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Expensive Airfares to Puerto Rico’s Vieques and Culebra explained

Many locals, travelers, and tourists in Vieques and Culebra are complaining about expensive airfares to and from these municipalities within the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

The issue is a hot and sensitive subject where solutions are currently sought.

The Vieques and Culebra air service challenge

Google map of Vieques and Culebra

This sensitive issue is about certain routes served within Puerto Rico. The routes in focus are between San Juans’ Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport and the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.

Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport is the main aerial gateway of Puerto Rico.

Getting around by air within Puerto Rican municipalities can be more expensive than going from Puerto Rico to Florida!

The economies of i.e. the Florida Keys and the Nantucket Island (by Cape Cod) are different from Vieques and Culebra.

As a matter of fact, the economies of the Puerto Rico municipalities of Vieques and Culebra don’t compare at all.

Why can’t the feeder airlines scale it to the likes of the Florida Keys, Nantucket or St. Thomas?

Runway length is your answer!

Reporter Frances Rosario from Puerto Rico’s leading newspaper Primera Hora (First Hour) asked about the consumer fare problem in a fantastic report.

Disclaimer: The video reporting was done in Spanish with the interview highlights translated here.

Carlos Rodriguez, the President of Vieques Air Link understands the differences in the economy of scale.

Mr. Rodriguez stated in the video:

“One has to understand that your operational cost when you talk about bigger aircraft, is going to be much lower. As the industry looks at it, we look at it from Cost Per Available Seat Mile (CASM), or the cost per seat- perspective.

If one has a jet with 100 seats and it costs you X in operating that jet, then you divide that cost by 100 passengers.

So if you take a flight in a jet from San Juan to St. Thomas it is going to be cheaper than flying from San Juan to the island municipalities of Vieques & Culebra in a small turboprop. The turboprop only carries 6 to 7 passengers at an average”.

VAL Airlines
Photo credit: VAL

My analysis of the situation

Mr. Rodriguez is right, the CASM has always been the industry metric in checking cost for a specific airline. The cost for those airlines can be around anywhere from $0.06 to $0.09 per mile.

But for feeders like Vieques Air Link, that value can be much higher. In the video, he states that his operational cost is around dollars instead of cents. That, in turn, exponentially increases ticket prices.

In the video, he further states: “It can be anywhere from $2.85 to $4.00 per mile.” 

As an example, the runway at Key West International Airport (EYW) is over 5,000 feet long, according to the airport diagram (courtesy of the FAA). The Nantucket Airport (ACK) has three runways with the longest being over 6,300 feet.

For St. Thomas the runway length is 7,000 feet.

If we were to compare this with Vieques it only has about 4,300 feet of runway, according to AirNav.

Culebra in turn is half of that length, at 2,600 feet.

For this reason, there can be flights served by main as well as feeder airlines into the airports of the islands from within the contiguous United States.

Leading airlines to a destination like St. Thomas means a drop in prices. In the island municipalities of Vieques & Culebra service is more independent as competition is more scarce.

Can we compare this to airports like St. Thomas and/or Orlando?

We can certainly look at it as a guideline, and it would confirm the theory that the longer the runway an airport has better the competition is. But that would be like comparing apples and pears.

Benjamin Rivera Noriega Airport, Culebra. Photo courtesy of TomTom/Apple Maps

At least for Culebra, nothing can be done in terms of expansion as the main road (PR-251) passes from the city center to Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco). Unless they were to plan some type of air bridge (which isn’t on the cards as of yet) then there would be no way to expand the runway length in Culebra.

For Vieques, there could be an option to relocate the Antonio Rivera Rodriguez Airport to where the abandoned Marine Corps Air Station Camp Garcia once was. It is east of Sun Bay Beach in the middle of the island.

MCAS Camp Garcia, Vieques
The old MCAS Camp Garcia runway’s condition as of September 2009. Special thanks to Paul Hudson for the aerial photography and Paul Freeman for his website: Abandoned & Little known Airfields.

The runway of 5,000 feet can easily be extended an additional minimum of 2,000 feet if the F.A.A. and the Puerto Rico government were actually worried about the airfare prices on the island.

Carlos Rodriguez continues by saying:

“Even when our aircraft has space for 9 passengers, because of weight restrictions by the F.A.A., we can only accommodate 6-7 passengers per flight. We can rarely sit 9 passengers in a flight.

In an example, there is the Cessna 402 (which is a small turboprop aircraft) we use for Vieques, St. Thomas, and St. Croix. But we cannot utilize that aircraft to land in Culebra because of the runway length that is too short”.

The local newspaper First Hour (Primera Hora) did an exercise by checking quotes for air and sea travel for spring break (from April 26-28).

Courtesy of the former Puerto Rico Tourism Administrator and owner of travel agency Cruceros to go (or Cruise ship to go) Daphnie Daphne Barbeito

Here are the results of the fare quotes

High airfares of Puerto Rico's Vieques and Culebra
“It is expensive.” The owner of Vieques Air Link (VAL) recognizes the high operating cost of his airline. That is what he said when he talked exclusively to the Puerto Rico newspaper Primera Hora (First Hour) over the reasons for the high cost of travel between the Puerto Rican mainland and the island municipalities of Vieques & Culebra.
Photo courtesy of Xavier Araujo/GFR Media.

From the Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport to the island municipality of Vieques

  • Cape Air: $398
  • Seaborne: $275

From New York Kennedy (JFK), connecting at Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport to Vieques

  • JetBlue: $741.40
  • United: $811.80
  • Delta: $2,138.20

From the Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport to the island municipality of Culebra

  • Cape Air: $195

From the former Roosevelt Roads Airport (Jose Aponte de la Torre) to:

  • Vieques: $80 (Flight time: 7 minutes) 
  • Culebra: $100 (Flight time: 15 minutes)

…versus the Water Ferry to the islands

  • Vieques: $2 (Trip duration: 30 minutes) 
  • Culebra: $2.25 (Trip duration: 45 minutes)

Does this type of operation have its customers?

Carlos states in the video that his operation has its customers and that the ferry has its customers as there are two different customer segments. He continues by saying:

“If the ferry service was as it is supposed to be, many people would utilize the ferry instead of the airplane, but by necessity, customers need to utilize our service.”

However, people ask me whether I’m happy that the ferry service isn’t working to standards? I answered no because we have our own customer segment and I cannot compare myself with the cost of the ferry.

If subsequently, the ferry does not work as needed, then we all failed as the bad publicity would affect us as well.”

The ferry service to Vieques and Culebra

The ferry service to Vieques and Culebra has been the eternal nightmare to residents and tourists trying to enjoy the beauty these islands can offer.

It hasn’t been until now that the government has been able to fix that problem.

Governor Ricardo along with the Administrator of the Maritime Transport Authority, Mara Perez Torres, have been ready to launch a pilot program to sell the tickets. This allows ferry tickets to be sold via the world wide web at the portal porferry.com.

The island municipality of Culebra

In 2018 tourism figures were up by more than 11% percent from where they were in 2017, and 78% more than they were during the same week of Easter and Passover in 2018.

This information was provided by the Puerto Rico government via Noticel last week.

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Next steps

If all goes well around July, the government will find a private operator to provide the service through a P3 alliance (Public-Private Partnership) according to Primera Hora.

In addition, a report done by Oscar Perez Mendez under the same newspaper talks about the Puerto Rico government initiating the process to find a P3 partner (Public-Private Partnership).

In the short term, the goal is to get the responsibilities of operations and maintenance galvanized within the alliance for long-term operation of Puerto Rico’s nine regional airports.

Vieques and Culebra are included in the nine regional airports of Puerto Rico.  

Disclaimer: Reporting was translated from Spanish.

My visit to Culebra and St. Thomas

I lived in Puerto Rico for 16 years of my life before going to the mainland U.S.

A while back I returned to a visit to Ensenada Honda in Culebra, considered one of the natural harbors of the world, as well as St. Thomas.

The trip was spent on my father’s boat at top speed to get to Amalie/St. Thomas. The boat ride to St. Thomas took 35-40 minutes to complete, before returning back.

It’s a pity that we don’t have ferry service to the U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I.) from Ceiba, Puerto Rico since we share so much of our culture.

I’ll talk more about why we don’t have another method of transport to U.S.V.I. from Puerto Rico in another article.

Closing Arguments

I understand the detrimental cost attribution to utilize the more expensive Avgas used in spark-ignited internal combustion airplane type engines.

The cheaper JP-3 fuel is used by larger commercial jet airliners, while the more expensive Avgas is often used by the types of airplanes flown by airlines, such as Vieques Air Link.

As an aspiring entrepreneur of an airline in the future, Carlos Rodriguez is correct on all the points he has made in the Primera Hora article.

However, we cannot complain to these airline-feeder owners. They are not at fault. Residents on both islands’ governments and both sides of the spectrum have come with proposals to expand their respective airports. But the residents have been against and skeptical of their benefits.

As long as the residents on both island municipalities maintain their skepticism and wariness towards expanding their airport or relocating it (at least in Vieques) then the cost of the ticket will remain at $2.85 to $4.00 per mile.

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