Réalisation : Bernard Gandrille

3. A still heterogeneous fragmented air space

3.1. Long lasting internal divisions

A lot of factors hinder regional mobility: little connectivity between networks and their unequal performances, resulting in considerable disparities as far as accessibility is concerned. A lot of domestic travels involve one or several long tedious stopovers. The low capacity turbo propellers used on a lot of domestic lines compare poorly in terms of comfort and efficiency with those of medium and long-haul carriers; their commercial speed is also much lower (250 to 350 miles per hour against 600 for medium and long-haul carriers). So for most passengers in the Basin, it is far quicker to fly to the United States or Europe than to neighbouring countries.

Low irregular flows, short distances that multiply fuel-consuming take-offs , public service obligations imposed on certain lines and numerous heavy taxes (up to half the price of the ticket) entail high running costs, hence an expensive price per mile: 62 €/65 miles/passenger in the islands, against 12 €/65 miles/passenger for extra-regional lines (Crusol, 2014). Sometimes a 4000 to 5000 miles’ transatlantic flight costs less than a 70 to 200 miles’ regional flight. Besides, in a region where the least travel is "international", passengers also have to abide by the legislation of the territory visited, submit to repeated controls and formalities and sometimes provide a visa. All those obstacles contribute to the fragmentation of an already narrow market which does not allow economies of scale ( Caribbean Development Bank, 2015) . So intra-regional air service remains unequal and little efficient, in terms of space-time as well as space-cost. Fractures remain in the whole region. The most spectacular one separates the archipelago from the continental coastline, whose parallel air clusters are little interconnected. Only Panama tends to be reducing the barrier a little: it now serves eleven islands and has near exclusivity for this type of relationship. On another scale, the relative homogeneity of the isthmus, reinforced by the Spanish language, contrasts with the greater complexity of the archipelago. In spite of the short distances, the "barrier effect" between the long time sub-groups in the Lesser Antilles is blatant. From Martinique, for example, it is possible to fly to the Greater Antilles (except for Jamaica) in two or three hours, but it takes longer and involves one to three stopovers to fly to the small English-speaking (except for Saint Lucia) and Dutch-speaking islands, even though they are nearer. Traffic is low on these lines: only 350,000 passengers per year use the busiest Martinique-Guadeloupe link.

The regional context does not facilitate awareness of the different territories’ common interests and of the necessity of solidarity ( ICF International, ALTA, 2017) . The aim of the ACS to "Unite the Caribbean in the air and on the sea" in its 1999 programme is far from reached. Concrete actions are limited and the motto "everyman for himself" prevails in a climate of fierce competition, especially in the field of tourism. Still, an agreement was reached in 2004 between ACS member and associated states about the granting of air traffic rights (ACS, 2012). Though it came into effect in 2008, not more than a dozen countries have ratified it so far; yet, it gave the COPA access to new markets, for example. Inside Caricom (Caribbean Community), a multilateral air service agreement aiming at creating an open sky at a regional level came into effect in 1998, but only for nine of the fifteen member states – as Jamaica, the Bahamas, etc. were not represented (OMC, 2007). In the air field, for a true cooperation to exist, more states should give up the principle of bilateral agreements and manage to monitor a "common sky", define a taxation policy concerning tickets and airports, share codes and merge national services.

Out of necessity, the states and regional companies sometimes united and pooled their resources. The LIAT (Leeward Islands Air Transport), taken over by eleven Caricom states (Barbados, Antigua-and-Barbuda, Saint-Vincent-and-the-Grenadines, etc.) in 1974 and Caribbean Airlines, born out of the taking over of Air Jamaica by Caribbean Airlines (Trinidad-and-Tobago’s national company) in 2010, are rare examples of closer relationships in the insular Caribbean. In the Lesser Antilles, a new step has been taken with the alliance called Caribsky that was signed in April 2018 by Air Antilles, WinAir and LIAT, which respectively serve French-speaking and Dutch-speaking islands as well as English-speaking territories. Its main objective is to offer better interconnections between the three companies’ networks. On the continental coastline, the Panamean group, Avianca Holdings Ltd., was born in 2010, from the merging of a dozen regional airlines, among which TACA International Airlines (Salvador) and Avianca (Colombia). Avianca Holdings Ltd., a subsidiary of the private Brazilian conglomerate, Synergy Group, has enlarged its network: in 2018, it operated direct flights to more than 100 destinations on the American and European continents, namely from its hubs in San Salvador, Bogota and Lima. It has become one of the most powerful airlines in Latin America, but its logic of integration is not Caribbean; it even goes beyond the sphere of the Central American Common Market (CACM) to become continental, and even global. The enlargment of markets and the search for economies of scale have indeed become key elements to ensure the survival of companies on a more and more open and competitive international market.

In spite of obstacles to internal mobility, air transport has become relatively more democratic and tourism and leisure activities have developed, which contributed to the commoditization of air travel. The latter is far more present than in other basins in the world, namely in Asia. The plane is a good means of bringing populations together. It has thoroughly changed the way people pictured remoteness and accessibility, ways of living and mentalities. The improvement of air services in terms of frequency, comfort, space-time and costs is a recurring demand, namely in the islands, of populations and political actors echoing arguments conditioning development to the degree of opening reached. A wider offer of links contributes to strengthening internal and external ties. 

3.2. Airports of all sizes with hierarchical functions

In the Basin there is a myriad of airports that differentiate themselves from each other by their traffic volumes, their organizing roles, their infrastructures, their types of business, etc. It ranges from big hubs welcoming millions of passengers to the tiny airports of some islands that, in extreme cases, are linked to one main island only (Tobago, Barbuda, Nevis, etc.) . In 2016 on the scale of the Greater Caribbean, about fifty of them recorded a traffic of over one million passengers (ENAC, 2017) ( Fig. 6 ). The platforms of the south of the United States and of the three big continental states (Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela) are the busiest, but apart from Miami, their networks are little turned towards the Caribbean.


Fig. 6. Traffic at the main airports of the Caribbean Basin in 2016
Réalisation : Bernard Gandrille

The function of regional hub remains concentrated on two long time air hubs, Miami and San Juan, to which the new hub of Panama City has been added. Miami airport (44.6 million passengers in 2016) has long been the main entrance door to flows between the United States and the Caribbean. Its strategic situation in the very south of Florida, the presence of numerous West Indian minorities (Cubans, Haitians, etc.) and the great number of cruise passengers helped to turn it into a big hub and a major regional metropolis (Girault, 2003). Its Caribbean network, which covers both the isthmus and the archipelago, is the most comprehensive one, and above all it reflects and relays American power. Its role has even been reinforced over the last few years with the decline of San Juan airport, whose traffic in 2016 was only of 9 million passengers, that is to say 1.6 million less than 10 years before. However, San Juan remains the busiest airport in the West Indies, even if Punta Cana airport is right behind (with nearly 7 million passengers), as it serves the famous seaside resort by the same name. It is less and less a must stop for West Indians travelling to the United States. However, the most spectacular rise in the regional hierarchy is the sudden recent breakthrough of Panama City, whose traffic (14.7 million passengers in 2016) has been multiplied by 4.5 in 10 years. Apart from Miami, the busiest lines (of more than 500,000 passengers a year) serve neighbouring towns: Bogota, Caracas (Maiquetía), Havana and Cancun. The extra-regional network (more than forty links or so with North and South America, and Europe) is also richer and more diversified than its neighbours. An ambitious project of creation of a worldwide activity and vast urban area around the airport is to be carried out.

Six other airports stand out as secondary Caribbean hubs. Their regional network is incomplete and they clearly have more relationships with the United States. In the isthmus, apart from San Jose and Guatemala City, San Salvador stands out, one of the three hubs of Avianca Holdings Ltd. In the Little Antilles, Philipsburg (Sint Maarten), Saint-John’s (Antigua) and Port of Spain (Trinidad) serve as hubs for neighbouring islands (Ranély Vergé-Dépré, 2008, 2014). A lot of small airports only have modest regional networks.

Network functions also reveal the diversity of equipments: the proportion of generalist lines attracting all kinds of passengers (as is usually the case) compared to more specialized lines vary a lot according to airports. Some reveal economic choices ("tourist" networks of the Dominican Republic or Jamaica); others reveal the needs of a diaspora (Port-au-Prince) or of territorial continuity (Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana).

The airports in the Basin have had to modernise their infrastructures to adapt to technical evolutions and an increase of traffic. As everywhere, the high cost of these facilities and the quest for competitiveness resulted in the arrival of international private administrators in countries like Mexico, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, etc. (Rico Galeana, 2008; Serebrisky, 2012). The infrastructures are generally rather good quality, but on some runways landing is notoriously acrobatic (Sint Maarten, St Bartholomew, Saba), which raises the question of air security and interferes with the policies of tourist development of these small islands. Lastly, airport hierarchy is different from population hierarchy in the territories served (Ranély Vergé-Dépré, 2019). Even if the busiest airports are situated in the most crowded states, it is not always the case. In Aruba, traffic is superior to 2.6 million passengers a year for a population of 110,000 inhabitants, while Managua airport records only 1.5 million passengers for a country of 6.3 million inhabitants. The traffic/population ratio is even more impressive in the small tourist islands (The Bahamas, etc.), which underlines the fundamental part played by air transport in these territories.

The development of air transport has been an incredible revolution for Caribbean populations. Perfectly adapted to the service of a fragmented territorial unit, in a few decades it established itself as the favourite and even the only - in the West Indies - means of linking regions and being linked to the rest of the world. The Caribbean sky is part of the very busy spaces on the planet, in terms of number of flights and lines, and ratio of traffic to population. But air transport plays a complex ambiguous part here. Paradoxically, the way air services are organized causes both opening and division. It clearly emphasizes the traditional features of the region, making them more visible and reinforcing them: major extra-regional flows, primacy of exterior actors, weak linkage and weak connectivity of internal networks.

The shy attempts at making air transport more coherent and putting it at the service of an ambitious regional project have given few results so far. The lasting pre-eminence of cultural and economic proximity over solidarity to neighbours, different or even diverging interests and the weakness of local actors stand as so many obstacles. Globalisation and the liberalisation of air transport have increased extraversion and the regional decline of air activity. The lack of political voluntarism has not permitted to counteract such heavy trends. Instead of initiating the transformations that affect it, the region endures them and appears more as a stake than as an actor of the recent changes that push it to become part of the world system and the American and - more occasionally - European spheres of influence. The recent strengthening of the links between isthmus countries should not be interpreted as a real desire to strengthen regional unity; it simply rather obeys a logic of continental integration.

The attractive image of a fairly homogeneous Caribbean with the sea at its centre hardly resists scrutiny. As this study has clearly shown, air transport in the Basin reflects the gap between Pan Caribbean dreams and today's reality.


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1 Tourists who visit their families or friends are called "affinity" tourists.

2 Not including Puerto Ricans and French West Indians.

3 Jamaica, Trinidad-and-Tobago, Barbados, Guyana, etc.

Authors: Colette Ranely Vergé-Dépré, Patrice Roth