Carib Express Questions

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Tupolev 204
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Carib Express Questions

Unread post by Tupolev 204 » Sun Jul 08, 2007

When was Carib Express started, how long did it last?

How many BAE 146's were in their fleet?

What destinations did they fly to from the Barbados hub?

Why did it fail?

I remember as a child going to Melville Hall Airport to pick up family friends from Carib Express flights. Nice livery, Dominicans loved it since it brought our country our first passenger jet service. I found the aircraft to be very quiet compared to other aircraft.
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Unread post by islandflyer » Mon Jul 09, 2007

(This narrative is from the view of a former employee in the Engineering Department. Some items discussed were hearsay and cannot be verified at this time.)

Carib Express Inc. was born out of a Consultants Report on Aviation in the Eastern Caribbean, put together by Speedwing, a consultancy group associated with British Airways. I believe the basic premise was that the existing carrier, LIAT, was continuing to struggle financially and operationally, and it seemed that all efforts by the then shareholder Governments was to no avail. The Consultants believed that on the imminent commercial failure of LIAT, based in part on poor service and technical difficulties with aircraft, a void would be created in the supply of quality air transportation in the region. It was felt that a business model incorporating both turboprop and jet service, like most European feeder operators at the time, would herald a dramatic improvement in air services to the region, and a higher visibility by foreign carriers who contributed large numbers of passengers into the inter-island traffic flow. Barbados was chosen as the best location for the base of operations for the new entity.

I believe that Carib Express first started advertising in very late 1994 for staff; I myself attended an interview for a position in Engineering and started working with the company in January 1995 out of temporary accommodations in the former Dover Convention Centre, Christ Church. At the time there were about 7 of us involved in the basic setup of the airline (aircraft importation and such). I think the pilots had already been boxed up and crated off to do BAe146 training at Air Wisconsin. I really was not up to speed with the other Departments activities, as we had our plate quite full. I remember one of my tasks was looking at the startup route system, comprising of point-to-point and a few round robin services to GND, SVD, SLU, and DOM. GEO, POS, ANU and other points north were to be added later.

Management staffing was to be expected – everyone with the exception of HR was either seconded from BA or expats from the UK. Roy Barnes was the CEO, and Paul Emms the Director of Engineering. There was a little guy in charge of Cabin Services, and a fat red faced fellow (Santa?) in Stores. I can’t remember who was the Judas that dealt with Finance. Basically there were a lot of overseas guys with big egos and bigger pay packets around. Take engineering for instance: his personal vehicle was a Land Rover (maybe $60K for a 2 seater), the Maintenance staff had custom-made badly fitting white jumpsuits (insane asylum), and I think that up to 6 months into the exercise, Engineering spent more monthly than any other area in the company (I think even more than fuel!)

The start-up fleet was a single British Aerospace 146-100, a 76 seater four-engined regional jet leased from another British Airways-related company, with a second aircraft to join the fleet a few months later. I believe that the first question about the CaribEx plan came up shortly before the scheduled start date of February 15, 1995, in that we had a few ‘issues’ with the local DCA authorities (they were being stupid as usual and didn’t have a clue) so the airline was officially registered in St. Vincent, and based operationally in BGI. The registrations were V(?)-VBA, -VBB, etc. The second issue was raised by I believe the sales guys who asked, “why start operations in February, so that just when you are building the brand, the Winter season closes and passenger loads plummet? Also, why you are increasing the fleet at the same time?” I know that for myself, I discovered that the heavy maintenance plan for the first aircraft had it going to Wisconsin in early 1996 (about a year after first flight), but based on the proposed hectic flight schedule, that time jumped forward to September 1995, and no one had noticed!

Anyway, on we went into the mild business overcast. Carib Express Inc. did its first flight in February 1995 to great fanfare and excitement. The aircraft was gleaming white with the coloured bird on the tail, and the multi-coloured pin stripe under the windows. That baby was quiet, and fast! And very smooth. We routinely did BGI-GEO in about 1:20 compared to LIAT’s 2:10. And the BGI-SLU was in about 35-40 minutes! Everyone was impressed, including the passengers. I know that a few LI staff came over to us in anticipation of an eventual collapse of LIAT, just like the business plan predicted.

Unfortunately, a few things didn’t go as planned:
• LIAT did not collapse under the “superior might” of the great white hope.
• The travel agents didn’t embrace CaribEx as expected (my opinion)
• The ANU government blocked us at every turn (staff expected that, Management seemed surprised)
• The SKB government changed and blocked the expansion into SJU
• EC Express came on the scene, as did BW Express. 4 players in the southern Caribbean was just too much.

I remember when Carib Express started offering free coffee to the passengers on the first flight of the day at the check-in counter. Many airport staff enjoyed that! American Eagle did the same. Then LIAT unfurled a banner announcing Customer Appreciation and lower fares. We gave boxed juices!

The original $25 million start up capital was gone inside of 11 months, the first aircraft went away in October 1995 for a very expensive gear and engine change, and a third aircraft was added in early 1996. By then, the writing was on the wall (in our best month revenues were $2.3m, losses were $1.9m). Roy Barnes was replaced by Brian Pollock, new investors were courted (Geoffrey Cave, Kyffin Simpson and Bernie Weatherhead, I believe), an operational “partnership” with BW was set up (they ‘leased’ a plane for the POS-CCS run), and staffing was cut. But the major issues remained. And then we found out that the original plan by Speedwing was for a start-up fleet of turboprop BAe ATP’s, and then the 146 jets after. Someone changed that plan at the last minute and thought the jets were better to start with. The result was that the company was bleeding to death from day 1. Had Carib Express started with the ATP’s, we would have competed more favorably with LIAT’s Dash-8’s for the expected 18 months (seating 72 pax, break even at 35-45), then the jets would kick in for the longer sectors and new routes like SJU, and the northern Caribbean. Besides, some of the expats did the dog when their iron-clad contracts were reviewed. (There is a story that the guy in charge of Cabin Services, upon receiving word of his termination, ordered a container-load of printed cocktail napkins from MIA. By the time they turned up in BGI with the thousands-of-US-dollars COD bill, he was long gone!)

By April 1996, some 14 months after Carib Express started, the game was over. The aircraft were flown back to the UK, the computers, ground equipment, etc were seized by local investors to recoup losses, and we the staff were left to lick our wounds. For myself, I can say that I had contacted the receiver about final settlement of outstanding monies for myself (only $4,000.00) in April 1997 – I don’t think I ever got a reply.

Why did Carib Express ultimately fail? Was it a flawed hope that LI would fold? Was it the exchange of start-up fleet? Was it under-capitalized? Were the expats overpaid? Bad timing? Who knows. In retrospect, who cares. Sometimes, you are just lucky to walk away with your self-respect (I heard Barnes went to jail in England and Emms committed suicide). Would I do it again? Maybe. Maybe not. Ask me next year.

Running an airline of any size is not for the faint of heart.

(Humor) What does BAe stand for? Bring Another Engine!
What does ATP stand for? Another Ten Pounds!

islandflyer

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Unread post by ACAV8R » Mon Jul 09, 2007

IF, that's a great synopsis. I have cut it and pasted it for my files to be included in the book. Hope that's OK!

What you didn't mention was that BA had been trying to get rid of RB. He was also living in a suite at the Grand Barbados Hotel.

I was sent down as a representative of Navtech in Waterloo, ON, who provided Flight Dispatch Services, the complete package, to see if Carib Express would be interested in buying their services. I met with Capt. Dick Twoomey, former Chief Pilot of BEA, and had a tour of their facilities at GAIA. I remember walking into the ops office and seeing at least 20 people lounging around. Capt. Twoomey asked me what I thought, and my response was that, with the Navtech Service package, all you would need was 1 operations clerk per 8-hour shift to collate and place the flight plans sequentially on the counter for the crews. All flight plans would be generated in Waterloo and either faxed or sent by computer to GAIA. Navtech would do the rest, wxx briefing, route info and notams, the whole 9 yards. Pilots would do what they have been doing at major airlines for years, and i.e. self-brief. Face-to-face briefing with dispatchers, while nice and old-fashioned, a la RAF, was over. I told him that the operation was completely overstaffed with support personnel, whereas the $$ should have been spent on technical and customer service staff [contracted out, I believe, to Seawell Air Services]. And, as you have mentioned Brian, the whole operation was overweighted with expats. Local staff would have had a far greater interest in seeing the operation succeed: these professional contract expats would just go with a shrug of their shoulders to another o'seas contract in the event of the failure of Carib Express. From a Flight Ops and Technical standpoint, they had excellent pilots and engineers.

I also passed on these comments at the time to Kyffin Simpson and asked him to relay them to Geoffrey Cave.

While the BAe 146-200 may have been a nice aircraft, operationally it was all wrong. EVEN THEN AC's connectors were getting rid of them because they were a maintenance nightmare. IMO, a few CV-580's at 1/6 of the price of a -146 would have done the job. Just as fast as the 146, but 1/6 the price, and lower DOC's. 60 Pax, 320KTAS. 16K cargo payload on a 1000NM route. But BA Associated Companies had a bunch of 146's that they wanted to re-market. Smurf-jets!

The IDEA behind Carib Express was and still is a good one. The only question that remains is, "Is the Caribbean market big enough to support more than one inter-island carrier?"

When BJ Viking and I start our airline, we'll let you know. Give you a hint tho', cargo NOT pax.

IE.
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Re: Carib Express Questions

Unread post by bimjim » Thu May 22, 2014

A few more pins to stick...

1. Carib Express actually started out as Carib Air Express, proposing a Joint Venture with LIAT.

As Secretary of LIALPA I can tell you for sure that we were consulted, we met with the CAE principals in Antigua, and at the next meeting I pushed a proposal that LIALPA take an ownership position if at all possible - in order to escape the endless cycle of management abuse, and to have at least a seat at the Board table, if not an active hand in our own futures.

Enough Members agreed with me that the proposal carried, and all of us paid out of our salaries to accumulate the necessary funds. We discovered, unfortunately, that for some obtuse, inexplicable and irrelevant reason the lead person in CAE was persona non grata to the shareholder Prime Ministers (no surprise there), and the entire CAE approach was then abandoned (as well as our money).

  • Note 1: The CARICOM Prime Ministers did not - and still do not - lower themselves to speak to "common people" (except at election time, of course, when they need to votes to maintain power), so finding out exactly why anything really was done or not done at that level was/is just about impossible.

    Note 2: This was a time when we had discovered that when management was told by a court in Antigua that - as specified in the Trust Deeds - they were not permitted to access the employee Provident Fund (retirement monies) they simply stopped putting in both the company portion AND the employee portion, and used that instead.

    When I left at the end of 1995, that shortfall exceeded US$10 million and, so far as I know, to date nobody has ever been prosecuted - or even disciplined - for this very real and massive fraud.


2. The Carib Express jets may have been faster than the Dash-8s (LIAT had just the -100s at that time), but they flew higher - and here's the reason why that cut their throats.

With the usual bad blood between the LIAT pilots who stayed and the ex-LIAT pilots who had run away to another carrier hoping for a better future, at least on the Barbados-St. Lucia route the working LIAT pilots stayed IFR as long as possible before descending in to SLU, and whether they had left Barbados before or after Carib Express, the higher jets were forced by ATC to enter the holding pattern and wait for the Dash-8 to turn final at Vigie for landing before leaving their holding altitude.

So the 146 may have been more comfortable, faster and higher, but in the final analysis the Dash-8 always landed first - and the 146 probably burned twice as much fuel as planned for the route just hanging around waiting for the Dash-8 to land.

3. I do also know that the Chief Pilot, John Dulieu, complained that a rental car was literally forced on him... he said he told them already owned two cars, for himself and his wife, but he was ordered to take the rental car anyway - he just parked it in his yard.

Finally, that whole Carib Express exercise left me with the distinct impression that (BA's external management division) Speedwing went to Carib Express with two very specific purposes: To get rid of several spare 146s BA was trying to sell, and to burn through as much investor money as possible quickly as possible and return to the UK.

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