Defending Trinidad and Tobago Super League (TTSL) champions FC Santa Rosa were brought back down to earth somewhat on the weekend.
No, it wasn’t some 500-1 outsiders who shot them down but a high-flying airline that couldn’t quite manage to cater to the needs of thousands of passengers, including Keith Look Loy’s men, trying to make their way from Piarco to Tobago.
On the field of play, Santa Rosa usually prove gritty and often seem to be one step ahead of their opponents. However, the Arima-based contingent was not ready for the battle in Piarco on Sunday as a reported dispute between Caribbean Airlines Limited (CAL) and the Trinidad and Tobago Airlines Pilot Association (TTALPA) delayed their journey to the TTSL match against 1976 FC Phoenix by more than two hours.
Pilots, media reports earlier in the week stated, were taking strike action to express their concern at the continuing use of the French-made ATR aircraft CAL uses on the airbridge.
Spokespersons for both CAL and TTALPA have since denied that the pilots have undertaken any strike action.
“The Trinidad and Tobago Airlines Pilot Association (TTALPA) wishes to advise that it has been working assiduously with Caribbean Airlines Limited (CAL) in an effort to achieve optimum safety and efficiency in the operations in the ATR fleet of aircrafts,” a TTALPA media release stated. “Contrary to media reports, its pilots are not engaged in any form of industrial action.”
On Tuesday, CAL released a travel advisory, which stated that “Caribbean Airlines Limited (CAL) advises that several domestic flights between Trinidad and Tobago will be operated by [Boeing] 737 jet services.”
The ATRs, which are mainly used for domestic flights, have a seating capacity of roughly 70 while the Boeing aircraft are able to hold twice that. According to one pilot, the Boeing jets are built to cover longer distances than the ATR and also more fuel-efficient.
CAL’s Corporate Communications head, Dionne Ligoure, said that the airline was sincerely sorry for the inconvenience it may have caused to passengers over the weekend and noted that the delays came about owing to “crew constraints.” Deeming the events on the weekend an anomaly, Ligoure maintained that CAL transported all its passengers over the weekend, moving over 9,000 confirmed and standby persons.
Look Loy, Santa Rosa founder and interim president of the TTSL, was not amused at the treatment meted out to his team and the scores of travellers in Piarco on the weekend.
“Torturous,” is how he described his team’s experience on Sunday.
Santa Rosa were scheduled to play 1976 FC Phoenix from 5pm at the Canaan and Bon Accord ground and Look Loy noted that his team’s original flight time of 11.30am was pushed back to 1.30pm.
“It was a really sickening experience and no other club has been affected like us,” Look Loy said. “Like the national population and the population in Tobago in particular, we are dependent on the State for travel between the islands.
“To be honest, if I were a Tobagonian, and given what has happened with inter-island travel and transportation of goods for the past several months I would have been applying for independence because it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
After playing to a goalless draw with Phoenix, Look Loy’s side had to endure further setbacks as they never left Tobago until around 1am on Monday.
“This is a statement about the way the management of that state enterprise uses the public as a whole,” Look Loy declared to Wired868. “My understanding is that the pilots have been complaining about this issue with the small aircraft for the past two years.
“This is not a mechanical problem in a bus, this is not a mechanical problem in a car, this is a problem in a plane […] Their lives are at stake too so they have quite rightly taken a decision not to fly an aircraft—five of them—that is not worthy of flight in their professional opinion.”
Ligoure maintained that CAL was uncompromising when it came to the safety of all its passengers.
The TTSL currently pays CAL a monthly fee for the inter-island travel of its teams and Look Loy noted that the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs (MoSYA), from whom the League requested a subsidy to cover air travel, is no closer to settling this issue.
“Whatever the issues are [with CAL], they need to be resolved because we can’t be paying $70,000 a month in advance for tickets and we are left at the whims and fancies of the people who schedule flights,” Look Loy said. “I wrote a letter to Minister [Darryl Smith] on 10 May […]. To date, the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs has not responded to me.”
“We would appreciate the assistance of the Ministry of Sport and/or other state support for this aspect of our operation,” read Look Loy’s 10 May letter, also copied to Prime Minister Keith Rowley read. “Without state sponsorship of inter-island travel, the League would be forced to proceed without the Tobago clubs, which would be a disaster for the League [and] the twin-island republic.”
Phoenix and Bethel United, the two Tobago teams in the TTSL top flight, both had home games on the weekend and were not affected by the goings-on at the airport. Bethel defender and former national player Makan Hislop told Wired868 that, so far in the current TTSL season, it has generally been smooth sailing for his team as far as the airbridge is concerned.
However, Hislop went on to discuss to what air and seabridge disruptions could do to the Tobago economy.
“It’s very problematic for Tobago because we have been proclaimed as a tourism-based industry,” he told Wired868. “Over the last ten to fifteen years, we had a lot of international tourism [but] the bulk of Tobago’s tourism now comes locally from Trinidad and when you see the seabridge goes down, that takes a chunk out of the local tourism.
“[…] When the boat is giving problems, people who may want to come for five to six days change their plans because when they come across, it’s a lot of problems to go back…”
Wired868 reached out to Aisha Sylvester, a communications spokesperson for the Division of Tourism, Culture and Transportation, seeking a response on the current state of inter-island travel in the country. With the TT Express being the only passenger boat in operation on the seabridge at the moment, the Division of Tourism, Culture and Transportation sees the recent acquisition of the Ocean Flower 2 and the Cabo Star as a boost to inter-island movement.
“The ferry service does not fall under the purview of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA),” a response from Sylvester stated. “However, the THA has been working alongside Central Government to address the challenges faced by the domestic seabridge. The Division of Tourism, Culture and Transportation anticipates that the issues that have affected the service in recent times will soon be resolved as a result of the acquisition of a cargo and a passenger boat.
“The Division acknowledges that this has been a difficult time for all passengers who utilise the ferry service and the THA will continue to work in tandem with Central Government on this matter.”
The Cabo Star, which will reportedly cost the government US$22,500 per day, can accommodate roughly 120 passengers, which is expected to cater for the truckers who will be moving goods on the vessel.
With the Ocean Flower 2, a passenger boat, set to set to begin serving the seabridge by the end of this month, truckers, tourists and travelling locals, including footballers, will hope that the rough patch is now firmly behind them.