Airlift Reflects Rate of Recovery in Territory

Travelers waiting for a return of the relative ease of air travel between the Virgin Islands and various mainland destinations will have to wait a little longer, but Tourism officials say things are getting better.

“Airlines are directly tied to the number of rooms in your destination,” said Lisa Hamilton, president of the Virgin Islands Hotel and Tourism Association. “It’s supply and demand.”

Hotels need the airlines to bring in visitors. Airlines need the hotels to lure travelers. When the two balance, and the numbers are high, island residents have the benefit of multiple flight options and relatively reasonable airfares.

Things may be in balance currently, but the numbers are not high. Cheap fares and direct flights are hard to find.

Both hotel rooms and airlift plummeted after the 2017 hurricanes, of course. As hotels and resorts have been repaired and reopened, airlift has increased. Industry officials also were able to make a case that air carriers should take Airbnb bookings into consideration when scheduling flights.

Air capacity on St. Croix is actually ahead of pre-storm levels, according to Alani Henneman-Todman, director of Communications for the Tourism Department. But that island hosts only a fraction of the number of overnight guests that visit St. Thomas, and St. Thomas airlift is still about 20 percent lower than it was before the hurricanes.

While many small to medium sized hotels and some timeshare resorts are up and operating in the St. Thomas-St. John district, some of its largest hotels are still renovating. Frenchman’s Reef is not expected to reopen before mid to late 2020; Sugar Bay was still open only for relief workers this summer. And Caneel Bay is mired in a lease dispute.

One big St. Thomas property, the Ritz Carlton resort, is scheduled to open in December and Hamilton and Henneman-Todman both see that as a potential game-changer.

“At least we have a branded hotel,” Henneman-Todman said. It adds another 200 rooms to the island’s inventory, and she said that it’s already sold out until January or February.

“I really think the Ritz will spark more direct flights again,” she said.

Current projections for the upcoming tourism season are that St. Thomas will see 17,000 weekly seats, in comparison with the 23,000 weekly seats it saw before the storms, she said. The projection for St. Croix is 6,500 weekly seats – far above the 5,500 weekly seats it saw before the hurricanes.

Tourism keeps close tabs on airline offerings and regularly monitors actual flight schedules. A look at schedules Sept. 20 to Sept. 26 revealed no direct flights, Henneman-Todman said.

“All of them have stops,” she said.

But that will begin to change as the season approaches and then again when it goes into full swing.

Henneman-Todman provided the following overview of airlift for the season:

Into St. Croix there is nonstop service from Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and San Juan.
Into St. Thomas, there are nonstop flights from Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Newark, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Juan and Washington Dulles.
Spirit Airlines will continue four flights a week from Fort Lauderdale to St. Croix through November.
American Airlines has announced weekly year-round Saturday service to St. Thomas from Dallas-Fort Worth and seasonal Saturday service from Chicago beginning Dec. 21. It will also add a third daily flight between Miami and St. Thomas from Dec. 19 and has extended the Charlotte-St. Croix flights from Saturday-only to daily during the peak Christmas period, Dec. 18-Jan. 4.
United Airlines will serve the Chicago-St. Thomas market with weekly Saturday flights beginning Nov. 2.