By Simons Chase
HAITI — On a bright February morning amid a mild westerly breeze, a newly painted plane sticks out like a fresh blade of grass as it parks and prepares to load passengers on the tarmac of Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Price, Haiti.
Philippe Bayard, the CEO and founder of Sunrise Airways, Haiti’s only Haitian-owned airline, climbs aboard his newest aircraft, an ATR 42-320, as a small procession of employees board the plane, along with a priest who will deliver an inaugural blessing.
Minutes later, the formalities conclude, Sunrise employees scatter in pursuit of responsibilities and passengers clamor aboard for the airline’s now-blessed first flight to Camaguey, Cuba.
I grab a window seat – eager to add Cuba’s interior vistas to my already vast exposure to her pristine, alluring coastline.
As the engines spark to life, my thoughts are occupied with the complex history shared between Cuba and Haiti.
In the beginning, Hispaniola was the site of the first European settlement in the Americas thanks to Christopher Columbus’ first voyage in 1492.
Since then, the winds of global commerce, misalignment of interests and epic inhumanity have shaped the two nations in ways that many hope can become a source of strength rather than a source of weakness and rancor.
More recently, at least through the lens of an American, Cuba has been forbidden while Haiti has been seemingly foreclosed on.
I can only think about pushing forward, pointing the nose upward and gaining altitude.
We were in flight, banking West and headed for Cuba.
Camaguey is Cuba’s third largest city and the home to the largest concentration of Cubans with Haitian heritage.
Cuba acquired its Haitian connection in the early 1800’s after some French slave owners fled Haiti’s revolution, bringing thousands of Haitian slaves, coffee and sugar cane production to Cuba for the first time.
Later, some Haitians migrated to Cuba as “brazeros” or hand workers. Perhaps some of the passengers are descendants of those original Haitians.
Once in flight, my curiosity invites me to move across the row next to Philippe.
I wonder if his thoughts are adrift with the history surrounding people of Camaguey and Haiti.
To my surprise, and with comfortable precision, Philippe jumps from the details of load factors and fuel costs to what regional travel can mean for Caribbean people today.
After all, the new aircraft and Lithuanian crew are leased, so Philippe’s mental acuity is concentrated on commercial viability. He is a man with a plan, and there is no room for miscalculation.
“I don’t see Haiti – I see the Caribbean” – Philippe Bayard
Haiti needs Philippe to succeed. With an eye for detail and a vision for what his airline can become, Philippe is among a very small number of Haitian entrepreneurs able to take a long-term view of a commercial opportunity and also summon the powerful creative forces in Haitians themselves that seem so muddled in the daily struggle to survive. The dedication and professionalism of Sunrise’s employees show that Haitians can take on complex challenges and succeed.
Sunrise Airways was born out of Sunrise Aviation, when Philippe’s aircraft leasing and charter business witnessed the dying off of a number of other Haitian national airlines.
What emerged was an idea for a Haitian national airline that was grounded in the successes and failures of the other contenders – along with a handful of repossessed aircraft.
Today, Sunrise is the first and only Haitian-owned airline to be awarded a Part 129 Operating Permit (Dominican Republic). It operates daily scheduled passenger service connecting key gateways across the region.
Also at work is the emerging opportunity to capitalize on Cuba’s transition to more openness and the development of its private sector that promises to put money in the hands of the average Cuban.
The winds of change in Cuba and the region will favor Sunrise Airways.
While major US airlines have succeeded by focusing mainly on tourist travel between the US and the Caribbean, they lack an affinity for the fabric that connects the region’s populations together and how to serve their needs. Already there are plans to add another ATR to Sunrise’s fleet.
In addition to the daily responsibilities for the airline, Philippe is fighting to bring down taxes to support regional air travel growth.
And when he’s not charging ahead with airline issues, Philippe contributes by supporting efforts to solve Haiti’s massive environmental problems as the president and founding member of the Audubon Society of Haiti. The crippling deforestation so vividly on display from the air is his top priority.
I look forward to watching Philippe Bayard fulfill his vision to bring sunlight and water to Haiti problems and fulfill his vision for Haitian aviation – and hopefully make a profit along the way.
Simons Chase is the Editor-in-Chief of Cuba Journal.