Inspired by the exploits of Jose Dormoy, the Caribbean’s legendary World War II fighter pilot, a young Bruno Magras dreamed of flying airplanes. In 1968, at the age of 16, Magras left his native St. Barths to seek out what he termed his “active life” on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 1973, Magras would earn his pilot’s license under the tutelage of the French Civil Aviation Authority based in Guadeloupe.
Magras’ childhood dreams were fulfilled when he eventually flew co-pilot with his hero, Dormoy. Upon returning to St. Barths in his early 20s, Magras determined his island of 3,000 people had two voids that needed to be filled.
Magras believed St. Barths needed a reliable commuter airline to connect passengers with a neighboring cluster of Caribbean islands. He also felt his island was at a turning point when it came to economic and real estate development. The timing was right for Magras to run for political office.
Today, Magras is general manager of St. Barth Commuter Airline, a business he has owned and operated since 1994. In addition to running this business comprised of 35 employees and four eight-passenger airplanes, Magras was elected as St. Barths’ first president in 2007. It’s amazing how high one can soar once you make the leap to fly.
Magras’ flight plan to entrepreneurial and political heights was not without turbulence. When he initially partnered to start his own commuter airline, his company lost money for four years running. In fact, upon opening the doors of his fledgling airline, Magras remembers being told that his company “wouldn’t last six months.”
Magras clung to the belief that there was a definite need for the service his small airline provided and he just needed to grow the reputation of his company.
“In French we say, ‘persevere,’” said Magras.
His dedication to perseverance began to pay dividends in 1998 when the airline’s balance sheet started showing a profit.
Around this time, St. Barth Commuter added a third aircraft and increased its number of daily flights to the neighboring island of St. Martin. This business commitment coincided with a definite uptick in tourism for both St. Martin, as well as St. Barths. The popularity of the eight-mile long St. Barths was growing, in part, due to the public relations buzz garnered by the increasing number of celebrities who found the island’s privacy and chic south of France style to be the ultimate escape.
In addition to making payroll, Magras has maintained a laser-like focus on maintaining a spotless record when it comes to airline safety.
“In all the years we’ve been in business, we’ve never had an accident,” said Magras while knocking on the top of his wooden desk.
This is no small feat when one considers that the St. Barths runway is the second shortest in the world at 650 meters, or approximately 700 yards.
The panoramic view of the St. Barths runway is jaw-dropping, especially when a plane is landing. Due to the shortness of the runway, only airplanes with a maximum 20 passengers can land in St. Barths. When descending from a St. Martin flight, a passenger’s view includes a mountain to the left, the airport to the right, and the Caribbean Sea straight ahead. YouTube has captured a bevy of pilot newcomers whose plane tires hit the ground a bit too late. Videos show a plane skidding beyond the runway, beyond the beach, and then teetering into the sea. By comparison, St. Barth Commuter pilots touch down and settle to a restful halt in the blink of an eye.
Before assuming the reigns of his safety first business, Magras wasn’t adverse to risk taking, especially when flying with the legendary Dormoy, a pipe-smoking pilot whose Polaroid photo graces Magras’ airport office.
“I was quite good at emergency flying and doing some acrobatics,” said Magras with a smile.
The baton for airborne acrobatics was passed to Magras’ son, Bertrand, who flies as a pilot for St. Barth Commuter.
“Bertrand was trained at Embry-Riddle in the United States,” said Magras. “I learned not too long ago that he also tried the acrobatics. It must be in the blood.”
St. Barth Commuter is definitely a family affair, with Magras’ daughter Stephanie serving as the company Chief Operating Officer. When asked how many flights St. Barth Commuter averaged in a year, Stephanie had the “40,000 passengers” answer at her fingertips.
Seasons for flight, culture and cleanup
Like all business owners, Magras is alert to the hurdles his business, his location and his industry encounters. The tourism industry is the heartbeat of the St. Barths economy. The island’s “high season” runs from November to April. Those five months carry St. Barth Commuter’s budget for the balance of the year.
“During high season, we run four airplanes at up to 26 flights per day,” said Magras. “We fly to St. Martin, Antigua, Barbados, Puerto Rico and Guadalupe.”
The other seven months of the year, the flight levels are significantly less, typically under a dozen flights per day.
When Magras isn’t operating his airline, he dons his political cap as St. Barths second-term president. The island, which changed hands from France to Sweden and then back to French control, now operates autonomously under the umbrella of the French government. The historic intertwine of cultures is most evident in the street signs lining St. Barths capitol city of Gustavia. The tasteful signs maintain both French and Swedish names.
Magras admitted to reluctantly running for a second term in 2012.
“I’ve been involved in the government of St. Barths since running for council in 1976,” said the 61-year-old Magras. “Prior to this election, I was mentally prepared to step away from politics. I ended up being re-elected with 74 percent of the vote.”
Mixing business with politics
St. Barths is an island so everything has to be imported. In Magras’ early years in politics, a decision was made to view the high cost of living on St. Barths as an asset, rather than a hindrance. The island, with a current population of 9,500 residents, has no debt, low crime and it’s spotlessly clean. St. Barths is perhaps the only place in the world where garbage pickup runs six days per week.
Magras reflected a bit on how his business and political goals are similar.
“I tell my kids to keep moving forward and place one foot in front of the other,” he said. “You never know what the future holds. It’s all about keeping our passengers and constituents happy.”