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Tiny upstart airline links Nevis and Puerto Rico
The San Juan Star / August 27, 2001

By Larry Luxner

CHARLESTOWN, Nevis -- In order to entice more Puerto Ricans -- and mainland Americans -- to visit Nevis, local entrepreneur Allen Haddadi has inaugurated direct service between Charlestown and San Juan's Luís Muñoz Marín International Airport.

Haddadi's airline, Nevis Express Ltd., offers two round-trip flights a day linking the islands. The first leaves Nevis at 7 a.m. and returns to San Juan at 11:30 a.m., while the second leaves Nevis at 1:30 p.m. and returns to San Juan at 5 p.m.

Nevis Express, which charges $215 round-trip, uses Beech 1900 aircraft for the one-hour flights. Although the small planes can carry 19 passengers, Nevis Express can only take nine passengers at a time because of its current FAA rating.

Up until now, Puerto Rico residents hoping to visit Nevis had to fly first to St. Kitts, and wait sometimes half a day for the connecting 10-minute flight to Nevis, or take a taxi from St. Kitts' Robert Bradshaw International Airport to Port Zante and wait there for the next scheduled boat launch to Nevis. For passengers flying in from the U.S. mainland, it's even more of an ordeal since they have to make an extra connection in San Juan.

"The airlift is a problem," says Robert Whitfield, general manager of the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, by far the island's largest hotel property. "Getting here is a challenge, but it also provides a little more exclusivity. So much of travel these days is dull. At least the boat ride is exciting."

Haddadi would clearly like to take the excitement -- and the inconvenience -- out of the process.

"The U.S. represents 50% of the Caribbean tourism market, and the main gateway to the U.S. for the Caribbean is San Juan, Puerto Rico," he said. "Miami has some flights, but San Juan by far has more, so it makes sense to serve Puerto Rico from St. Kitts-Nevis. And Four Seasons is the kind of property that would attract upscale tourists. We're not St. Thomas, St. Maarten or Barbados. This is a quiet island."

Haddadi is originally from Morocco, but spent much of his airline career in Alaska, where Nevis Express is registered. He said his airline has been in business since 1993. It currently offers day trips to St. Maarten and St. Barts on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 14 shuttle flights a day between St. Kitts and Nevis. Besides the two Beech 1900s, Nevis Express has three nine-seater Britten-Norman Islanders which it uses for its St. Kitts-Nevis air bridge.

Thanks to the new Nevis-Puerto Rico service, Haddadi expects revenues to rise from the current $1 million to $5 million by 2002, while the number of employees should rise from 35 to 50 over the next year.

"Puerto Rico has a population of 3.8 million, and it's basically a captive audience from the rest of the Caribbean," he said. "An island like Nevis has 500 hotel rooms at most. You don't need much to create an economy between the two islands. You only have to tap into the top 1% of the population, and in Puerto Rico's case, that's 38,000 people."

Meanwhile, authorities are busy lengthening of the runway at tiny Charlestown airport to 4,000 feet; before it was only 2,000 feet. This will enable the airport to receive 40-seater commuter jets. Robert Bradshaw International Airport, by comparison, has an 8,000-foot runway.

Demand is expected to rise in St. Kitts with the inauguration next year of a 600-room Marriott International resort there; at present, the biggest property on Nevis's sister island is Jack Tar Village, with around 260 rooms.

In addition, the passenger terminal at Charlestown, which can handle 50,000 to 60,000 passengers, is being enlarged to cope with the expected increased demand.

"The new terminal will be finished in October or November, and will be 10 times as big as the existing one," says Whitfield. "The government is doing this in hopes of bringing American Eagle."

Asked about competition from the giant carrier, Haddadi acknowledged that his prices will likely remain higher than American's, but that he's not too worried for the moment.

"I'm not going to set my price based on what American charges," he said. "I'm a niche market carrier. There's always going to be room for a niche carrier."

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