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‘Promising’ signs of solution to Boston flights after crunch talks

Talking airlift: Erin Smith, chief operating officer with the BTA, left, with Brad DiFiore, managing director of Ailevon Pacific Airline Consulting; Lester Nelson, CEO of the Bermuda Airport Authority; Ken Hassard, commercial director of Skyport, and Oliver Lamb, managing director of APAC (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

Crunch talks between air transport officials and airlines are forging ahead behind closed doors with “promising” signs to reinstate Bermuda’s high-priority winter connection to Boston.

Speaking at the Bermuda Tourism Authority’s industry summit on Friday, Lester Nelson, chief executive of the Bermuda Airport Authority, said he was “hopeful that we will have a solution for 2023-24”.

“If it does pan out, it will be announced in the spring,” he said. “We cast a broad net. We are speaking to every airline that you have heard of serving that route.

“Unfortunately it’s too late – airlines plan their schedules at least six months in advance. The best we can hope for is that the service will resume perhaps a little bit earlier. But the schedule is set.”

Mr Nelson said there were “promising developments”.

But the panel for the Bermuda Tourism Authority summit emphasised their confidential talks were not up for discussion. Mr Nelson added: “We were strictly told not to say anything.”

That was echoed by Ken Hassard, the commercial director of Skyport, who said competition between airlines meant no details could be divulged.

“But we are talking with several,” Mr Hassard said. “I think we might come up with a solution. It might not happen this winter, but maybe for next winter.”

Air officials asked about impact of Covid protocols

Bermuda’s strict rules against Covid-19 hit the island’s air travel capacity, travel officials admitted at Friday’s tourism summit.

Put in the spotlight, Ken Hassard, commercial director of Skyport, said: “Yes, it did impact traffic to Bermuda, and we have been tracking what happened in peer destinations in the Caribbean, smaller islands that lifted Covid protocols as early as the first quarter last year and recovered more quickly.”

But he said he had felt “very safe in Bermuda” and said it took “courage” to put strict protections in place against a pandemic.

“The most important thing is, at this point, we seem to be done with it.”

He added: “Let’s move forward and get back to where we were.”

Brian DiFiore, a managing director at of Ailevon Pacific, said Bermuda tourism had rebounded “slower than most of the rest of the world”.

“We have seen the worst of it,” he added. “It’s going to get better from here.”

Mr Hassard said that pre-pandemic, the popular route to Boston was an easy choice for airlines.

“There were 278 passengers a day. If you think of one single airline doing that route three times a week, it’s a no-brainer.”

But the discussion on airlift heard that the economics of air travel had been radically altered by the pandemic, labour shortages and climbing fuel prices.

JetBlue’s 2021 decision to axe its winter service to Boston hit Bermudian travellers as well as losing the island visitors from a major New England gateway. The service is due to resume on May 3 next year.

The Massachusetts city is used by students as well as for medical travel.

Lack of demand was blamed for JetBlue’s decision, as well as the island’s diminished hotel inventory.

Oliver Lamb, a managing director at Ailevon Pacific Airline Consulting, said the island had to maximise the value of the route for a would-be carrier to reinstate regular flights year-round.

Ailevon, an Australian-based firm, was hired by the BTA and the BAA in 2019 for airlift strategy.

Despite the popularity of the Boston route, Mr Lamb told the summit: “If we really want Boston back next winter, the best way we can do that as a team is those daily flights we have from Boston next summer need to be full.

“We need to fill every single seat.”

Brad DiFiore, another managing director with the firm, said Delta Air Lines and JetBlue had used Boston as a hub and served Bermuda.

But he said the winter connection was “not performing great from a profit and loss standpoint prior to the pandemic”.

Mr DiFiore said that with US airlines in particular contending with an “acute” pilot shortage, Bermuda officials needed to “change the economics” of the route.

“They make that decision based on their data, their knowledge, their experience,” he added.

“They are very, very familiar with how the market works. We are not trying to convince somebody who does not know the market.

“We have to deal with what the reality has been and make the case that it’s going to be better in the future.”

The summit heard that Bermuda could never offer the high-volume destination that bigger competitors presented.

Mr DiFiore said air fares to the island at present were “higher than they have ever been before” as airlines searched for their highest-yielding opportunities after losing billions during the pandemic.

Mr Nelson sounded an optimistic note, saying sometimes a change in management at an airline could work in Bermuda’s advantage.

“There’s a change in mindset,” he added. “That’s why we never give up.”

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Published November 21, 2022 at 9:41 am (Updated November 22, 2022 at 7:56 am)

‘Promising’ signs of solution to Boston flights after crunch talks

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