PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Traveling to Haiti just got a bit more competitive.
JetBlue Airways, the low-cost carrier that has become a major player in the South Florida and Caribbean market, said Thursday it plans to begin offering daily nonstop service to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from New York and Fort-Lauderdale-Hollywood as early as December.
The announcement of JetBlue’s continued expansion into the region comes as a new Haitian start-up prepares for its Mother’s Day inaugural flight from Nassau, Bahamas to Port-au-Prince. The airline, Kombit, will partner with Fort-Lauderdale-based IBC Travel Inc, which currently offers charter services to the northern Haitian city of Cap-Haïtien from Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
As part of the partnership, IBC will enter into a co-share arrangement for its international fights. It is also providing Kombit with Saab 340 turboprops twin-engine turboprop aircrafts for flights between Port-au-Prince and key Haitian cities.
“They see the opportunities that are right now in Haiti,” Dimitri Fouchard, a Haitian airline veteran who is an investor in Kombit, said about IBC, which is also adding flights from West Palm Beach to Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second-largest city. IBC now offers direct jet service into Cap-Haïtien from Miami and Fort Lauderdale five times per week.
Currently, Insel Air and legacy carriers American and Air France offer service from Miami to Port-au-Prince; Spirit Airlines and American Eagle also offer direct service from Fort Lauderdale. Delta also flies to Port-au-Prince from Atlanta and New York.“This is great news for Haiti, particularly for the tourism sector,” said Haiti’s Tourism Minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin, who met with JetBlue executives in Haiti last month. "I am confident with JetBlue we will be able to plan tourist packages for Haitians living abroad, especially for the youth who want to travel and visit their country of origin."
The expanded travel choices for Haiti visitors come as the country’s government seeks to boost tourism and attract both foreigners and Haitians as vacationers. Several new hotels have opened in recent months, including U.S. and Spanish brands, and hundreds of additional hotel rooms are under construction. The government also is investing in renovating and expanding airports outside the capital.
In October, the Haitian government unveiled a newly asphalted 7,500-foot runway in Cap-Haïtien, the first step in transforming the regional airport into an international hub. Last month, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe announced that the airport, which is still being renovated, will be renamed in honor of deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
JetBlue spokeswoman Allison Steinberg said it’s too early to tell whether flights to Cap-Haïtien will be in its future lineup. The airline will begin flying into Haiti’s capital as early as December — just in time for Christmas and pre-carnival celebrations — pending Haitian and U.S. government approval.
“We feel the airport infrastructure can support our operations,’’ she said.
From Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, JetBlue plans to offer one daily nonstop flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and twice daily flights to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL).
“With expansion into Port-au-Prince, we plan to meet the demand for quality service to Haiti by offering competitive fares to the large Haitian diaspora in the United States,’’ said Scott Laurence, vice president of network planning for JetBlue Airways. “In turn, we look forward to helping to support the community on the island.”
Haitians have long sought increased competition to their homeland. The high price of airline tickets has long been a sore point with travelers, who note that sometimes it’s cheaper to fly into the neighboring Dominican Republic and drive or ride into Haiti rather than to travel directly.
Fouchard said Haiti’s diaspora offers a huge opportunity, not just for international carriers, but also local ones. The local market, he said, is about 250,00 customers annually. Fouchard said about 140,000 of those previously traveled with Caribintair, which shut down five years ago amid problems with the Haitian government. He was a shareholder in that company.
Hoping to recoup that market, he said, Kombit will offer regular flights within country, as well as between Haiti and the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. The Bahamas market, for instance, has gone from four operators to two, which only service Cap-Haïtien, and not Port-au-Prince, Fouchard said. That’s why Kombit, he said, has chosen that market to launch its inaugural flight into Port-au-Prince on Sunday, he said.
Still, Caribbean air travel offers no guarantees. Despite the demand and customer base, air carriers continue to struggle in the region. Last month, for instance, Trinidad-based Caribbean Airlines, which began operations in 2007, announced it was cutting back on its flights to Jamaica. The move irked Jamaica, which retained a 16 percent stake in the air carrier after it sold its national airline, Air Jamaica, to Trinidad in 2011. Even regional carrier LIAT, which services the Eastern Caribbean market, continues to report losses despite government subsidies.
Fouchard insists that the Haitian market is different — and wide open.
“We are not going to just go and say this is an airplane and we can have 10 trips a day to a destination,” he said. “We are going to limit the trips from point to point. Basically Kombit is going to find local partners to make it work.”