With its maiden voyage scheduled for midnight, a
Queens-based start-up airline attempts to take flight at a time when its
industry is experiencing massive economic turbulence.
Universal Airlines, based in Richmond Hill, makes its inaugural flight from
Kennedy Airport to Georgetown, Guyana, tonight, the first of what will be five
weekly flights to the South American country. It will replace Guyana Airways
2000 - which in May suspended operations indefinitely - as that country's
national airline, said Davanand Singh, legal counsel to the airline.
Singh, a former Queens assistant district attorney, acknowledged that with
the U.S. economy in recession, plus the added fallout of decreased airline
travel since Sept. 11, Universal faces some high hurdles.
"This is a family-owned operation. It's quite difficult, but it's also
challenging and rewarding," Singh said. "We don't have the benefits of TWA or
American Airlines. It's difficult, if anything."
Universal also plans to have stops in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago;
the Suriname capital of Parimaribo; and Margarita Island, off the coast of
Venezuela. Singh said only two carriers currently offer regular service to
Guyana: BWIA and North American.
According to its October application to the U.S. Department of
Transportation, seeking approval to fly into and out of the United States,
Universal is owned by two Guyanese sisters, Chandramatie Harpaul and Ramashree
Singh, each of whom has a 50-percent share. The latter's husband, Sudarshan
Singh, is the company's president and the brother of Davanand Singh.
Universal has one plane, a Boeing 767, which it is leasing from LOT Polish
Airlines. Originally, the plane had 300 seats, but Universal removed a portion
of those to provide more room for passengers, leaving the plane with a capacity
of about 240. As of Sept. 25, the airline has assets totaling about $1.5
million, according to a document in Universal's DOT application.
It estimates revenues of $24.3 million in 2002, including $21.1 million in
ticket sales, based on an average price of $600 per round-trip ticket.
Guyanese travel home for the holidays, said Raymond Ally, who originally is
from Guyana and is co-chairman of Agenda 21, a merchants group in Queens.
Guyanese "always carry home lots of baggage," Ally said, a fact not lost on
Universal: Its news release announcing its approval from the U.S. DOT makes
note of the plane's "generous baggage allowance."
The addition of Universal "creates enough competition so that passengers
aren't forced to pay too high a price," Ally said.
Terry Moulton, managing director of the Manhattan-based consulting firm
Airline Capital Associates Inc., said he knows of no other recent examples of a
start-up airline created to serve as specific a market as Universal's.
Regardless, he said, the industry is not in good shape at the moment. He even
offered up the old joke that the best way to make a small fortune is to "start
off with a big one and invest in airlines."
"A start-up airline, if it has a niche, a good business plan and it
operates well within that niche, it should do OK, as long as it stays in that
niche," Moulton said. "It's kind of 'good luck' to them."