MIAMI — Travelers in the Eastern Caribbean saw a significant change in the aviation landscape in 2013. That is when American Airlines essentially closed its American Eagle hub in San Juan, Puerto Rico, leaving a gaping hole in access to many of the smaller islands and also for inter-island travel at the northern end of the region. The heir apparent to that hub position appears today to be St. Martin’s Princess Juliana International Airport and the local authority is working to ensure that its role as a hub for the islands continues to expand, even as challengers appear.

St Martin Airport. (Credits: Ward Callens)
St Martin Airport. (Credits: Ward Callens)

For the many smaller islands, including Saba, St. Barth’s, St. Eustatius, St. Kitt’s, Anguilla, Dominica and Tortola, there is insufficient capacity or demand to justify direct service from Europe or North America. The SXM Airport Authority has led the charge in creating an multinational Air Service Development Community (ASDC) group which aims to improve the flight connectivity options within the region. This ASDC is focused on improving air access to all of the member nations through a variety of efforts.

One of the main goals of the ASDC is to expand freedom of the air amongst the member countries. The necessary government ministers from many Eastern Caribbean nations have agreed in principle to an open skies arrangement which could allow for significantly more flight options amongst the islands; a consultant has been engaged to facilitate moving that forward. SXM Airport already serves as the hub for Winair; with an expansion of open skies access in the region the authority hopes that LIAT will consider expanding its presence as well.

A second focus of the ASDC is in ease of travel for visitors within the region. While a single immigration zone is not quite ready to happen there are efforts in place to ease some of the immigration burdens for travelers to the smaller islands with facilities placed at the SXM Airport terminal rather than on-island at the final destination; Anguilla is an early partner in this effort. Airport Director Regina LaBega is also very excited about the potential of establishing a pre-clearance facility for US immigration at her airport.

These coordinated efforts raise the profile of SXM airport as the hub for a much larger pool of travelers and, by extension, more airlines serving the region. Copa Airlines recently launched service to SXM and another long-haul operator, Arkefly, will be launching service from Europe later this year. The airport is focused on the transit and transfer process, working to ensure it is “as seamless as possible” with the ultimate goal of reducing the minimum connection time from the current 2 hours to a duration more accommodating of the discerning passenger the region works to attract. IATA is working with the airport authority on that effort.

The other main factor in the role of SXM as a hub is that many of the surrounding islands simply do not want to grow their aviation market. St. Bath’s has explicitly and repeatedly stated that it does not plan to grow its airport to allow for more or larger aircraft. Saba cannot grow its runway. These are two prime examples of neighbors which are keen to support the role of SXM as the hub of the Eastern Caribbean.

Antigua is the largest competitor for said hub status. It already serves as a major base for LIAT and more than 60% – a number worthy of hub status – of Antigua’s traffic is connecting. But that connecting traffic is mostly inter-island rather than island-to-long-haul passengers. It is a slightly different make-up. And if SXM airport has its way that inter-island traffic will shift a bit as well.