Cape Air, Regional Carriers Step Up As American Eagle Departs Caribbean

Above: a Cape Air plane in Vieques (CJ Photo)

By Alexander Britell

The last flight from Tortola on Sunday night marked the end of the American Eagle era in the Caribbean, a process that has been in the works for several years.

Eagle, which had operated out of San Juan, had been a crucial carrier for intra-Caribbean routes, particularly smaller destinations without the capacity to receive larger planes.

But for a region and a tourism industry in constant need of more airlift, who will be able to fill the void? And when?

The answer might come as a surprise.

Efforts by smaller carriers like Cape Air and Seaborne — along with the market entry of JetBlue, have meant a very different impact from Eagle’s departure.

“It’s been in the offing for several years, so we’ve had a lot of time to plan for it,” Andrew Bonney, vice president of planning at Cape Air, told Caribbean Journal. “While American Eagle has been reducing capacity in and out of San Juan, both JetBlue and Seaborne have been increasing capacity, as well as other carriers.”

For July, for example, JetBlue is up to 13,600 seats on intra-Caribbean routes, a 49 percent increase, according to the Official Airline Guide.

Seaborne, which recently took delivery of three new Saab 340B aircraft, is up a whopping 863 percent. The latter is planning new service to a host of destinations, including the French departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Overall, it means a decline of just about 12,000 seats for July — not nothing, but not nearly as drastic as might have been thought.

Cape Air, which launched in the Caribbean in 1998 after first operating in northeastern destinations like Martha’s Vineyard, now has 21 Cessna 402 nine-seat aircraft in the region during the peak season.

And the size of the carrier’s fleet has afforded it the opportunity to “dynamically adjust capacity” to meet demand, Bonney said.

“For example, the four o’clock from point A to point B might have just nine seats,” Bonney said. “But if those start selling on a good booking curve, we’ll add a second section — another airplane. So we might have the same flight and increase the authorized capacity of that flight to 18 or 27 or 36, but we only publish the first section.”

This month, for example, Cape Air has about 2,300 seats each way, but actually has more than 5,000 seats loaded each way.

“So we have over 10,000 in the market for April,” he said. “So we’ve doubled.”

Of course, the smaller carriers still operate in the shadow of JetBlue, which opened a major San Juan hub last year, and has naturally had a large impact — increasing service for some markets, but tightening up others.

“JetBlue had their first year flying between San Juan and St Croix, and that market really changed for Cape Air,” he said. “We were carrying about half the traffic we were carrying before. So that market has gone way down with JetBlue — but you see some markets, like Tortola, go up — it’s a very dynamic landscape and we’re constantly adjusting our capacity to ensure that we’ve got a sustainable business.”

Smaller destinations traditionally served by Eagle, like Dominica and Nevis, could have room for improvement. Dominica is one of several new destinations for Seaborne, and Nevis has become a growth opportunity for Cape Air, Bonney said.

Nevis, where Cape Air launched service a year and a half ago, has seen advanced bookings rise 62 percent year over year.

“We’re just building that market,”he said. “But that’s a market that feels like it’s working well.”

Vieques, another frequent destination from nearby San Juan, also “continues to grow and mature,” he said, with improved annual growth.

“For the markets we we serve, we’re very comfortable with our growth,” he said. “And with JetBlue a very close partner with Cape Air, we’re very optimistic for the prospects for Cape Air and JetBlue in the Caribbean.”

And while airlift will remain a major issue for the region going forward, it means that today’s picture is far from the gloom and doom once predicted following Eagle’s departure.

“The marketplace is very dynamic right now,” he said.