Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley speaking at a press conference at the Scarborough Library Facility, Tobago.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has confirmed that big airlines have been using strong-arm tactics to force Caricom countries to open their borders or miss out on winter tourism.

In response to questions from Guardian Media last week, the American Airlines corporate office in Houston Texas confirmed that at the request of Caricom, it met with only two Caribbean islands to “discuss the re-opening of borders.”

So far, Barbados and St Lucia have discussed re-opening borders to allow American Airlines flights.

While Rowley did not respond to questions sent by Guardian Media on the issue on June 16, he addressed the matter during the COVID-19 update in Tobago over the weekend.

“The borders remain closed. That is what has kept us where we are. We will keep them closed as long as there is a health requirement,” Rowley said.

“Outside of us, the pandemic is raging.”

Rowley also confirmed that he spoke with Caricom heads of Government about the re-opening of the borders.

“A lot of pressure is on our Caricom neighbours now to open their borders under the understanding that if they don’t do it now, they won’t be able to do it for another six months and they’d miss the winter season, so you better get on board now. That is the kind of pressure my colleagues are under,” he said.

“The airlines are making that offer, if you want to get in on the winter transport, if things get better, you may find that you have no transport if your system gets better.”

He added, “But small countries are always under pressure. As you know, we are a small country in this world and at the end of the day, nobody is looking out for us.”

Last week, after regional reports surfaced of American Airlines trying to pressure some Caribbean countries to reopen their borders, Guardian Media sent questions to American Airlines and was told the company was invited by Caricom to speak to two countries.

“At the request of Caricom, we met with several Barbados and St Lucia Government officials including Barbados Prime Minister (Mia) Mottley and St Lucia Prime Minister (Allan) Chastanet to discuss the re-opening of borders,” the company representative said yesterday in response to questions from Guardian Media.

The company said the meeting was facilitated by the International Air Transport Association.

“The International Air Transport Association (IATA) hosted a meeting with carriers that serve the region and presented a plan that harmonizes the requirements for resumption of service, not only in the Caribbean but worldwide. We strongly support this approach,” American Airlines said.

According to a report by 268today, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gastone Browne was quoted as saying that American Airlines read the “riot act” to the Caribbean countries and that some islands were told to provide a firm reopening date or they would be left out of the airline’s roster until November.

According to the article, while Browne did not say whether Antigua and Barbuda was among the islands that acquiesced, the island’s airport reopened on June 1 and its first international flight was an AA flight from Miami three days later.

American Airlines said the company has “a long and proud history in the Caribbean” with an over 50-year history in the Caribbean.

Before the CCVID-19 lockdown, American had as many as 108 daily flights to 38 destinations in the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Bermuda.

“Our airline and our team members take pride in the work they do, as they understand that aviation plays an important role, not only connecting families and loved ones and helping transport critical goods, but we also play a vital role in supporting tourism, a major economic engine for the region,” it said.

The company said that as travel restrictions went into place due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it continued to fly to St Thomas, St Croix and San Juan.

“Most recently resumed operations in Antigua and Jamaica,” the airline said.

American Airlines said while it only met with two Caribbean leaders, it is eager to resume flights to the entire Caribbean.

“We look forward to continuing to resume our operations in the Caribbean in the coming months,” American said.

According to the airline’s website, American Airlines had 108 daily flights to 38 destinations in the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Bermuda.

Yesterday, another large airline announced the beginning of flights into the Caribbean. London-based Virgin Atlantic said it was expected to begin flying into Tobago by October. (See page 15)

Guardian Media requested more information from Virgin Atlantic about whether there was any discussion on the October border opening with the T&T Government and though it did not directly answer the question, it said the company was continually reviewing its flight programme.

“As a result, we are planning to restart our Tobago flights in October 2020,” it said.