Flying bizjets to these island nations is straightforward, but be aware of particular permits and visa requirements.
By Grant McLaren
Caribbean and Bahamian islands continue to be havens for business aviation, particularly during high season, which runs from late October through early April. General aviation (GA) traffic during this period remains constant, ground handling ranges from very good to excellent, permit requirements are minimal, and operating costs are moderate, say international support providers (ISPs).
However, there are considerations to be mindful of, particularly for 1st-time operators. If you’re operating to smaller island locations, for example, availability of services and airport hours may be limited.
Moreover, charter operators may face restrictions in terms of cabotage within the Bahamas, along with permit requirements at islands in both the Bahamas and Caribbean.
And if your pet on board is not properly documented and pre-announced, this has the potential to scuttle your access to a planned destination. Cuba, meanwhile, is now basically closed to N-registered GA private ops due to recent restrictions imposed from the US side.
“GA traffic in this region ramps up in late October, after hurricane season, and is particularly busy during Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and spring break periods,” says IAM Jet Centres Group Manager Ops Donna Goddard.
“To be realistic, all ramps across the Caribbean tend to be very active and fill up during the winter season. Because of this, prior planning and parking requests are important. However, since parking and crew accommodations, can become saturated, and there will be times when you’ll need to consider relocating aircraft and crew.”
Hurricane Dorian swept through northern Bahamas this past September, causing widespread damage centered on the Abaco Islands. This was the most powerful hurricane on record to strike The Bahamas – a true natural disaster. “Grand Bahama was severely damaged, too. FPO (Freeport, Grand Bahama, Bahamas) remains closed to GA,” adds Avfuel Account Exec David Kang.
“Much of this area was pretty much demolished, and FPO is currently shut down to all but humanitarian flights. It looks like a war zone in this part of The Bahamas, and GA activity here is not likely to be up and running this season. NAS (Nassau, Bahamas), however, and Bahamian destinations to the south escaped much of the damage.”
Back in September 2017, Hurricane Maria caused severe damage to Dominica, St Maarten, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and other Caribbean islands. “Airports, hotels and GA activity are mostly fully operational at hurricane-impacted locations throughout the region, although there’s still some damage recovery under way at Dominica, St Maarten and Puerto Rico,” explains ITPS Ops Mgr Ben Fuller.
Concurrently, Goddard points out that, other than damages from Hurricane Dorian, the region is pretty much back up and running. “Aircraft traffic has come back up to where it was before the 2017 hurricane season,” she says. “Tortola, St Maarten and Dominica are now essentially fully back in service.”
Permits, slots, PPRs and eAPIS
For the most part, permits are not required for private aircraft ops throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas. However, there are 2 exceptions: Cuba and Curacao. In these island nations, overflight permits are necessary and nav fees must be paid.
In addition, if you venture down to Venezuela or over to Central American coastal areas, permit considerations do arise. On the other hand, charter permits are needed at many locations, including Jamaica, Bahamas, Barbados, and Cayman Islands.
Note that domestic movement by foreign-registered charter aircraft within The Bahamas is generally prohibited. “To fly internal charter legs here, you’d need to register with Bahamas as an airline, which is a long and involved process,” says Kang. Take note that there are new requirements in place in some countries.
If you’ll be overflying Curaçao airspace, for example, you’ll need to open and fund a local account so that nav fees may be prepaid online prior to day of operation. “If you have not set up and funded an account, you’ll run into problems in terms of getting flight plans approved,” warns Goddard. Airport slots are not a factor in this region.
However prior permission required (PPR) mandates are enforced from time to time at certain locations, say ISPs. “PPR may be put in place at some airports during busy holiday times, and you may need PPR, or at least prior notification, when operating to certain smaller airports,” notes Fuller. SLU (George FL Charles, St Lucia) always has PPR in effect, and, last year, FDF (Martinique Aimé Césaire Intl, Martinique) instituted PPR mandates for specific time periods.
Savvy operators may be able to avoid charter permits if they do their research prior to the day of operation. “Before flying to a location that technically requires a charter permit, contact your local handler on the field, as local laws are often interpreted differently and there are gray areas,” recommends Goddard. “Once you start the permit process with CAA, it cannot be closed, and you may have opened a Pandora’s box.
Be mindful that many charter rules were written years ago, before the business jet age, and were aimed more at commercial airliners.” Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) eAPIS mandates are straightforward. CARICOM’s eAPIS website is user-friendly and ISPs say it’s simple to report inbound and outbound movements.
You’ll receive a message to confirm your eAPIS filing has been accepted, and it’s easy to troubleshoot any potential glitches. “Keep in mind that not every nation in the CARICOM community enforces or requires CARICOM eAPIS procedures,” reminds Kang.
Visa requirements and pre-clearance options
US nationals, crew and passengers do not need visas for this region, with the exception of Cuba. In some cases, however, crew may need visas based on their nationality. “At Barbados, for example, any crew member listed on the gendec is covered by it and visas will not be required,” notes Jeppesen International Trip Specialist Scott Taylor. “At other islands, crew may need visas based on their nationality – even if listed on the gendec – and these may not be readily available.
In most cases, local immigration officials will try to accommodate crew members missing a visa. It’s not like here in the US, where fines will be levied if you’re missing a visa.” Fuller points out that US pre-clearance does not always work as it’s supposed to in the US Virgin Islands.
“We’ve found that many customs officers in the lower 48 do not seem to recognize USVI pre-clearance, even though you’re landing at an airport of entry (AOE) stateside.
On the other hand, full pre-clearance options available at Aruba have been working well, just as they do at SNN (Shannon, Ireland).”
The Caribbean and Bahamas region, overall, is not an expensive GA operating environment, although some islands and destinations, including Turks and Caicos and NAS, can be more expensive than others.
Fuel costs vary in this region. Fuel needs to be barged and prices tend to increase the further down you go in the Antilles Island, chain say ISPs. Crew accommodations can be pricey during high season, over $250 and up to $800 per night or so, but the larger issue is availability. “Accommodations can run out quickly, particularly at popular smaller island locations,” says Kang.
“We recommend booking accommodations before about December 7, or you may not find anything suitable available.” Fuller points out that aircraft parking costs can run from $200–$300 per day during holiday periods and/or times of local congestion. Also, note than some Caribbean and Bahamas airports are open sunrise to sunset only, while others, those equipped with runway lighting, may only stay open until the last scheduled commercial flight.
Airport overtime is possible at many locations but requires advance planning, usually 8–48 hours prior notice. However, this can be costly. “Airport overtime often runs about $200 per hour but it can be as high as $1000 per hour at Grenada,” remarks Goddard.
Parking and repositioning
There will be times when you’ll need to reposition your aircraft due to lack of local parking availability and/or if the local island runway is not suitable for your jet equipment. If, for example, you’re planning on flying to MQS (Mustique, St Vincent and the Grenadines), BQU (Bequia, St Vincent and the Grenadines), SBH (St Barthélemy, French Antilles) or VIJ (Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Island), you’ll usually need to land at a larger airport, with adequate runway length and parking availability, and then transfer passengers onward via smaller chartered aircraft.
Be mindful that, when coordinating aircraft parking and crew accommodations, some locations require that crew stays locally with the aircraft. “At BGI (Bridgetown, Barbados), it’s a requirement that at least 1 crew member must stay on-island with the aircraft,” says Goddard. “This is so they can assist if an aircraft needs to be relocated.”
If you’re heading to a small island in the popular Grenadine group, you might choose to park your aircraft at BGI, GND (St Georges, Grenada) or UVF (Hewanorra, St Lucia). Goddard points out that a newly-opened airport on St Vincent – SVD – offers more GA parking than the previous facility. CIW (Canouan, St Vincent and the Grenadines) is another option with a 5872-ft-long runway.
It offers limited GA parking opportunities and good local ground support. Be mindful that there may be service limitations at smaller locations in this region. At secondary airports, you may need to source catering from your hotel. Local transport options also could be limited. “Some smaller locations can feel a little undeveloped, and things may move very slowly,” says Kang.
“While this may surprise 1st-time operators, those crews accustomed to smaller island locations understand the limitations and are usually fine with it.”
Ground handling and FBOs
The Caribbean and Bahamas has some superb FBOs to consider, both independent and those part of larger chains. FBO infrastructure and services are considered excellent at NAS.
Bohlke International Airways, for example, has highly-regarded FBO availability in the USVI, while IAM Jet Centres now has 4 locations: BGI, GND, MBJ (Montego Bay, Jamaica) and EIS (Tortola, BVI). The company is opening of a 5th location at UVF, planned for this December.
Even at smaller islands and secondary airports without FBO facilities, ground handling services are usually professional, dedicated, and more than adequate, say ISPs.
Since recent restrictions were imposed by the current US administration, private N-registered GA has all but disappeared to Cuba. N-registered charter ops are still possible and do occur, although on a very limited basis, say ISPs. This situation is because acceptable reasons for private visits to the island have now become much more limited and highly restrictive.
“Up until May 2019, private GA could fly to Cuba with minimal restrictions, as long as they fit into a formerly permitted OFAC category, but this has all changed,” notes Fuller.
Jeppesen Vendor Relations Specialist Jeff Rupprecht explains that, while Jeppesen is still arranging overflight permits for Cuba, the company is currently unable to support – or become involved – with any private GA flights to the island.
While the Caribbean and Bahamas remain easy and not too restrictive operating environments, parking and crew accommodation availability are often challenging, particularly for short-notice ops during peak holiday periods. SXM (St Maarten, Netherland Antilles) often fills up and turns away GA flights. Even BGI, which used to be wide open in terms of parking availability, turned away aircraft last season.
“It’s important to request parking and book crew accommodations as early as possible,” says Goddard. “But if you must make a shorter-notice or pop-up trip, we recommend holding off on hotel reservations until you’re sure you’re coming, as accommodation cancellation polices during high season are very strict.”
“Additional pre-planning is always recommended for operations to more out-of-the-way Caribbean and Bahama locations,” adds Kang. “Going into a very small location in this region takes additional planning and often involves some challenges, but this seldom is a deal breaker.”