When African and Caribbean leaders met at summit level formally for the first time late last year, they not only talked about cementing relations in a number of areas, but both sides had also agreed that a sustained relationship would be worthless without easy, regular transportation links.
Several attempts over the decades to initiate both scheduled and charter air services between the continent and the 15-nation community failed to take off for a number of reasons, including burdensome visa requirements, low passenger support and a lack of tour package arrangements to make travel easy for tourists and the business sector.
This past August, African delegates attending a major African-Caricom summit in Barbados came by a special charter plane from Nigeria in a matter of hours, circumventing the old, tried but much criticized routes which require passengers to transit London, various American cities, The Netherlands or Canada. This is the system European colonizing nations had set up for people flying between Africa and the Caribbean to ensure continued passenger support for their own carriers.
Given their geographic locations, an aircraft can fly non-stop from Barbados, Guyana and/or Suriname to West Africa in five or so hours. Instead passengers fly all the way north to Europe or North America and come right back down to Africa.
But left to Antiguan Prime Minister Gaston Brown, such travel folly could soon end through a pioneering effort between some “wealthy” Nigerian investors and the Antiguan government.
Newly minted Antiguan Airways is getting ready for its inaugural flight to the continent at the end of this month even as the local opposition has deemed the effort as “a pie in the sky” dream of PM Browne. Brown first announced this bold initiative in July. This is part of the reason for the skepticism about the project.
Browne, 55, says Antigua will hold about 20% of the shares in the airline. The Nigerians who will lease a Boeing 767-300 aircraft with nearly 270 seats, will hold the rest of the stock. Both sides are confident this effort will succeed as the timing might never have been better for such a service to start up. There could be up to three flights weekly to Ghana and Nigeria with other cities added in the coming months officials said.
“We have not made any monies available to Antigua Airways. What we did do though, is to list it as a citizenship by investment program. We have allocated up to 10 citizenship files. If and when they are subscribed to, then we will get, I believe, about 20% of the shares in the company. My understanding is that the service will start as a charter service. We’ve been told so far that the arrangements to lease the plane and to start operations are on target,” Browne said, calling the effort a “pioneering move.”
At the investment conference in Barbados two months ago, several delegates, particularly those who did not make the special charter, complained bitterly about the time it took to get from the continent to the Caribbean. In most cases, more than a day.
Host Prime Minister Mia Mottley had said at the conference that political will and support will be needed to keep any intercontinental airlinks going.
“I have spoken to enough people in the last three years to know that this is now an act of political will and individual will. It can only be a mindset that stops a plane from traveling 2,000 km less between Bridgetown [Barbados] and Dakar, Senegal than between Bridgetown and London. Ordinary citizens of ours do not have the luxury of presenting for official visas where those exist—not to our countries because we have all removed them. But if the only way to get there is through North America and Europe, then how will you get the transit visa to move people here if we don’t build the bridge across the Atlantic through air bridges?” she questioned.