Maura’s mission

It took 38 years before Maura Cooseelal was able to meet her pen pal Maureen Rayson in Australia. Now, thanks to BWIA West Indies Airways and United Airlines, Maura knows that dreams do come true. A true story

Maura (left) and Maureen with grandson Dylan. Photograph courtesy Maura CooseelalWith BWIA flight attendants. Photograph courtesy BWIA/ Trasi Jang

BWIA’s new strategic alliance with United Airlines opens up new worlds — as a retired Trinidadian school-teacher finds out

When Maura Cooseelal was 13, she acquired an Australian pen pal. Maura was a school student in a small town in eastern Trinidad, Sangre Grande. One day her English teacher set her class an unusual exercise: write a letter about Trinidad and Tobago, and address it to a young girl in Australia. Some weeks later, Maura got a reply.

That was in 1962, the year of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence, and it began a 38-year friendship between the young Trinidadian and her correspondent in western Australia, Maureen Rayson (the original reply had come from Maureen’s younger sister).

The two never met — neither had the opportunity to make the two-day journey halfway around the world. But for nearly four decades they exchanged letters, they swapped photos, they talked to each other on the phone, they followed each other’s lives. They began in the age of surface mail and telegrams and lasted into the age of e-mail.

In Trinidad, Maura graduated from school, became a teacher herself in 1966, and completed a 31-year career as a social studies instructor when she retired in January last year. The two women supported each other through the crises in their lives, from illness to divorce. In Australia, the young schoolgirl Maureen Rayson, now a grandmother with five grandchildren, teased Maura in Trinidad about the need to show herself and prove that she really existed after all those years.

And still the two never had a chance to meet. Until now.

After her retirement last year, Maura Cooseelal decided that enough was enough. She must meet her lifelong friend while there was still time. So she wrote about the friendship in the local press, she wrote to local corporations about it, she wrote to Oprah Winfrey, she even wrote to BWIA’s Chief Executive Officer asking for a ticket to Australia.

BWIA, of course, does not fly to Australia; but as luck would have it, BWIA was forging a strategic alliance with United Airlines, which does; and BWIA’s CEO Conrad Aleong saw in Maura’s idea an opportunity to celebrate the new partnership — together, BWIA and United would fly her to Australia for a long-overdue meeting with her loyal friend. United readily agreed.

“It was a dream come true,” Maura says, “When the news came through, I lay down in my bed and kicked up my legs and said, ‘I’m going to Australia!’”

Maura Cooselal left Trinidad in early January on BWIA for the long trip to Perth, transferring in Miami to United. In Australia, Maureen Rayson had taken on a series of temporary jobs to save some extra funds to give her old friend the time of her life.  “She promised not to mention the cricket,” Maura recalls (at the time, Australia had just completed a 5–0 “whitewash” of a weak West Indies cricket team, to the jubilation of all Australians).

If the trip was a dream come true for Maura Cooseelal, it was also the perfect opportunity for BWIA and United to dramatise their new partnership, which came into effect last January.

United is the world’s largest carrier — 604 aircraft, over 105,000 employees, over 2,300 flights a day, 134 destinations in 27 countries. It has major hubs in Chicago, Denver, Washington DC and San Francisco, and a strong presence in Miami and Los Angeles.

No way can BWIA match United in size: it has nearly 2,700 employees, 60 flights a day, and 17 aircraft, with destinations in 16 countries. But BWIA is the largest carrier in the Caribbean — a prime destination for many world travellers, especially from the United States — and is on a strong upward path. It has a brand-new fleet of Boeing Next Generation 737s and De Havilland Dash-8Qs, and is moving to replace its wide-bodied fleet within the next 18-24 months. It has just marked 60 years of continuous service to the Caribbean, it has an unsurpassed safety record, and it is firmly in profit.

Both carriers are in an expansion phase: a strategic alliance made perfect sense. BWIA passengers can now book flights to any United destination from the Caribbean, switching to United in Miami, Washington or New York; United’s passengers can do the same when heading for the Caribbean.

Full code-sharing came into effect in January between Antigua, Barbados and Trinidad in the Caribbean and several United destinations in the US — Boston, Denver, Chicago. For travellers, this means a single check-in, a single baggage tag, seamless transfers, coordinated schedules, and full Frequent Flyer miles.

“More code-sharing routes will be phased in during the year,” explained Nelson Tom Yew, BWIA’s General Manager, Strategic Alliance and Government Relations. Gradually, he said, the partnership should broaden and deepen, with cooperation on sales and marketing, joint product development, and possibly flights into Europe and BWIA membership in the 15-partner Star Alliance of global carriers, to which United already belongs.

“Alliances are about cooperation,” said Susan MacGillivray, United’s Manager, Alliances, when she travelled to Port of Spain to present the tickets to Maura Cooseelal. “They mean total cooperation for the benefit of the customer.”

A successful partnership may begin when two carriers find that their networks are compatible and there are opportunities for collaborating. But when airlines agree to exchange codes and become joint suppliers for a single journey, much is at stake in terms of service, efficiency and reputation. Each has to trust the other to come up to scratch. “BWIA’s strong reputation speaks for itself. You choose a partner who treats passengers as you would treat them yourself,” said MacGillivray.

To Maura Cooseelal, she added: “I had a pen pal in Australia myself, so I know you’re going to have a fantastic time.” So will many others who will take advantage of the new BWIA/United alliance.