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Caribbean Fare Wars

This fall, as Americans start planning their winter vacations to the Caribbean, they'll have more choices than usual when booking their flights. American Airlines is finally seeing its market dominance challenged by a clutch of Caribbean and U.S. competitors. These carriers—Air Jamaica, Jet Blue, and Delta's Song among them—are still a long way from challenging American's Caribbean position, but the added routes and beefed-up services are providing travelers with a welcome wider range of flights and fares.

The most aggressive arriviste, low-fare airline JetBlue, recently began expanding service to the Caribbean with flights from JFK to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The carrier is also slated to launch service to Nassau, the Bahamas, in November and has applied for Department of Transportation permission to begin flying to Jamaica and Bermuda—both AA destinations. "We couldn't imagine being a New York carrier without a strong Caribbean presence," says JetBlue spokesman Gareth Jones. At press time, JetBlue had yet to determine prices on its new routes. A second low-fare carrier, Song, will inaugurate its international service in early December with daily nonstop flights between JFK and Nassau; round-trip fares will start at $278. According to Ron Kuhlmann, vice president at Unisys Transportation Consulting in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, travelers can anticipate decreased fares and increased flight frequency.

Kingston-based Air Jamaica has added to its North America-Caribbean capacity by 17 percent just this year. New 2004 routes—Atlanta to St. Lucia and nonstop New York to Antigua and Toronto to Montego Bay—mean that Air Jamaica now operates more nonstop flights from North America to the Caribbean than any other carrier, including the only one between New York and the island of Grenada. Air Jamaica also launched jet service from Montego Bay to Nassau and Grand Cayman this year and, most crucially, strengthened its alliance with U.S. partner Delta Airlines.

Air Jamaica has another important competitive edge: a hub at the ever-expanding Montego Bay airport. Unlike most U.S. airlines' Caribbean hubs, Air Jamaica's is directly linked to major U.S. gateways and to nearly every corner of the Caribbean. "The other U.S. carriers do not have a Caribbean network, but rather Caribbean spokes from their hubs," says Kuhlmann. And while American still flies turboprop aircraft to connecting islands, Air Jamaica often flies jets.

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