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Connecting CARICOM and beyond

Interview - July 23, 2012
Ewald Henshuijs, President and CEO of Surinam Airways, discusses with Business & Investment how the airline is helping improve links between Suriname and the region

We believe Suriname is living an historic moment, because it is not only the top economic performer of the CARICOM, but it is also presiding the CARICOM region and leading it into the year 2012. What is your evaluation of the fantastic period Suriname is experiencing?

In Suriname we have the benefit of being part of the Caribbean while situated in the mainland of South America so it means we can benefit from both parties whilst being situated in a favorable position connecting South America with different parts of the world. This means that if we develop our potential we can become one of the region’s major players in transport. Furthermore we are blessed with a population that wants do something good with their lives and we have a government who is taking a hands-on approach to ensure they have the best future possible.

The nation’s transport infrastructures are undergoing an impressive renovation, with projects such as the Institutional Strengthening of the Transport Sector (ISTS) and the enhancement of the airport. Could you give us your view on the transport projects that have the greatest potential in Suriname?

Within the Caribbean – which has only a few airlines at the moment –Surinam Airways stands out as an example as we are the only airline that is not subsidized and we would like to connect the Caribbean with every part of the world as we have been doing for 50 years. We have our own business strategy of connecting Europe and the United States with the Caribbean. We have just initiated a comprehensive plan with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding facilitating passenger’s visas so that one may purchase a Surinam Airways ticket in their own country, be it France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Luxembourg, Scandinavian countries or the Baltic States, and have no hassle with visas. We also connect the Caribbean with the Netherlands and also signed an agreement with Access Rail so that people can take a high-speed train to the airport and connect with our flights.

We currently operate five flights a week out of Europe and regarding the Caribbean, we just launched a new flight connecting Paramaribo to Miami via Georgetown so we have five flights to Miami at the moment. We also have full inter-line agreement with Delta Airlines so they can take you anywhere you desire in the U.S. with a Surinam Airways ticket, with all the facilities. We also connect Guyana with Belem in Brazil via Surinam, so visitors will be able to travel to the mainland of South America twice a week; we are planning to start initial flights from Guyana to Toronto at the end of this year. We even look forward to connecting Guyana with China through Suriname as we have an agreement with China Southern Airlines and Cathay Pacific.

In our business plan for 2012-2015 we are planning to update our fleet for long-haul journeys by operating twin engine aircraft instead of four engines so that we can have more flexibility when carrying our passengers. We also want to start joint operation with our neighbors out of Guyana to take them to Europe or wherever their market demands. Things are changing in the airline business and we are making efforts to cut costs and make our company profitable; this is one of our major focuses. Contracts that expire need to be renegotiated and in this year we are celebrating our 50th anniversary and when I leave I believe this company can continue to grow for the next 50 years!

For the Year 2012 we are planning to launch our third 737-300 and that means we need to look for more opportunities such as our European neighbor French Guyana and connect this country with the Caribbean or Miami. As the government moves towards opening our country we see many opportunities. For many years people believed the markets in Europe were the only ones for Surinam Airways but I believe in the regional markets as well.

We must highlight how Suriname, in one of the most northern points of the continent, is actually in a privileged geographical location near Europe, the Caribbean, Africa and the Americas. I’d like to know your view on the full potential that Suriname has to become the main logistic and passenger hub for the region.

It is definitely possible; as you know from the day I started in the company, our policy is that Suriname should become the best hub for the Caribbean. If you look at the potential and growth there is in Brazil and consider that people from the east or northern part of Brazil have to go all the way to Rio or Sao Paulo to connect with the rest of the world and the Caribbean. We are inviting them to come to Suriname and that’s the reason we are now executing four flights a week out of Belem and are planning to do more, if possible with an additional aircraft. We have a strong commitment with our southern neighbor especially with the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics that will be held in Brazil. 

When we spoke to John Nay, the U.S. ambassador in Suriname, he envisioned the achievement of an open skies agreement during 2012. How important do you see this in connecting with the U.S. market?

Open Skies will be a good thing for Suriname and for the U.S., for Surinam Airways I must say we already have longstanding agreements with Delta Airlines in place that take us all over the continent. We already have an open skies agreement as an airline with the U.S. So we don’t have to take you there personally but through our agreements we facilitate your journey. 

Surinam Airways is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and it is a company that has grown to be the national pride of Suriname. Could you evaluate the company’s evolution and its great role connecting Suriname with the rest of the world?

Well, I’ve been with the company for 30 years now, I started in ‘82, and those were years we had to struggle to survive and thanks to the support of the Surinamese community and the government we did so. We had an agreement with KLM from ‘92 and in 2006 the joint venture stopped and we became fully independent. From the year 2011 when I stepped in as President I wanted the airline to take a more important role in the world. We used to do one-window shopping where KLM was the big brother and if KLM didn’t do it we wouldn’t go further.

Nowadays we want to seek opportunities all over the world bearing in mind that it is a tough business as you have to be conscious of your costs and there is one that you have no control over and that is fuel. However, there are costs you can control by making the best deal for your company and those are the ones we focus on and by reaching deals with other partners you can really arrive at win-win situations and do business for years to come. I must say that it works because we have obtained for example a substantial reduction on the lease of our aircraft. I tell my partners that I may be a small airline but if they don’t want our business, somebody else will. We need the best partners to be a stable airline that is always on time and offers the best service. By keeping up with our obligations we are sure that our clients, in turn, will continue flying with us and our partners will continue to be interested in Surinam Airways.

Furthermore we have a dedicated team to inspect the quality of the different products and services we receive from other partners and as we are complying with IOSA and IATA and living up to their standards, we too require the highest standards from our partners and can enter into beneficial business relationships. A good example is our catering company who meets all the standards required for food safety for example.

At the wake of the year 2012 you mentioned that all the different companies that compose Surinam Airways, from SURAIR Ground Services to SURAIR Catering Services, had taken the firm resolve of serving their clients even better.

We are dedicated to offering the best service. Let me tell you that in the past the company may have been more laid back as there was no competition but we have taken a stand to keep our customers satisfied. In our business plan we are seeking 90% satisfaction from our passengers and even trying to go higher. So that everybody working in Surinam Airways knows where we are going, our business plan doesn’t only speak about what we want to do but it is actually formulated including goals that explain what is required from each employee. Our plan is active and everybody is a part of it, it is not just a piece of paper that you keep in your drawer.
BUSINESS & INVESTMENT: Miami has just come closer to the region thanks to the Miami-Georgetown link operated by Surinam Airways and I’d like to ask you the role you see your company playing in the recognition of Suriname abroad and the importance of linking Miami to the CARICOM.

We also operate the Miami-Aruba link that is three flights a week and now we have five flights a week into Miami, including the two via Georgetown. The only thing we are doing is linking Miami directly to the CARICOM, our neighbors and Suriname. Miami is important as it is used as a gateway to the U.S. That’s why we chose to serve Miami and connected with Delta Airlines to reach the rest of the United States. Our product in Miami is an exceptional one as we strategically positioned ourselves to stand out from the competitors who are cutting down on the amenities they offer clients such as food and drinks and maintain the high quality services. We see how passengers come back to Surinam Airways because they are so satisfied, in fact we signed an agreement with a tour operator in Florida and he is flying about 200 passengers a month in cooperation with the hotels Residence Inn, Krasnapolsky and others. We have offered special rates to create a relationship with the U.S. In addition to Delta we would like to reach an agreement with American Airlines to boost our service to the North American market. We are well aware that Miami is important not only because of the tour operators but because of the business community and that is why we have a cargo flight out of Miami to Paramaribo. Out of Europe we are also taking cargo on our flights to ship to Miami and back. In essence, Miami is one of the most important hubs for us at the moment.

Right now one of the main duties of the government is to attract FDI to Suriname especially having been the top economic performer of CARICOM in 2011 and Miami is a regional leader for passenger and cargo air transport. What room is there for a greater collaboration between Surinam Airways and the market in Miami?

We understand that it is huge so we facilitate everyone with our flights; that’s why we have expanded our schedule from three flights to five flights, because we see the potential in Miami. We had a meeting two months ago inviting all the tour operators in Florida to raise awareness of our airline and we are planning to launch a new website to promote Suriname in Miami. We also work with the tourist board of Suriname that has new management and we will have joint programs in Miami to promote Suriname’s Tourism sector. Naturally our objective is that people can buy tickets to visit Suriname with ease in their home countries.

In your opinion what makes Suriname a unique destination to visit?

People say that the interior and the eco-tourism are the most attractive. But I’d say that it’s the people of Suriname who make our country unique. The food is great, the hospitality fantastic and the low crime rate compared to other Caribbean countries is notable.

People care and are polite over here… even the animals in the rainforest are very polite! I used to share with my friends in the Netherlands that the piranhas in Suriname are actually friendly! I used to have a picture in my office of an Indian with all his ornaments and feathers and I’d tell my Dutch friends, “do you know that this guy will wish you a good morning and a have nice breakfast in Dutch to you?” But the preconception is different because the majority of the people has only ever seen them in Western movies waging war! Well, in Suriname they are very friendly people for example. It is absolutely fantastic and that’s Suriname. A little United Nations of people keeping their own cultures and up to this date there is no problem and nobody has any problems.

I don’t know if you saw how there were people trying to stop Suriname from hosting the EU/ACP? Well, that is when the Surinamese joined together, even the opposition. We are one and we are friendly but we must be treated with respect!

As you know we live in a globalized world where communication between countries leads to investment and therefore economic growth. You lead a company that is doing precisely active in improving the world’s connectivity. I’d like to know how you value the power of communications in the present day?

Well I must say that you cannot avoid it. When I took my position I turned the communication in Surinam Airways into emphasizing ‘What have we achieved’, so just communicate what you’ve done and position yourself with your actions. We have done so all over the world and have a very positive perception and people all over the world are at ease with our company as we are true to our word. The right communication is essential and without it you’re lost.

Another part of communication is initiating the communication with the passengers and the field, finding out what they think about the company so that you can act upon it. Every quarter we have people on our flights interviewing the passengers and asking them what they think about the airline, about the handling and about the food, whether their flight was on time, whether they were happy with the way they purchased their ticket – it’s a two-way communication.

What message would you like to send about Surinam Airways to the vibrant South American, Caribbean and North American business community, who read these two newspapers?

The message I would like to send is “Beware! Because there’s an Airline that Means Business at the Moment!”