TAKING FLIGHT

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“I’ll be home for Christmas.”

That’s what some of the city’s 81,000 Guyanese can now tell their families, since a pair of sisters based in Richmond Hill, Queens, started up an airline two weeks ago to replace what was Guyana’s only airline. Seven months ago, Guyana Airways 2000 declared bankruptcy and suspended all flights indefinitely.

But just after midnight on December 13, after 14 years of planning and dreaming, Universal Airlines flew its maiden voyage from John F. Kennedy Airport to Georgetown. Traveling one route in the company’s only Boeing 767, leased from LOT Polish Airlines, sister co-owners Chandramatie Harpaul and Ramashree Singh admit it’s a strange time to start an airline. To help the industry, the feds gave domestic airlines a $15 billion bailout three months ago, and passenger loads still have not returned to pre-September 11 levels. And, with tighter security regulations, it’s become a more expensive business to be in as insurance rates rise.

But Guyanese New Yorkers have to get home to their families, said Harpaul, so Universal is trying to fill a niche. “It’s an ethnic market, so the rules are a little different,” she said. “People will always want to go home to visit their families and loved ones.” And they’re doing it in true Guyanese fashion. The airline’s in-flight cuisine and music offer a taste of the homeland, and its “generous baggage allowance” caters to travelers saddled with medication and gifts that are hard to find or too expensive back home. Harpaul hopes these things will put them ahead of their competitors: North American and British West Indies Airways both make the trip to Georgetown. She also notes that their prices are higher-average roundtrip fare on Universal is $630, about 10 percent less than on BWIA.

“It all comes down to the pocketbook,” said Raymond Ally, director of Agenda 21, a community development group in Richmond Hill, adding that creating competition within the Guyanese airfare market can only be a good thing. After Guyana Airways suffered from severe financial mismanagement and finally shut its doors in May, other carriers raised their rates to Georgetown by 10 to 15 percent. With another airline on the market, he said, prices should stay low while service improves.

“Now, at least, people can change airlines if they are not happy.”