James Howes: Making his departure

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The only way is up. It’s a lifestyle choice for a man who has spent a lifetime in the aviation industry and it was also an apt description for the parlous state of Bermuda’s air service when Jim Howes arrived to run the Airport in May 2002.

Things were desperate. The Airport had been suffering steady decline in flights — down to 98 a week. There were no low cost carriers — only traditional carriers either operating as monopolies or with just one competitor. The monopoly carriers kidded themselves that big spenders forking out for expensive hotel beds were happy to pay steep prices for short hops.

Cheaper Caribbean destinations were tempting tourists away from Bermuda while this Island’s failing marketing efforts had long been underfire.

  • <B>Taking off:</B> Jim Howes

    Taking off: Jim Howes


The only way is up. It’s a lifestyle choice for a man who has spent a lifetime in the aviation industry and it was also an apt description for the parlous state of Bermuda’s air service when Jim Howes arrived to run the Airport in May 2002.

Things were desperate. The Airport had been suffering steady decline in flights — down to 98 a week. There were no low cost carriers — only traditional carriers either operating as monopolies or with just one competitor. The monopoly carriers kidded themselves that big spenders forking out for expensive hotel beds were happy to pay steep prices for short hops.

Cheaper Caribbean destinations were tempting tourists away from Bermuda while this Island’s failing marketing efforts had long been underfire.

But Mr. Howes likes to test himself and was attracted to Bermuda because of the potential. “I didn’t just want to draw a pay cheque. I wanted a challenge where I could make my mark,” said Mr. Howes who had been running the airport in St. Petersburg, Florida for 20 years after doing a similar job in a small airport in New York State.

With the airline industry worldwide reeling from the effects of 9/11 growth might have seemed unlikely if not impossible. But instead of putting up the surrender flags a dedicated Ministry team hatched a plan to lure back the lost flights and put those which had stayed under the rigours of competition.

“It was a long process. When I first came here the Transport Ministry under Dr. Brown was already developing an air service strategy.”

The detailed plan mapped out target airlines and routes after input from tourism bodies.

“Then I arrived with considerable experience with air service development in Florida and added my two cents’ worth. By early 2003 we had a strategic document which we have followed very closely.”

Most of it has now come off. But not without a long, hard slog. Endless meetings, phone calls, teleconferences and emails were all employed in an all-out lobbying effort. Each trade association conference was used as another chance to buttonhole airline representatives and plead Bermuda’s case. It also involved throwing some money at the problem via revenue guarantees. “In a post 9/11 world it is not easy to convince airlines to take the risk in starting a new service in an unproven market,” Mr. Howes said.

Bermuda went after low-cost carriers and landed USA3000 in 2004 which had been serving Mr. Howes’ previous posting in Florida. But there was resistance to budget flying. “I had more than one travel industry person say to me ‘Well, if people are going to spend $500 a night for a hotel room they shouldn’t mind paying $800 for an airline ticket to get there.’ We had to overcome a certain reluctance.”

Others felt low-cost carriers were the cramped cattle trucks of the air and thus unlikely to appeal to Bermuda’s affluent target market. “That’s not true either, nowadays even well-healed travellers like to get a bargain on airfares.”

Business travellers and the wealthy have all used the budget routes which offer a vastly improved cabin service.

And gone are the irritating days when passengers heading to America’s south first had to fly north to New York before changing. Now Miami and Orlando have opened up along with Chicago in the north.

It took three years to convince American Airlines to start their Miami route. Now it thrives with the company increasing service to five flights a week. Dr. Brown had been wooing JetBlue for years before finally clinching it last year. “It takes time and now we are seeing the fruits with air arrivals up more than 15 percent.”

The staple eastern seaboard destinations have also been exposed to competitive pressures while even the seemingly impregnable British Airways London monopoly has fallen to the fresh winds of change as Zoom prepare to offer a rival service.

Now the Airport handles 124 weekly arrivals in the summer.

“It took a lot of effort but it’s very rewarding,” said Mr. Howes gesturing towards the panoramic view of the Airport from his first floor office. “The reward is looking out this window and see people getting off flights from Miami or JetBlue flights from New York. But for the efforts of the Ministry team, those people would not be getting off those flights.”

After five years of working under Dr. Brown, Mr. Howes has been in a good position to give insight into the Premier’s personality.

“He’s always willing to listen to new proposals and didn’t want a ‘yes man’ to tell him what he wanted to hear. He’s very much a go-getter. And he likes to see a proactive approach. He’s certainly been very enthusiastic as far as using his contacts at a high level to help cultivate relationships with airline CEOs to bring in more airlines.

“He’s the type of person who respects facts and figures. You have to do your homework and do your research. He can quickly punch holes in an argument if it is not well thought out and supported by facts. I like that.”

Mr. Howes refutes the perception, held by some, that Dr. Brown is difficult to work with, although over five years it was natural they didn’t always agree.

“On a personal level, he’s been a pleasure to work with and of all the people I have ever worked for I would say he’s been among the best. He looks at the facts and the logic behind a proposal.”

Mr. Howes has also made changes to Airport Operations efficiency but he won’t be around for the implementation of the Airport master plan.

Although the Airport was only built in the early 1990s Mr. Howes said a lot could be done to improve passenger flow with better lay-out and security.

The Airport could also use the mobile passenger delivery tunnels used elsewhere to put travellers in the planes without exposing them to pouring rain, said Mr. Howes. However, he said securing promised funds had sometimes been difficult as projects had been delayed when money dried up.

But his most testing time was when Hurricane Fabian ripped through Bermuda in 2003 and did $15 million of damage to the Airport. The day after Fabian, Mr. Howes clambered over what was left of the Causeway to reach the Airport where he found cars stacked three high in the parking lot. “The storm surge had piled them up against the building,” he said. “It was unbelievable. It looked like a bomb had gone off. All the fire alarms were sounding.

“Water was pouring through the ceiling. Tiles were hanging off. We had palm trees which had floated in the terminal and all the glass was blown out. It was a horrible mess.

“We had just finished a big beautification project with picnic tables and new flower beds.”

Despite the damage the Airport was open three days after the hurricane, after the Regiment mucked in. Mr. Howes believes the sea wall will provide better protection.

“But there’s is no doubt if we get another Fabian-type storm the terminal will be flooded again,” he said.

However, he said such a direct hit was something not expected more often than every 50 years.

Mr. Howes, 61, said he was leaving the Airport in good hands.

Aaron Adderley will replace him on May 1 after being Mr. Howes’ understudy for the last two years.

Mr. Howes is now leaving the airline business altogether to take the helm at his radio syndication company in Florida — one of his sidelines — which makes CDs and radio programmes.

“I will get back and run that full time. The trend now is you don’t retire, you just move into a second career.”

He has made a lot of friends here and says it will be hard to leave. “Bermuda is a beautiful place. There’s really no place quite like it and I have travelled to over 40 countries. Sometimes Bermudians take it for granted just how blessed they are to live in a place like this.”

But he also departs with a feeling of great satisfaction.

“I leave with the feeling I have had some part in the successes we have enjoyed here in that five years. I leave it a better place than I found it found it five years ago.”

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