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Universal’s CEO Flies Into History
Sky Is Not The Limit For Two Sisters

By Staff Correspondent
November 2003

According to aviation history and all other information available on the Internet, only two women have ever been Chief Executive Officer of a commercial airline. And guess what? One of them is Guyanese.

The New York Times had cited American Barbara A. Cassani as the “only woman in the world to hold the position of Chief Executive Officer of a commercial airline,” when she took over Go Fly, Ltd, British Airways’ no frills discount carrier.

She might have been the first, but she certainly is not the only one. For right here in our midst, a charming, unassuming businesswoman of Guyanese heritage is the accredited and de facto CEO, Chairperson and Director of one of the Caribbean’s newest carriers…Universal Airlines.

Mrs. Chandra Harpaul, the CEO, is joined at the top of the corporate structure by her sister, Mrs. Ramashree Singh, who is Chief Financial Officer/Director.
In a male-dominated and somewhat chauvinistic industry, the two siblings from Mahaicony on the East Coast of Demerara, confounded the aviation world when they weathered a turbulent 14-year period of disappointment and frustration to inaugurate the Guyana-New York flight on December 13, 2001. And up to today, Universal, using the flagship Boeing 767, has the distinction of being the only foreign airline to be approved by the US Department of Transport after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Universal offers five scheduled flights a week to Guyana, two to St. Kitts and additional ones to Trinidad, Suriname and Fort Lauderdale in Florida. Plans are afoot to fly to Canada and Brazil in the new year. It also has the distinction of being the official carrier of US mail to Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, cutting delivery time to one week, instead of the traditional fortnight.

The CEO says: “ While we don't set out to win awards, customer focus and top class service are our goals. We are dedicated and determined to be the Caribbean's airline of choice. Our aircraft has the speed, the comfort and most importantly, the cuisine.”

The CFO enjoins: “With fuels costs at a two-year high, coupled with serious regional competition, there is scant margin for error. That's why we have been using a flexible pricing policy, while closely examining route profitability and looking for non-standard solutions in the niche market.”
The two sisters said they were motivated to start an airline after bearing witness to the shabby treatment of Guyanese passengers. “We ourselves were treated with disrespect and the more than 200 trips we made setting up this business, caused us to be more determined that our people should have a national airline which cared about them,’ said Mrs. Harpaul.

Today Universal operates the Rolls Royce 767, on lease from Air Atlanta, the largest aircraft going into Guyana, boasting a first rate Business Class. The finance magnate says the airline had the option of seating 300 persons, but since their golden objective is: “Don’t Leave Any Baggage Behind,” they opted for a configuration of 243 passengers and 20,000 kgs. cargo space. “In our almost two years of existence not a single person’s baggage has ever been left behind,” she boasts.

The two hardy siblings were very upbeat about their airline becoming Guyana’s flag carrier, stressing that:
1. The entire cabin crew was Guyanese;
2. All the catering was done out of Guyana;
3. The overall involvement touched 350 Guyanese families; and
4. Every Guyanese would have the opportunity to own a piece of the airline, with the offering of shares next year.

For these two brave women the sky is not the limit. They are looking beyond. They know they have a young airline with a relatively young staff, but with obvious growth potential, a tight cost structure and the imminent share-holding process, they seem firmly en route to new heights.

The CEO is supremely optimistic. She says: “The industry is viable. With a little patience, hard work and support from our own, we can truly become the Caribbean Carrier.” A 65% market share based on traffic with similar frequency and more that 75,000 passengers in its first year are solid indications that Universal Airlines is indeed in good hands.

Source: Caribbean Impact


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