Hidden Gem Airlines Spotlight: An Interview with Winair’s CEO Hans van de Velde
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Hidden Gem Airlines Spotlight: An Interview with Winair’s CEO Hans van de Velde

April 26

Can you provide an overview of your experience in the aviation industry and what inspired you to become the CEO of an airline operating in the Caribbean?

I joined the TUI group in 2002, managing the call centre and eventually overseeing operations at Arkefly, the Dutch airline of TUI. My passion for the aviation industry grew as I immersed myself in its dynamic, international environment. After seven years, I was appointed as the managing director of Arkefly. Seeking new challenges, I embarked on my first international adventure outside of the Netherlands, serving as COO and later CEO at TUI France, while also managing TUI Morocco. In 2023, I went back into the aviation industry with an opportunity to become the managing director at Winair in St. Maarten.

Winair has a rich history dating back several decades. Could you share an overview of the airline's journey, key milestones, and how it has evolved to meet the changing needs of travellers in the Caribbean?

Founded in 1961, Winair is the Caribbean's oldest airline, initially focusing on connecting small islands around St. Maarten. Winair then introduced the Twin Otter aircraft to the region, marking a significant milestone in its legacy. In 2010, with St. Maarten's emerging role as a tourism hub, Winair saw an opportunity and expanded its operations by entering codeshare agreements with international carriers and introducing larger aircraft like ATRs. This strategic shift led to significant growth, with Winair now operating a modern fleet and offering interline and codeshare partnerships, connecting 15 Caribbean Islands to the rest of the world. 

What do you consider to be the unique challenges and opportunities of serving this region compared to other parts of the world?

Firstly, the islands are very small, with populations as small as 1500 people, making routes thin and profitability difficult to achieve. However, there is a significant demand for flights due to the dependency of many islands on air travel. Secondly, the region is prone to hurricanes and heavy winds, with short runways adding complexity to flying operations. Thirdly, there are restrictions around traffic rights, hindering efficiency. 

The Caribbean is renowned for its stunning beaches and diverse cultures. How does your airline contribute to promoting tourism and connectivity within the region?

As we expand our network, we actively collaborate on joint campaigns with tourism boards. Developing codeshare agreements is crucial for enhancing connectivity, and we expect to obtain the IOSA certification early next year to meet stricter partner requirements. These partnerships not only facilitate smoother operations but also significantly benefit the islands' promotional efforts. By partnering with larger airlines, we streamline booking processes for customers, increasing accessibility to diverse Caribbean destinations through our services.

What strategies has Winair implemented to adapt to the fluctuating demand for air travel and natural disasters that often impact the Caribbean?

To cope with natural disasters in the Caribbean, airlines maintain financial reserves and prepare for hurricanes by relocating aircraft to quieter regions. In the aftermath of disasters, they adjust fleets, leases, and flight schedules to navigate the recovery period. Despite challenges, there has been a post-COVID peak in travel demand, especially to the upscale destination of St. Barth. Looking ahead, there's room for growth as islands develop, but it's essential to remain responsive to evolving customer needs.

In your opinion, what sets Winair apart from competitors operating in the Caribbean market, and how do you ensure customer satisfaction and loyalty in such a competitive industry?

Winair distinguishes itself by prioritising punctuality and reliability. In a region where many airlines struggle with small fleets and operational challenges, our commitment to maintaining world-class on-time performance sets us apart and fosters customer loyalty. Additionally, we leverage interline agreements and codeshares to expand our network, offering customers seamless travel experiences, such as, for example, booking flights from New York to Dominica without the hassle of baggage transfers. 

As someone deeply involved in the aviation industry, what key trends do you foresee shaping the future of air travel, particularly in the Caribbean region?

Key trends shaping the future of air travel in the Caribbean include the push for open skies agreements to improve efficiency and connectivity. However, achieving this goal requires concerted efforts and collaboration among regional governments. Additionally, there is a growing demand for more affordable travel options and diverse tourism experiences across different islands, presenting opportunities for growth in the region. It is important for every island to define their own strategy to stand out.  

The Caribbean is home to beautiful destinations. What is your favourite spot in the Caribbean, and why?

St. Maarten holds a special place for me, having lived there for a year. Its distinctive blend of American, French, and Dutch cultures, alongside its diverse culinary scene, makes it truly unique. I believe it has great potential for further development. Dominica also stands out with its breathtaking natural beauty, making it a rising destination for ecotourism and outdoor adventures.

Celebrities often travel to the Caribbean for leisure or work. Can you share any memorable experiences or instances where celebrities have flown with Winair?

Over the past 20 years, St Barth has established itself as THE island for the rich and famous. We've had instances where celebrities generously tip flight crew or charter entire flights. In some cases, our 19-seater aircraft has been chartered for just one person seeking a private flight experience. Several islands in the region, like Nevis and Anguilla, are trying to emulate St Barth’s model to cater to an upscale clientele.

What’s in the future for Winair? 

Winair is committed to expanding its fleet and opening new destinations in the Caribbean, with plans to introduce routes to Barbados, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent in the coming months. We will then have the largest intra Caribbean network. Strengthening partnerships with major carriers and potentially expanding into jet services are also on the horizon, aiming to further enhance connectivity and accessibility in the region while ensuring continued growth and success for the airline.