Photo: Erlend Karlsen.
It’s finally time for the first edition of Nostalgia Corner outside of the continental United States. Many young aviation enthusiasts would have models of Air Jamaica for the simple fact they had one of the most attractive liveries in our country’s history. I would know; I was one of them! With origins back to the early jet days, there is much to miss about the now-defunct Caribbean carrier.
Even in their final days, their colorful livery was always a target for planespotters across the East Coast of the United States. More importantly, Air Jamaica played a pivotal role in Jamaica’s tourism efforts for years. The airline was a staple of Jamaican culture - a colleague of mine of Jamaican descent recalls flying Air Jamaica over twenty times! It goes without saying, but they are well missed in the skies today.
The time was 1963. Travel by jet airliners was beginning to take the world by storm, and the government of Jamaica felt it could venture into the airline industry on its own. So, instead of investing in British West Indian Airways (B.W.I.A.), a new airline was formed - Jamaica Air Service, Ltd. Consequentially, all B.W.I.A. employees based in Jamaica were shifted to the new carrier.
In 1966, the airline completed its first flights, connecting Jamaica to Miami and New York-JFK. The issue was always that the airline was too much of a collaboration, as the Jamaican government only held a 51% controlling stake. Other stakeholders included B.W.I.A. and British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C.), who combined for an additional 49%.
Seeking to become more self-sufficient, Air Jamaica was officially launched in April of 1969, this time with only Air Canada owning a 40% stake. However, Air Canada was a critical component of the restructured airline, providing four aircraft and adequate logistical support. This partnership would provide for a strong working relationship for many years.
In 1970, Air Jamaica started to accelerate its expansion. Flights were established to Toronto and Montreal, as well as San Juan. The primary focus of the route map at this time was establishing reliable inter-Caribbean routes while expanding its big picture. In 1974, the airline began its first flight to Europe, serving London. Frankfurt service would follow the next year.
Following Air Canada divesting their stake, the airline became wholly-owned, at which point the government sought privatization. A joint venture between Canadian and Jamaican investors purchased 70% of the airline, and a 5% stake was provided to employees. As part of the deal, the government retained responsibility for liabilities. 25% of the sale fell through, as Cochrane Investment Group failed to secure funding for their agreement portion.
In 1995, the Jamaican government sought to divest another air carrier, Trans Jamaican Airlines. Air Jamaica purchased a 55% stake and rebranded the airline as Air Jamaica Express. Further, they set up an all-inclusive subsidiary called Air Jamaica Tours to help boost tourism revenue. With these new revenue streams, Air Jamaica seemed poised for more growth.
1996 brought some external hardship to the airline. After the FAA found that Jamaica’s Civil Aviation Department, independent of Air Jamaica, failed to meet international safety standards, the Air Jamaica fleet was grounded from flying to the United States. When they were poised to grow, many of these aircraft were grounded for 18 months, resulting in lost profits of upwards of $150 million.
Seeking to diversify Air Jamaica’s portfolio further, Stewart began marketing Air Jamaica as the most palatable option for shipping cargo between the island and the United States. In addition to allotted room on commercial flights, a DC-8 freighter began to be used for thrice-weekly service to Miami.
American Airlines has played a crucial role in service to Caribbean islands through its Miami hub for some time. Today, some islands’ singular air service is provided by American. During the privatization run, American’s parent AMR Group had intended to purchase a stake in Air Jamaica. However, it was challenged by several Caribbean governments and did not go through. In 1997, a marketing agreement was struck with American’s competitor Delta Air Lines, and a hub in Montego Bay was opened intended to rival American’s Miami network.
In the early 2000s, Air Jamaica faced more external challenges, such as domestic unrest and the September 11th terrorist attacks. However, after a reduction of only 20%, the airline was back at full capacity only a few months later. Air Jamaica had hoped to become profitable for the first time since privatization. This was not to be, and in 2004, the government of Jamaica took full ownership once again.
Fast forward to 2009. Still unable to consistently maintain profitability, the government of Jamaica approached Trinidad and Tobago about possibly taking over the airline. In May 2010, the aircraft and routes were transferred to Caribbean Airlines, which the airline then used to open up an additional hub at Norman Manley International Airport. The following year, an agreement was signed making Caribbean the national airline of Jamaica.
Part of Caribbean Airlines’ fleet was painted in a new Air Jamaica livery for a short period. The acquisition gave Caribbean the rights to the Air Jamaica brand, subject to annual renewal. The owners at the time claimed that as long as they were in control, the Air Jamaica brand would live on. However, these colors would fly only for a few more years until the brand was ultimately dissolved in 2015.
Gordon “Butch” Stewart
As you know by now, I have an affinity for inspirational leaders. I would be remiss not to dedicate a section to Air Jamaica's most influential leader - Butch Stewart. In many ways, he is why Air Jamaica made it as far as it did.
In 1994, the prominent local entrepreneur purchased a 30% stake in the airline. To give you an idea, by this time, Britain’s Financial Times had already dubbed Stewart “the Caribbean’s Richard Branson.” By launching an air conditioning business, his organic company grew into three manufacturing companies, which he owned, and he also ran Sandals’ luxury resorts. Stewart served as Chairman of Air Jamaica, while Trevor Boud would step in as C.E.O.
At the time he stepped in, the airline was bleeding red ink. Butch understood the importance of building a foundation of profitable international destinations. This would require the airline to compete directly in U.S. markets with American carriers, most notably American Airlines.
The irony was that American Airlines, three years before starting his time at Air Jamaica, had awarded the tycoon an award for his efforts in developing tourism in the region. Now, it was time for him to take them on, resulting in American dropping airfares in excess of 50%. At one point, Air Jamaica reportedly held a 50% market share on routes from the U.S. to the island, a tall feat compared to where they were before.
Now a tangible threat, competing carriers began a smear campaign on the Air Jamaica brand. At one point, an American Airlines spokesman on a radio show declared that Air Jamaica's planes were unsafe. However, Stewart marched forward, and in 1995, the airline saw revenues almost double from USD 128 million the year prior to USD 225 million.
When asked about his decision, Stewart will tell you that he almost did end up as the ferocious leader of Air Jamaica. It was not until the 1990s when all other takeover attempts had failed and no other buyers were on the horizon, that Stewart put together an investment group to pay USD 37.5 million to take over 70% of the airline. Stewart says about the ordeal:
“I never thought I would get rich out of it, but I thought Jamaica and all of us would be poor without it.”
Air Jamaica was an airline that I thought would exist forever, like Alitalia. However, unbeknownst to my younger self were the many ups and downs the carrier endured. Encountering several ownership changes, the airline went from government-owned to privatized and back to wholly-owned before being sold to Caribbean Airlines. No matter who or what owned Air Jamaica, profitability seemed to escape them.
In the mid-1990s, under Gordon Stewart, the airline began to diversify and slowly creep toward profitability. By hedging its network in several facets of aviation, the additional revenue streams would put the airline in a position to make up for losses. There will always be a demand for cargo, and people will need to travel inter-island in the Caribbean.
While strong ideas in theory, these efforts did not reap the financial success they seemed destined for. The carrier did seem to lack efficiency - its fleet had several liabilities with leased aircraft of different fleet types. They found some consistency in the late 1990s, establishing a fleet of Airbus A320 & A321 aircraft to complement its existing fleet of long-haul Airbuses. However, almost all of these were leased, as well.
Rather uniquely, Air Jamaica's frequent flyer program was dubbed “7th Heaven” with some decent rewards. Those who enrolled were entitled to earn 2 miles for every mile flown on Air Jamaica, as well as additional benefits through partners Virgin Atlantic and Hertz. A credit card was available to further bolster rewards in passenger’s everyday lives. Additionally, positive-space upgrades were available to First Class, similar to how Delta SkyMiles automatically upgrades members based on availability today.
Rather impressively, the airline flew to the following U.S. destinations in 1999:
You can imagine how important building a stream of travelers from popular U.S. destinations was for Jamaica's tourism industry. With how markets have shifted since the airline dissolved almost a decade ago, one would imagine what this would look like today. Further, widebody aircraft expanded international service to destinations like London, Frankfurt, and Zurich.
Photo: Axel J.
Anyone in business will tell you how vital a well-developed brand is for marketing. Perhaps the most remarkable facet of Air Jamaica was its attractive branding. Since its inception, the airline had one of the most attractive brands in the global airline industry. As it matured, it seemed only to get better, culminating with Caribbean's hybrid livery.
Air Jamaica served as an excellent example of why it is essential to identify a goal and market towards it. Like many leisure destinations, the airline's primary objective was to provide a resource for the local tourism industry.
Unfortunately, mismanagement led to some unfortunate changes that played a significant role in the ultimate downfall of the airline. Advertising was contracted out to Altschiller Reitzfeld Advertising, a New York City-based marketing firm. Often, since there are so many moving parts in aviation, hiring someone who specializes and excels in a particular facet is more effective in handling a function for you. Most of the time, this is the case with advertising.
However, the two split in 1985, as the advertising budget dropped from approximately 1 million USD to “next to nothing.” It is unknown how long the funding was cut this low, but one thing is sure - filling planes is hard to do without investing in marketing efforts.
In the late 1990s, Air Jamaica launched a “Way Forward” plan to make Air Jamaica profitable before the year 2000, which included acquiring new aircraft and expanding marketing efforts. With this increased push, losses saw a staggering 66% decrease while revenues increased by 25%. By the early 2000s, Air Jamaica was regularly achieving ranking in on-time performance and in-flight service. This is important in winning international travelers who know little about foreign carriers.
Air Jamaica Today
While the airline has been missing from the skies for about a decade, much remains of what Air Jamaica built. Caribbean Airlines still operates many of the same routes Air Jamaica created, albeit with a highly reduced U.S. market. Unfortunately, American Airlines regained much of its market share, particularly from its Miami hub. Montego Bay remains a Caribbean Airlines hub, working with local tourism boards to continue Air Jamaica's efforts.
Most of it's Airbus fleet (save for the A340s) still lives on for other carriers today. In fact, the idea for this post was spawned from a Global Crossing Airbus A321 visiting my place of work at Westchester County Airport. N966AD, formerly 6Y-JMS, was delivered to Air Jamaica and was its first carrier before operating for other airlines such as Air Berlin, Niki, LEVEL, and Vueling.
N966AD at White Plains in February 2023.
It remains to be seen if we ever see an Air Jamaica revamp in the future. There have been no attempts to date, but seeing the Air Jamaica brand one day rise from the ashes is not unreasonable. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but there was much to like about what Air Jamaica stood for and ultimately accomplished. Message me if you are in, and I will start a GoFundMe!