The inaugural flight of Antigua Airways, dubbed “the Pride of the Caribbean,” was greeted with great pomp and splendour when it arrived at VC Bird International Airport from Lagos, Nigeria on November 1, 2022, with over 100 passengers on board and notable amounts of cargo.
The aircraft arrival was greeted with a water-cannon salute, followed by brief remarks from Antigua’s Tourism Minister Charles Fernandez and Foreign Affairs Minister Chet Greene.
Both ministers hailed the airline’s inaugural flight as a monumental occasion for Antigua and Barbuda, saying it was the culmination years of promises to develop a greater trade link with the motherland.
However, the airline is fraught with controversies and mysteries, with many commentators questioning the real motive for establishing Antigua Airways.
During the period November 2022 and January 2023, Antigua Airlines made several flights between Nigeria and Antigua and Barbuda, bringing over 900 people, mainly from Cameroon. The Antigua and Barbuda government reported that 637 of the more than 900 people who arrived on charters between November and January had remained on the island.
Most of the Cameroonians claimed they paid US$5,000 for the one-way trip to Antigua and Barbuda and were told that on payment of another US$2,500, they would be taken to Suriname. They would then travel by foot to the US/Mexican border in time for the expected expiration of the US pandemic-era expulsion order Title 42.
A few migrants made it to TT in November 2002. Their deportation was halted by High Court litigation. On March 28, 2023, a group of 32 departed Antigua, aboard a boat that apparently was en route to the US Virgin Islands when it sank near St Kitts. According to authorities there, at least 14 people from Cameroon were rescued from the waters but three people were dead and 13 others missing.
Antigua Airways is a private-public partnership between Nigerian investors and the Antigua and Barbuda government, which owns 20 per cent by supporting the airline through the Eastern Caribbean Commonwealth state's Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP), which gives citizenship to foreign investors who significantly contribute to the country's socio-economic development.
"What we did is we listed Antigua Airways as a CIP investment, and in that case, they could have gotten up to ten CID files of investment, and that...would have given the government a 20 per cent share," Prime Minister Gaston Browne confirmed.
The airline was never issued with IATA and ICAO airline codes. As it turned out, Antigua Airways chartered a B767-300ER from Portugal's euroAtlantic Airways in November 2022, with the aircraft painted in the Antigua Airways livery.
It was described by government officials as a “virtual airline." All the flights into Antigua and Barbuda were operated using euroAtlantic Airways' ICAO call sign.
Majority ownership of Antigua Airways by Caricom nationals is required for obtaining an air operators certificate and designation to operate under the Caricom Multilateral Air Services Agreement.
In December 2022, Lionel Hurst, chief of staff at the Office of the Prime Minister, said Antigua Airways is unable to offer scheduled services between Antigua and Barbuda and Nigeria, as it has not received an air operator certificate (AOC) from the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority (ECCAA).
According to Hurst, “The problem has been that although the submissions have taken place…ECCAA requires far more information for it to issue the licence.”
In January 2023, Antigua and Barbuda announced it had suspended Antigua Airways' chartered flights from West Africa, as the carrier has not fully complied with regulatory requirements, according to a decision by the country's Cabinet on January 26.
"The rules governing the member countries of the ECCAA are very strict; Antigua Airways had not complied fully with all of them. The organisers have pledged to fix all the deficiencies before resuming their service across the Atlantic from the Motherland," the Cabinet said in a statement.
In May 2020 ECCAA was downgraded to FAA IASA Category 2 and since then it has been working assiduously to get upgraded back to Category 1. ECCAA strongly signalled to the Antigua and Barbuda authorities that there will be strict adherence to the ICAO procedures for the grant of an air operator certificate to Antigua Airways.
On March 29, two Nigerian investors filed an action in the Nigerian High Court in Abuja claiming their partnership agreement of US$1 million in finder's fees and three of ten Antigua and Barbuda passports handed over to the investors by the Gaston Browne administration. Antigua Airways is listed as one of the defendants in the High Court action.
In April 2023, Antigua and Barbuda's Prime Minister said Antigua Airways is effectively defunct, with little appetite left for such charters after illegal immigrants exploited them.
Speaking to Antigua News Room, Browne said: "In essence, Antigua Airways is practically a defunct entity at this point, as we are very gun-shy about continuing those charters because of what happened. We ended up with these opportunistic migrants who came into the country."
Antigua Airways, which started off as a dream, is now virtual reality and cloud-based.