By Daniel Massey
The dream began 14 years ago when Sudarsh Singh worked in the maintenance and engineering department at Pan American World Airways and it was so powerful that not even the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could put a dent in it.
Fed up with what he called a second-class level of service offered on flights from the United States to Guyana and Trinidad, Singh wanted to start an airline that would put customers first on a route to the two countries.
“They’re accustomed to a certain standard flying from New York to Chicago,” said Singh, who was born in Guyana. “Why when they fly from New York to Georgetown should that standard disappear?”
What seemed a fantasy 14 years ago is now less than one month from becoming reality. On Oct. 24 the U.S. Department of Transportation deemed Universal Airlines financially and operationally qualified to begin scheduled passenger flights between the United States and Georgetown, Guyana.
It is the first new airline to be certified in New York since JetBlue was granted permission to fly in February 2000, according to DOT spokeswoman Arlene Salach.
Its first flight will leave JFK Airport for Georgetown via Port of Spain, Trinidad Dec. 13. The airline plans to operate five flights weekly from Thursday through Monday. Twice a week, the flights will stop in Parimaribo, Surinam.
Eventually, the airline plans to offer trips departing from Miami. Singh, its president, said partnerships with other airlines, such as British Airways, could soon stretch Universal’s reach as far as Europe. He said it has also petitioned the Guyanese government to become the national airline of the South American nation.
A round trip ticket starts at $549 to Trinidad and $629 to Guyana.
Singh, who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, started a successful trucking company when Pan Am folded in 1991. He plans to transfer that winning formula to the airline industry, noting that Universal officials have meticulously researched every conceivable aspect of running the business.
Singh believes Guyana and Trinidad have always been underserved markets. “All majors toss them to the side,” he said. “Our aim is to change that.”
He kicks off each day at the Universal Airlines office off Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill by leading his employees in a chant of “open a market, expand a market, dominate a market.”
Travel from Guyana and Trinidad to New York is now serviced by North American Airlines and British West Indies Airlines.
Even though many airlines have experienced a drop in passengers traveling since the Sept. 11 attacks, Singh said he is not worried “Most ethnic markets haven’t been affected,” he said.
If early sales are any indication, the fledgling airline will succeed despite the public’s reluctance to fly. After only one week of advertising in local Caribbean newspapers, the company had by last Thursday taken more than 500 reservations.
But Singh said the airline, owned by two Guyanese women and governed by a board of directors, is not in it for the money. “This didn’t come about because some people had an idea to make money and put it together,” he said. You don’t do aviation for the love of money.”
He said the airline was founded for the people of Guyana, Trinidad and Surinam. From the menu to the schedule, Singh said everything has been organized with an eye toward making travel comfortable for them. Singh said airline personnel from upper management to reservation agents— all Guyanese, Trinidadians and Surinamese — know the customer because they are that customer.
Late morning departure and early morning arrival in Guyana were implemented to make it easier for passengers from rural areas to get to and from the airport, he said.
The plane that will fly the route is a Boeing 767-300ER, manufactured in 1995, an aircraft with significant cargo capacity.
Passengers will be permitted to check two pieces of luggage weighing 70 pounds each, a more generous allotment than most airlines, to accommodate passengers who bring items to family members.
“Most people don’t want people carrying extra bags,” Singh said. They want somebody wearing sandals who throws one bag into the overhead compartment.”
To maximize passenger comfort, Singh said Universal opted for 243 seats on the plane instead of the full capacity of more than 300.
While he said the menu was a surprise, Singh did hint that traditional dishes would be offered. “What’s being served now is not for West Indians,” he said. “Chicken curry does not mean chicken with curry powder sprinkled on it.”
Last Thursday a sign in the Richmond Hill office read “T-minus 34,” referring to the number of days until takeoff for the airline.
For Singh, the realization of a 14-year dream is near.
Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.