By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Billy Braithwaite, an Afro-Guyanese, recently passed away in New York City from Covid. He is richly described as a sports and African cultural enthusiast. Billy indeed had a regular presence at cultural, social, political, and sporting events pertaining to Guyana. I knew Billy, as he was popularly called, in a different context while he was working with Indo-Caribbean travel agents in Queens. As a journalist, I tend to mingle with people of all ethnicities and attend countless airline events where I interacted with Billy. He was an able airline administrator who sought to boost sales for the different carriers he worked with. He was dedicated to his job.
Billy started out his career working with BWIA where he learned the airline business and transitioned into Guyana Airways (GA) rising to senior management position. After closure of GA around 2001, he ran North American Airlines Guyana operations that started in mid decade.
He managed two airlines (Guyana Airways and North America), off course at different times, from New York during periods when it was most difficult for the airline industry. The industry was facing dire strains. He managed carriers when the industry was in a chaotic state losing huge amounts of money.
Although initially we had a challenging encounter because of business practices and his politics, we soon became respected associates in the airline industry. He did not allow politics to interfere with good business practices in selling tickets for the airlines where he worked. I respected his knowledge of the airline industry; few knew it like him.
Billy was also closely to several travel industry specialists like Lall Somwaru, Jim Bacchus (who also passed away last month), and Nohar Singh, Ramko Kalicharran, Frank Rampersaud, all of who also knew the travel industry quite well, and with who Billy did very good business as a manager of GA and NA.
My association with Billy goes back to the 1980s when Guyana Airways office was located in Brooklyn opposite Sybil’s bakery, fast food restaurant, and catering service. I visited the office several times for tickets interacting with Billy and getting approval for special fares as a travel reporter. He would come to Queens and the Bronx to meet Indo-Caribbean travel agents who sold GA tickets; they all spoke fondly of him. He assisted whenever he could with getting confirmation of flights to Guyana. There were no penalties of missing a flight those days 1980s and 90s. Billy was very focused and his staff offered very good counter service when dealing with the public.
Billy and I also met at countless social events including at airline holiday parties and other events to which I was invited as a news reporter. Even though he was with GA, he would be invited to BWIA and CAL Christmas parties at Calypso City. I got invited because of my association in the travel industry and my reputation as a reporter for community newspapers. I used to write countless articles for several community newspapers on varied topics including on airlines travel. I reviewed airline service for several airlines including Northwest, Delta, Guyana Airways, BWIA, Air India, North America, Universal, among others. Billy knew the industry quite well and even made projections of passengers’ flights, and he shared information for my writings. I learned a lot about the airline industry even investing small amounts in it without any proceeds. (It is a tough business to earn money as travel agencies would know especially since 9/11 and worse so now with the pandemic). Once Billy set up an appointment for me to interview the head of North America’s Guyana operations that resulted in a published article. I wrote several articles about NA and many articles on BWIA and CAL.
GA shuttered around 1999 with many who had valid tickets unable to get refunds. The airline was purchased by a small group of businessmen who formed a consortium led by Yesu Persaud. (As an aside, I wrote a proposal and put in a bid on behalf of a New York businessman who was doing great business with the baseball Yankees team to acquire GA but the airline was given to the Yesu group by the government then led by President Jagdeo; Winston Brassington was in charge of evaluating the proposals). The airline was renamed GA 2000 and office moved to Hillside Avenue and 173 Street. I used to visit that office regularly but don’t recall if Billy was retained as GA 2000 manager. I met Billy at several events in Richmond Hill, at Kali Travel office, and at travel agencies. GA 2000 was short-lived through bad management, charter of an old aircraft, and it ran out of money. It closed down.
As Billy told me, the failures of GA and GA 2000 had virtually nothing to do with NY management. Political factor was the major source of collapse of GA and GA 2000 did not get strong state support. The team behind GA 2000 was young and inexperienced in travel business and was not keen in advice from experienced stalwarts or even people like me who read a lot about the business. GA was badly managed out of Guyana. At times, GA was pulled out of service to accommodate special flights for the President or the PM during the 1980s costing hundreds of thousands in American dollars. Hamilton Green would be familiar would such flights. Cash US foreign currency was also coerced out of GA for the political directorate. GA was an unreliable service because of politics and shortage of funds. The airline was forced to hire people that it did not need or have enough funds to pay salary. Under the dictatorship, government routinely raided the coffers for foreign currency and the airline often could not make payments for aircraft lease. Passengers were often stranded when the airline was pulled out of service or when it broke down, had to be compensated, and were very angry; they left in hordes going to BWIA. Demand for air service was also low during the period of the country’s economic decline and mass starvation and people preferred a more reliable BWIA or charters including an efficient one ran by Nohar Singh. Nohar had an efficient charter service but also had to cope with rising competition that undermined pricing.
After 9/11, airline industry was in dire straits but soon demand for service to Guyana grew with only BWIA servicing the route from North America. Universal made its entry into Guyana around 2002 but ran out of steam by 2004. Enter North American Airlines that used to do charters for the US military to fill the Guyana void. NA opened an office on 101 Ave in Richmond Hill and functioned for almost a decade with Billy as its NY manager and Junior Horatio as Guyana manager. Billy worked closely with travel agents and delivered a very good product; Indo-Caribbean agencies dominated the market. NA served the market well and was profitable. Billy kept tab of numbers and offered agencies incentives. Guyana’s economy started doing well. Airline competition to Guyana increased with the introduction of Delta and several charters. Eventually NA decided to end Guyana operations because of declining profits and because it got more lucrative deals with the US government to run charters for the military. Traffic wasn’t there; demand could not keep pace with supply. Earnings were small; there was more to be earned from charters to the US government. – with lucrative contracts.
NA provided a reliable vital service as opposed to GA that it replaced. Only BWIA was servicing Guyana with a stopover in POS during the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes passengers had to overnight in Trinidad. BWIA could not meet demand. So NA filled the void. Managing an airline is a complex, competitive field, and Billy did a very good job.
While he was manager, he took ads in community newspapers that I wrote for including Caribbean New Yorker, and West Indian News and when he could not find funds to pay for ads he used a bartering service – airline tickets (on stand by travel) in exchange for promotion. I do not recollect if GA took ads in other papers I wrote for like Caribbean Contact NY or Guyana Graphic.
Even though he was no longer employed in the airline industry as a manager, we would meet at the launches of various carriers plying the Guyana route or community and airline get together. He was up to date on the industry giving his assessment of new carriers to Guyana.
Travel agents express gratitude for his service and for various concessions offered at GA, GA 2000, and NA although all three still owe me refunds on unused tickets. In particular, I am most grateful for one concession that allowed me to travel to Guyana for the funeral of Cheddi Jagan in March 1997. I was in the Philippines on a research sabbatical interrupting it to get to NY and connecting to Guyana arriving just in time for the state proceedings that had started at parliament building.
Thank you Billy for your patriotic service to Guyana. Your service will be missed in the airline industry.
Dr. Vishnu Bisram