Published On: Mon, Oct 30th, 2017

Meet Jurgen Lippinkhof, InselAir’s visionary director: Capturing the spirit of rebirth

Insel_LippinkhofWILLEMSTAD, PHILIPSBURG - InselAir is once again flying the McDonald Douglas (MD-80) Jet to the ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. Since January, InselAir had been operating their prime route between the ABC islands and St. Maarten with a Fokker 50 Turboprop aircraft, which was fine, if a little slow. But the airline is happy to announce that since October 11, the Civil Aviation Authorities have certified the MD aircraft as good to go. So now you can leave Sint Maarten and land Curaçao in 90 minutes! That’s fast! And they are currently leading the industry with their 90% on-time rating.

The MD-80 Jet has 145 seats and will be operating daily flights on the route Curaçao-St. Maarten-Curaçao. The flight leaves Curaçao at 9:15am and arrives in St. Maarten at 10:45am. The return flight leaves St. Maarten at 11:45am and arrives in Curaçao at 1:15pm. Connections to Bonaire and Aruba are quickly made out of Hato International Airport in Willemstad, Curaçao.

This is a remarkable achievement and stands as a climactic turning point in the story of InselAir’s history. In fact, rarely if ever has an airline managed to come back from such serious economic setbacks. Recall how a series of unlikely events – beginning with Venezuela’s social/economic upheaval, then the depressurization of the cabin during a flight, and the subsequent grounding of the entire fleet, and a downgrade by the Civil Aviation Authority to a Category 2 rating – had plummeted the once largest airline in the region into a near death spiral. Not to worry, though, they pulled out of that tailspin, and now InselAir’s determination and drive have them catching the wind under their wings once again and riding the up-swelling currents towards a glorious future.

WEEKender met with InselAir’s Director and Chief Commercial Officer Jurgen Lippinkhof, and General Sales Agent Pascalle Wong-A-Foe this week to discuss how the airline has managed to make such a strong comeback after being down so low. “We basically had to rebuild from scratch,” said Lippinkhof. “It was very difficult; we had to reorganize the entire company. We once had 29 destinations; we were the largest airline in the region. Everything from Brazil to Charlotte, North Carolina – we went throughout that geographic region, and we dominated. In 2018, we hope to bring back most of those destinations.”

“At our peak, we transported more than 1.5 million people per year. We were responsible for 10 percent of Curaçao’s employment and 10 percent of their GDP (Gross National Product).

A company statement on facebook reads: “For the last months, InselAir has been operating between the ABC islands and Sint Maarten with a Fokker 50 aircraft, which is referred to as “Basic” scenario. The addition of the MD80 to the fleet is an important first step towards the “Basic Plus” scenario and will further fortify the financial stability following a major internal reorganization. With this scenario, the customers will see the return of InselAir to former destinations, which will be performed gradually following financial arrangements with the neighbouring countries. InselAir will continue its plan to move towards the “optimum” scenario in which the number of destinations will be further expanded as well as the connectivity within the region. InselAir wants to express its gratitude to the Civil Aviation Authorities (CAA) and all InselAir employees that were involved in the extensive process of bringing the MD back into operation, and we are excited by the return of our offering of jet services to our customers.”

By December, the company’s routes will likely once again include Paramaribo, Suriname and Kingston, Jamaica. The early months of 2018 may well see further expansion into destinations such as Port of Spain, Santo Domingo, Port au Prince, Guyana and Colombia. “But,” explained Lippinkhof, “growth itself isn’t the goal. We want to keep our on-time performance as high as it now is, and expand at the proper speed, developing strong relations with the airports and destinations to keep everything streamlined and efficient.”

InselAir began in the mid-1990s, in the wake of that decade’s monster storm, Hurricane Luis. It started as a dream of two Surinamese men, Edward Heerenven and Albert Kluijver. A couple of regional-based airlines had just declared bankruptcy and there was a need for someone to fill the void. Heerenven and Kluijver began the business in August of 1996 with one small plane, an Embaer, and one route, Curaçao-Aruba-Curaçao. By December of that same year, they had 18 aircraft and a score of destinations, including Venezuela, Santo Domingo and St. Maarten. They were flying high!

The trouble began when the Venezuelan market began to slip away. The civil unrest and instability had an immediate and profound impact on InselAir’s economic balancing act. Venezuelans represented a significant portion of InselAir’s clientele and suddenly they weren’t flying. In the end, the South American country found itself unable or unwilling to repay its debt owed to the airline, to the tune of $90 million USD. With this debt weighing them down, the airline’s reputation began to suffer. They acknowledged the inefficiency and poor on-time rates as valid criticisms of the company at that time, and their downgrade by the CAA from Category 1 to Category 2 was another blow which wounded the airline further.

Lippinkhof explained: “The consequences of the Cat 2 status were that we could no longer expand to the United States, we could not add new destinations, and we could not code-share with the US-based airlines.” These restrictions, added to the grounding of the fleet after the decompression incident, made it seem like InselAir’s days were numbered. “It was very tough, we had to lay off hundreds of employees and sell off our inventory; those that remained have had to work very hard to pick up the slack, but we are proud to say we are back and now we are looking to maintain a controlled growth rate, back to our previous levels.”

In August of this year, the first period of the Chapter Eleven Moratorium was held before a judge. InselAir’s representatives met with the company’s creditors to determine if the company was indeed making progress. It was unanimously decided by all present that InselAir should be allowed to continue forward, the company showed that it is progressing, paying off debts and delivering on its promise to serve the community with reliable and consistent airline service between the islands. Sales Manager Wong-A-Foe remarked: “We are a smaller company now, but very stable. We are proud of our achievement and our high on-time rating. We have excellent service, very helpful and professional. Our sales and service employees are all multi-lingual, so they will always make our clients feel at ease.”

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