Once upon a time, our national airline was branded as ‘the little piece of Jamaica that flies’. These days, it’s the piece of Jamaica that has flown into the eager arms of Caribbean Airlines. Yes, I know we’re supposed to be celebrating the merger as a happy marriage. This is regional integration at its best, we’re told.
But I can’t help feeling that this arranged marriage is not an act of pure love. Air Jamaica appears to have been sold off as an unattractive, pauperised bride. And her father – not ‘Butch’ Stewart, but all of us taxpayers – have had to fork over a rather high dowry to Caribbean Airlines for the privilege of taking her off our hands.
I used to be a devoted Air Jamaica customer. The airline completely understood the Jamaican psyche. It accommodated all of our bag and baggage. Air Jamaica is the only airline I know that took head luggage and finger luggage. I once saw a woman on a flight with about five hats on her head. And so many of us took on-board so many more bags than the regulation one piece of hand luggage! We obviously had decided that these extra bags were quite legitimate finger luggage.
My loyalty to Air Jamaica didn’t blind me to the many failures of the carrier – though I must say straight off that the airline’s safety record has been impeccable. That’s the most important thing. And no other pilot in the world can land a plane more gently than an Air Jamaica aviator. The recent crash of the Caribbean Airlines plane in Guyana is instructive:
It was the hauling and pulling, particularly during peak holiday seasons, that taxed the loyalty of even the most faithful Air Jamaica passenger. One Christmas, after being ‘batter-bruised’ by excruciatingly long delays, my sister, Donnette, came up with a wicked analogy to vent her frustration.
Flying with Air Jamaica was like being in a relationship with an abusive man. You stay because you are so committed to the idea of commitment. You become a co-dependent. Now that Air Jamaica no longer flies to Baltimore/Washington, my sister has been unwillingly emancipated.
Last month, as I tried to get a flight to DC, I was forced to consider the alternative carriers. My first ‘choice’ was American Airlines. They now have the monopoly on the best routes out of Kingston. But they do not have a monopoly on safety. Like that Caribbean Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane that overshot the runway, an American Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash-landed in Kingston almost two years ago in similar rainy circumstances:
Because I was booking late, the American Airlines fares were extortionate. I hadn’t realised that summer is ‘dig-out-eye’ season and I was not prepared to pay over US$1,200 for an economy-class ticket. So I was forced to contemplate the brave new world of ‘cheap’ air travel.
I first tried AirTran and got a quite decent fare from MoBay to DC and back to Miami. But I couldn’t understand why the fare from Miami to MoBay was almost double that of the entire outward route. Guess why? The return flight was via Chicago! So that was the end of that.
I next checked out Spirit, the notoriously cheap airline. I had never flown with them, but I knew their reputation. One of my friends, who owns a nursing agency in Maryland, tried to get a Jamaican employee to take a flight on Spirit. The woman turned up her nose and imperiously declared, “Mi naa fly pon no duppy airline.” The casual wit of so-called ‘ordinary’ Jamaican people is remarkable.
I decided to take my chance on the ‘duppy’ airline. I was going to DC for several reasons. Indigo, a seductive book written by one of my former students, Catherine McKinley, was going to be launched at the Smithsonian and I wanted to be there to celebrate the occasion. Catherine had come to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, in 1987 as an exchange student from Sarah Lawrence College and her talent was obvious even then. Catherine lovingly documents the meandering story of one of the world’s most valued pigments, the bluest of blues.
My friend Beverley East, who offers creative-writing workshops in her ‘Writer’s Lounge’ in DC, was hosting a book party for Catherine and asked me to introduce her. Beverley is a much-in-demand graphologist who wrote the best-selling Finding Mr Write: A New Slant on Selecting the Perfect Mate. She’s also the author of Reaper of Souls, a novel based on the Kendal crash in which several members of her family perished.
I was also going to participate in a round-table discussion on ‘Discovering Rastafari!’, an exhibition which has been mounted at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum for the last four years.
Curated by resident anthropologist Jake Homiak, the Discovering Rastafari! exhibition has attracted huge crowds. Dr Jahlani Niaah, a UWI colleague who is on a fellowship at the Smithsonian, completing his book on Rastafari masculinities, had invited me to the round table.
Quite frankly, I was one of the naysayers who had objected to the curator’s use of the exclamatory ‘discovering’. It imaged that presumptuous fiction of finding the peoples of the Americas who were not lost, like Columbus. It also turned Rastafari into exotic creatures on display. We didn’t manage to have the formal conversation Jahlani had planned; but I did revisit the exhibition.
I also wanted to stop over in Fort Lauderdale for a family reunion. My paternal grandmother was a Dowdie, and the clan was gathering there. So I needed to make a multi-city booking. But because Spirit doesn’t offer that option online, I had to speak to an agent. I discovered that some of them specialise in misinformation. And that’s just the start of a rather long tale of woe. Suffice it to say, I took my maiden voyage on the ‘duppy’ airline and the spirits rode me all night.