Air Jamaica Suspends Flights to Eastern Caribbean for a Month

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) -- Air Jamaica has suspended flights to three eastern Caribbean countries for a month in an effort to comply with local safety regulations, the latest in a series of setbacks for the struggling carrier.

Air Jamaica announced Friday that it was pulling service to Grenada, St. Lucia and Barbados to meet the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority's new maintenance guidelines.

The decision came a month after Air Jamaica pulled half its 20 planes out of service and canceled several U.S. and Britain-bound flights after a U.S. Federal Aviation audit raised questions about the airline's maintenance schedule.

The FAA insisted Air Jamaica carry out major maintenance to planes every 15 months instead of every 18 months. The local aviation authority is now making the same requirement, Air Jamaica said.

The flight cancelations last month cost the airline millions of dollars, Air Jamaica executive chairman Vin Lawrence said at the time. He had said he hoped the airline would resume normal operations this month with a fleet of 15 planes.

Air Jamaica officials could not immediately be reached for further comment.

The latest flight suspensions are likely to slow tourist arrivals - both Caribbean visitors and foreigners traveling to Jamaica from neighboring islands, said Godfrey Dyer, the president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourism Association.

''It certainly will have a negative impact because there's a fair amount of traffic coming from the other islands, especially from North America,'' he said.

Grenadian officials were also worried, noting that Air Jamaica is the only provider of nonstop flights between the United States and an island struggling to recover from Hurricane Ivan in September.

''The U.S. is an important market for Grenada,'' said William Joseph, the director of the Grenada Board of Tourism. ''Air Jamaica is a major provider of airlift into Grenada from the U.S. and therefore any suspension or loss will impact us significantly.''

The government regained control of Air Jamaica on Dec. 23 from a consortium led by hotelier Gordon ''Butch'' Stewart, who was credited with modernizing the airline but criticized for failing to stop major losses caused by high fuel costs and fewer customers since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

The airline's new board of directors is leading a major restructuring plan that includes cutting employees' salaries, trimming staff size by 10 percent and reducing or eliminating some flights.

The government had said it would try to sell the airline this year, but Lawrence has said the restructuring would likely keep Air Jamaica under state control for several years, possibly through 2010.

The board is seeking US$255 million (Jamaican $15.6 billion) in loans to help finance the airline. Its debt stands at about US$890 million (Jamaican $54.5 billion), slightly less than half of which is owed to the government.

Associated Press Writer Michael Bascombe contributed to this report from Grenada

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