It all dates back much further than that to the 17th century when the French colonised the island of St Christopher (St Kitts), latterly adding other Caribbean islands such as Martinique, Fort-de-France, Grenada and Guadeloupe. Now known as the French West Indies or French Antilles the region includes seven territories currently under French sovereignty: the overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, the overseas collectivities of St Martin, St Barthélemy; the islands forming dependencies of Guadeloupe, namely Les Saintes, Marie-Galante, La Désirade and due to its proximity, French Guiana.
As French territories, the national carrier is permitted to provide air connectivity and has been providing inter-island flights in the Caribbean since the late 1940s, when a network was launched linking Pointe-à-Pitre to Fort-de-France and Saint Martin using turboprop equipment. Twenty years later, in 1967, jet aircraft arrived in form of the Sud Aviation Caravelle and flights were added to the US mainland via Miami. In the decades that followed the 737-200, 737-300 served the Caribbean market, until from the start of this century, an A320 has been based in the Caribbean, with a second example being added to the fleet from 2007.
Air France now has two A320s based in the Caribbean, last year introducing its upgraded version of the aircraft, equipped with 168 seats (12 in the Business cabin and 156 in Economy), and offering ten additional seats in the Economy cabin, a further six percent increase in capacity.
CHART - Air France's Largest Markets Across the Caribbean (weekly seats)Source: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and OAG
Founding SkyTeam alliance member Air France currently flies long-haul to Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean using a Boeing 777-300 with up to twice daily flights from Paris Orly with connections being offered by the regional fleet. The locally domiciled A320s fly between Pointe à Pitre, Fort de France, Cayenne, Port au Prince and Miami, operating more than 30 weekly flights between these regional economic centres and now will also provide a connection to Atlanta, home of Air France’s transatlantic partner Delta Air Lines.
The new twice weekly Pointe à Pitre – Atlanta service will commence from November 21, 2017 and will mark the return of scheduled services on the route following an almost ten year hiatus. Delta Air Lines was the last operator to serve this market, ending its weekly Boeing 737-800 rotation back in April 2008. The new flight will also provide connectivity between Atlanta and Fort de France and Cayenne via Pointe à Pitre.
Since 2015, Air France’s regional Caribbean operation has also been offering seven further destinations from Pointe à Pitre: Saint Lucia, San Juan, Santo Domingo, St Martin Grand Case, St Martin Juliana, St Barthélemy and Dominica, operated on a codeshare basis with Air Antilles. Air France also offers flights between its Paris Charles de Gaulle hub and Havana, Punta Cana and St Maarten, but has been facing competition from another European airline, Norwegian, in recent years.
As Guadeloupe and Martinique are both overseas departments of France to which the United States-European Union-Iceland-Norway Air Transport Agreement applies, the LCC has been able to grow innovatively between the US and the Caribbean. This agreement authorises unlimited frequencies between any point or points in the EU and any point or points in US territory for any and all US, EU, Icelandic, and Norwegian airlines.
Norwegian has certainly discovered a way to offer US-Caribbean flights that is creative and will lead to new competition in the region. It initially launched flights in winter 2015 to Pointe à Pitre and Fort-de-France from Baltimore, Boston and New York, but will this coming winter tweak its offer, ending Boston flights and instead flying from TF Green International Airport in Providence, Rhode Island, connecting with its recently introduced long-haul flights from Europe.
Like Air France, Iberia also previously used to base A320s outside of Europe and provide connecting flights to markets across Latin America and the Caribbean from Miami. This lasted for around 12 years, but was suspended in 2004 and replaced by enhanced direct connectivity and a partnership with Central American carrier TACA, now part of Avianca.
Air France still sees a big value to its regional Caribbean flights, but are there other opportunities to connect ‘European’ territories in the Caribbean. Interestingly, Norwegian is already providing flights to St Croix in the US Virgin Islands as part of its Copenhagen – San Juan, Puerto Rico winter schedule. Other lucrative travel markets which could all be linked to the US mainland by European carriers include the likes of the British Virgin Islands, St Barthélemy (France), St Martin (France), Anguilla (England), Montserrat (England) and Cayman Islands (England).