While some larger Caribbean hubs have plenty of flight connections to the US, if you want to venture to smaller islands, you’ll likely need to look to Caribbean airlines and their puddle-jumper routes. That means flying on a regional airline that you might not have flown with — or heard of — before.
To find the safest regional options among the Caribbean airlines, we turned to AirlineRatings.com, which releases an annual list of the world’s safest airlines. The organization judges airlines ‘safety merits on a seven-star scale, with criteria including whether the European Union and US Federal Aviation Administration endorse them, if the carriers have ever had a fatality, and how they measure up to two international regulators’ safety standards . One is a set of requirements for the airline’s home nation set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is run by the United Nations, and the other is the International Air Transport Association’s Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) for each individual airline.
Here are seven of the safest airlines in the region, according to AirlineRatings.com’s criteria. Their fleets have all types of planes, ranging from tiny, nine-seater jets, to the larger Boeing and Airbus models. Their combined route networks stretch to cover huge tourist destinations as well as the more remote islands in the Caribbean.
The Trinidad and Tobago – based carrier is one of the safest options in the region, with a seven-star score from AirlineRatings.com. Among some of its 14 island destinations are St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Nassau, Bahamas. With the airline’s numerous routes criss-crossing across the Caribbean, there’s a good chance you’ll find the inter-island combination you need. It even has direct flights from Toronto, New York, and Florida to some of the larger islands. A budget carrier at its core, the onboard amenities might be a bit bare bones compared to other airlines, but passengers on longer flights get a free checked bag and in-flight meal.
Another airline with a perfect seven stars from AirlineRatings.com. If the francophone name wasn’t a tipoff, Air Caraibes mainly services the French Caribbean islands and is based on the French department of Guadeloupe. In addition to that island, the airline’s key destinations include the French-influenced areas of St. Barts, Martinique, and 14 other island airports across the region. The airline’s planes are relatively new, with an average fleet age of just eight years, according to PlaneSpotters.net. It has several long-haul Airbus A350 and A330 planes that carry French tourists from Paris to the islands, but for regional flights, expect to board a smaller 70-seat ATR turboprop plane.
Also scoring top marks in all safety categories is Cayman Airways, with another perfect ranking across the board from AirlineRatings.com. The carrier flies from all three Cayman Islands to Havana, Cuba; and both Kingston and Montego Bay, Jamaica. For short, inter-island hops, Cayman Airways operates small 19-seater Twin Otter jets or the slightly bigger Saab 340 turboprop jet, which seats between 33 and 36 people. The airline’s longer routes from Miami, New York, Tampa, and Denver, are operated primarily with Boeing 737-300 planes, which at 20-plus years old are still safe, but the cabins might feel dated. But, on those longer routes every passenger gets a free meal and complimentary rum punch.
Rounding out the top four regional airlines with seven-star safety rankings is Cape Air, a US regional carrier based in Barnstable, Massachusetts. The airline started out with flights on popular vacation routes in the Northeast, like Boston to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, and expanded to the Caribbean two decades ago. The inter-island flights offered from its regional headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico, include flights to Vieques, St. Thomas, and St. Croix. For most of these hops Cape Air uses a small twin-engine Cessna 402 that seats just nine people. But for certain flights — on its routes to Vieques and Virgin Gorda — it uses the Britten-Norman Island BN-2, another nine-seater. Cape Air says it is also looking at integrating new Cessna Caravan EX seaplanes for some of its Caribbean island flights this year, but for now those planes are only available in the region for a private charter. Through a partnership with JetBlue, passengers can book flights straight from the mainland US to some of the smaller islands that Cape Air serves — all on one reservation.
Leeward Islands Air Transport began operations in 1974 and has its headquarters in Antigua. The carrier has an admirable safety ranking from AirlineRatings of 6.5 stars (it lost half a star because it only meets five of the eight ICAO safety requirements). LIAT flies a fleet of 10 turboprop planes: five ATR 42-600 jets and five ATR 72-600s that seat between 48 and 68 people. All of its planes are less than six years old, according to Plane Spotters. It flies to nearly every island in the region — with routes between Tortola, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, Dominica, Barbados, and many others — so any inter-island transfer you can dream up, you can probably book with LIAT. While the airline’s operations are safe, the service has some mixed reviews, with multiple complaints of lost luggage and late flights.
The government-owned national flag carrier of the Bahamas has a 6.5-star safety score with AirlineRatings.com. Similar to LIAT, it lost the half star due to meeting only five out of the eight ICAO safety requirements. Not only does BahamasAir fly its Boeing 737s between Nassau and several cities in Florida, but it also has transfers from the Bahamian capital to all of the archipelago’s 14 tiny outer islands. If you’re planning to jump between the Bahamas and surrounding island nations, the airline flies to Turks and Caicos, Havana, Kingston, and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. For its inter-island shuttles, the carrier uses ATR turboprops, all of which are about four years old. The airline would be the safer option compared to its national competitor SkyBahamas, which did not register for IOSA certification, and therefore only has a four out of seven star rating.
Panama-based Copa garnered a six-star score from AirlineRatings.com. The airline lost a full star for meeting up to four of the eight ICAO safety requirements. Its Caribbean island route network includes flights on to Cuba, Nassau, Kingston, Montego Bay, Santo Domingo, and Punta Cana. Copa also hits smaller islands, like St. Kitts and Barbados, but all of its Caribbean flights are routed through its main hub in Panama City. So if you’re looking to string together multiple island transfers, it might not be the most convenient option. Its fleet consists of a combination of Boeing 737s and smaller Embraer ERJ-190s, which together Plane Spotters says have an average age of nine years old.