By Sam Bojarski
As Haiti and the United States continue to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic, Eastern Airlines has begun offering regular, direct flights from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Port-au-Prince.
“There’s always a demand as long as the price is right, because right now American Airlines does not service Haiti from New York,” said Dr. Henry Paul, a Brooklyn physician, speaking about direct flights. Prior to the pandemic, Paul regularly flew into Port-au-Prince, on his way to the medical clinic he runs in Caracol, near Cap-Haitien.
Eastern Airlines began offering regular weekly flights to Port-au-Prince on July 15 and plans to add a second weekly flight to Haiti’s capital by the end of August. The new company, which had its inaugural flight in January, carries the familiar Eastern Airlines brand name but has a staff that is almost completely different from the previous version of Eastern Airlines, which folded in 2017.
Prior to July 15, the airline flew repatriation flights from Port-au-Prince to the U.S.
“After we did a couple of those flights and there seemed to be continued demand, we just started to get more and more requests,” Eastern Airlines president and chief executive officer Steve Harfst said. “We just see it as a neat niche opportunity to provide good-quality, on-time, reliable service.”
Weekly flights from JFK to Toussaint Louverture International Airport leave on Saturdays. Round-trip economy class flights were priced at just under $300.
According to its website, Eastern offers one free checked bag up to 70 pounds with every fare, which could make a difference in a market where travelers often pack heavily.
Harfst said his company is flying wide-body, twin-aisle Boeing 767 airplanes, offering customers space to stretch out and maintain social distancing.
Eastern’s competitors on the Port-au-Prince route include JetBlue, which also offers nonstop from JFK, and American Airlines, which flies JFK to Port-au-Prince, via Miami. Other airlines like Spirit also fly out of New York City but do not offer direct service to Port-au-Prince.
The International Air Transport Association anticipates that it will take until 2024 for global air travel to return to pre-pandemic levels. Traffic was down by more than 86 percent in June, compared to the same month a year ago. Coronavirus continues to spread in Haiti, although not at the same rate many experts have predicted. The country has recorded more than 7,300 cases.
Citing data from the travel industry analytics platform Cirium, transportation analyst Seth Kaplan, who co-founded Airline Weekly, said scheduled airline seats for August between the U.S. and Port-au-Prince are down 42 percent from August of 2019. But thanks to Eastern’s entrance into the market, nonstop seats from JFK are up by 17 percent.
Kaplan noted that the pandemic has impacted both demand and supply for air travel, with many airlines reducing flights.
“If you get some kind of bounceback in demand, they could be well-positioned,” Kaplan said of Eastern Airlines.
Dr. Paul, who serves as president of MediNova ‒ a nonprofit that provides free health care to residents of northeastern Haiti ‒ used to travel to Haiti at least once per month, before COVID-19.
“I don’t foresee me going in the very near future at all,” he said, citing concerns about the virus and the security situation in Haiti.
But at the right price, he said others in the diaspora would be attracted to the idea of a nonstop flight.
“As long as it’s competitive, I’m certain there will be a demand,” he added.
The original Eastern Air Lines company, founded in 1926, became a major player in the early days of the aviation industry before faltering in 1991, amid a series of management and labor issues. The brand was revived in 2015, although this second iteration lasted only 18 months.
While Eastern might face relatively limited competition servicing Port-au-Prince, one key factoring in its success will be its ability to build relationships with local suppliers and service providers on the ground.
“You have to know who to turn to for that kind of help. It’s different from just starting a service, if you’re a U.S. airline, to a domestic airport,” Kaplan said.
With the decline in air travel that started earlier this year, larger airlines might have less of an appetite to compete with new entrants for a route, if it means losing money for a sustained period.
“Right now, nobody’s in a position to just burn cash with long-term goals in mind, everybody’s trying to conserve cash,” Kaplan also said.
Once a second weekly flight is added, Eastern would offer nearly 500 nonstop seats per week, between New York City and Port-au-Prince. “We think there’s enough demand to support those two times per week flights,” said Harfst, who said he is open to adding even more flights in the future, under the right conditions.
“If the bigger airlines don’t have the capacity to serve a market like Haiti to New York, then Eastern can do it, and I think we can do it well,” Harfst also said.