Aug. 2, 2002 – The Virgin Islands has received a jarring blow from the airline industry, one that is expected to affect a large portion of travelers to and from the territory and further cripple its troubled tourism market.
All of the nation's major air carriers very quietly last month discontinued their senior coupon programs that had allowed anyone at least 62 years of age to fly within the United States at deeply discounted rates. The move represents a major financial setback not only to V.I. and Puerto Rico seniors, but to anyone else 62 or older who travels to the islands.
American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways each had their own version of the booklets. Valid for one year, they contained four coupons good for one-way travel anywhere within the continental United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Two coupons were required for travel to Hawaii or Alaska. The booklets sold for about $675, varying with each airline. So, a round-trip from the territory to San Francisco and back, for instance, would cost about $340.
Although the programs have been discontinued nationwide, the Virgin Islands will suffer the most. The reason given by the airlines for the move is that many fares available to the general public are now cheaper than the coupons. This may be true in some parts of the country, but from the Virgin Islands, it costs at least $350 round trip to get to Miami, the nearest U.S. mainland airport, on top of the cost to one's actual destination beyond Miami.
Derryle Berger, vice president of Caribbean Travel, is incensed by the move. "It is a huge disservice to seniors, but particularly to the V.I. and Puerto Rico," she said. "It shows how little they truly care about their market. It hurts, and it hurts big."
Caribbean Travel, which opened in 1962, is the territory's oldest travel agency, and it has a large and loyal following. Berger, who was raised on St. Thomas and now works out of her new Florida home, said the consequences will be far-reaching. "We sell around 350 senior travel booklets a year," she said. "Now, what are our customers going to do?"
The argument that today's low fares are sometimes cheaper than the coupon booklets is "specious, as far as I'm concerned," Berger said. "That may be true for someone in California, but what about the Caribbean?"
And, she said, it won't just affect outbound residents. "Loads of people here in Florida use the booklets to travel to the V.I. at least a couple times a year," she said, noting the state's large expatriate population from the territory. There was a time when the islands "were the favored stepchildren, but we're not any more," she said. "The airlines have no regard whatsoever for taking care of people in the Caribbean, or their economy."
Further, Berger said, "It's a double-edged sword. We have people with a home or a business on St. Thomas who have a home in the U.S. People have made decisions on living in the islands, buying a condo there, because they can travel cheaply back and forth. I've had people buy as many as 20 coupon books a year. Now people will be lucky to afford one trip a year."
She said she was surprised not to have heard "a peep" from AARP — the American Association of Retired Persons. "That's the American association," she said. "We are part of America, and people should start raising holy hell."
Local AARP official urges action
If Denyce Singleton, AARP state director for the Virgin Islands, has anything to say about it, AARP members will be doing just that. Singleton urged all members to call the national headquarters and register a complaint, while making it clear that this is a "suggestion."
"We do not have the right to tell anyone how to develop rules. Whether they follow through, we're not sure, but at least we have made them aware of our voice," she said. "The situation has a totally different impact on us. We want to alert them that this is happening, and it doesn't impact all members equally."
The number for AARP members to call is (800) 424-3410, choosing option 5. Singleton noted, "You may have to explain what you're talking about, but be clear. Tell them you are lodging a complaint about the effect losing the senior discount travel books will have on you traveling from the Caribbean."
Singleton said the national AARP office documents all complaints and forwards them to the proper department. "This is going to impact those who have health problems more than most people," she said. "Travel is more than a luxury with a lot of residents who have to travel to the states for health care — to see a specialist, for instance, or have an operation."
She added, "We feel there is a definite possibility or opportunity to contract with the airlines and to add a senior discount as one of our member benefits, even if they up the age." The minimum age for AARP membership is 50.
AARP media spokesperson Tom Otwell in the association's Washington, D.C., office, said he was not aware of the impact the airlines' decision would have on the territory. He said he believed the association's agreement with USAir and Virgin Atlantic Airways was still intact, and for that reason, he said, AARP had not taken a public stand.
Source research found that Virgin Atlantic and USAir still do offer an AARP discount, but not a senior discount. But a USAir official said its AARP discount applies only to certain markets. Neither airline now offers coupon booklets, and prospective travelers must already be in the states to take advantage of the discount offers. Otwell could not be reached Friday afternoon for response to this information.
Lack of information adds to anxiety
Judith Grybowski, who taught nursing at the University of the Virgin Islands for 30 years and is now a professor emeritus, and her husband, Kirk, have become inveterate travelers since their retirement.
"It's another slap in the face to the Caribbean," Grybowski said of the canceled coupon programs. "It will greatly hamper my travel and that of my friends. In fact, about 10 of us just finished talking about it at lunch. Many people are right now rethinking their lives at this point; there's no question."
She said many friends who maintain homes both in the territory and in the states soon may not be doing that. "These people made decisions based on reasonable travel benefits," she said.
Grybowski said she was one of the lucky ones who heard about the booklets being discontinued. She managed to get a couple of the last ones available from Continental Airlines on Monday, the airline's final day for selling them.
She noted the airlines' lack of publicity or information about the move. "I had a long wait in line" at Cyril E. King Airport, she said, "and all sorts of older residents were coming to find out if the coupons they'd already purchased were good. The anxiety this produced is unconscionable. My heart reached out to them."
Further, "We know that agents at the counters didn't even know what was going on, and it's the same thing online," Grybowski said. "There's no question they don't know what they're doing. An 87-year-old traveler I know was just getting mad and angry."
The airlines' online Web pages as of Thursday and Friday still offered little information, with some still listing their coupon booklets as an option.
Hawaii has new appeal
Another frequent flier hard hit was Source columnist and editor Frank Jordan. A retired UVI journalism professor, he now divides his time between homes on St. Croix and in San Francisco.
Using American Airlines senior coupons, Jordan has traveled back and forth five or six times a year at a co
st of $338, including federal tax, for each round trip. Now, he said, he faces paying $600 or $1,055 or even $1,500 for the same round trip, depending on length of stay. The winter rates will be even higher, he has been told.
"I think I hear Hawaii calling," Jordan said.
Debby Hodge, manager of Southerland Travel's St. Croix office, was sympathetic to Jordan's plight. "American Airlines is cutting off their nose to spite their face," Hodge said. "They're looking in all the wrong places to make cuts. And, make no mistake about it, this will be a severe setback to the local economy on St. Croix."
According to an online article in the July 13 Washington Post travel section, Carole Grewe, a travel agent with Travel Networks in Arlington Heights, Illinois, said she did not notice the missing discount until she tried to reserve an American flight for a customer the day before. "They didn't even let travel agents know they were doing this," she told the Post. "This is going to hurt senior citizens."
Northwest Airlines gave as its reason for halting the sale of senior coupon books that it no longer wanted to allow the discounts "on top of already heavily discounted fares," the Post said.
However, Southwest Airlines said it was not touching its senior fares. A representative said Friday that the airline has no coupon booklets, but provides discounted fares for seniors. For instance, the fare from Fort Lauderdale to MacArthur Airport on Long Island would be $127 each way, he said. For Virgin Islanders, however, that would be on top of at least $350 round trip to get to Fort Lauderdale and back.
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