ST. VINCENT: – Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves has said that a St. Lucia-registered airline has not been granted permission to land in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) because it is “operating illegally”.
Gonsalves’ explanation on Thursday came on the heels of threats by Allen Chastanet, the Aviation Minister in Castries, to debar two Vincentian carriers from landing in St. Lucia if authorities in Kingstown continue to deny CARICOM Airways permission to fly to SVG.
The Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) reported on Thursday that Chastanet has issued an ultimatum to Kingstown to resolve the impasse within a week or expect that both SVG Air and Mustique Airways will no longer be granted rights to fly to St. Lucia.
“I am unable to understand why it has taken nine weeks for Vincentian authorities to approve the application from the St. Lucia-registered carrier to fly there when it is the country’s tourism industry that stands to benefit,” Chastanet told the CMC.
But Gonsalves said on Thursday “no one gives the lawful government of St Vincent and the Grenadines an ultimatum”.
Glen Beache, the Minister of Tourism in Kingstown, had earlier told BBC Caribbean that Chastanet is not the Prime Minister of SVG and “he does not dictate how long something should take — an answer should take to come back from St. Vincent and the Grenadines”.
I think the statement made by him was quite out of place and fresh as a matter of fact. I don’t think it is something that should be dealt with on the airwaves,” Beache said.
Beache said if Chastanet “has an issue” with the way Kingstown was handling the matter, he should have called him (Beache) or Gonsalves.
“But even so, I don’t know any point where Senator Chastanet is an owner in this new airline. So, if the new airline has an issue with the way we are dealing with things, they should call us directly,” Beache added, even as he said he did not know the status of the issue because it is not the responsibility of his ministry.
Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Civil Aviation, spoke of CARICOM Airlines in terms of “the inadequacy of the insurance coverage, that is to say, the passenger liability and the single pilot operator for the islander aircraft, which requires a double crew”.
“This is the requirement as practised by SVG AIR, with a similar operation. These issues are still to be addressed,” Gonsalves said.
He said “… failing to address these outstanding issues means that Caricom Airways is in breach of the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority operating procedure, hence the airline is operating illegally.”
“Once CARICOM Airways is in compliance with the law governing the operations of airlines in the OECS (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States) region, of which St. Lucia is a member, then the reciprocal arrangements will be considered by the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Air Transport and Licensing Board,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves quoted a Nov. 24 letter from Donald McNeil, the acting Director General of ECCA to Titus Preville, the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation in St. Lucia.
“The office [ECCA] has not yet issued an air operation certificate to CARICOM Airways to operate commercial flights. Under the circumstances, kindly advise under what authority this carrier is permitted to operate commercially,” Gonsalves quoted the letter as saying.
“This government does not function off the seat of its trousers,” Gonsalves said.
“I have to be concerned and the authorities have to be concerned and we have to give careful consideration to a range of safety matters anytime we give an airline permission to operate from St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he said.
He said when Vincentian travellers buy tickets for airline operating in SVG they assume that the airlines have the requisite licences.
“Nothing like that has been done. We cannot permit an aircraft to be in the air unless all these matters are in place. Because when you are in the air, simply, and I will state the obvious, you can’t jump out just in case something is happening. You are in the air. Period! And Newtonian laws of gravity apply and if you jump, you will fall; you will not fly,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves further said “Mr Chastanet ought to be a little more circumspect in his language”.
Chastanet had said while CARICOM Airways has received permission to fly to Grenada and Dominica and talks are being finalized with Martinique, approval to fly to SVG has been pending for over two months.
“There is a pre-clearance facility for Vincentians at Hewanorra Airport, when they get off the jet service they can re-clear with Vincentian customs and immigration so that when they arrive it’s almost like using a domestic flight.
“There has also been the opening of a new hotel in St. Vincent, which has been using St. Lucia as a hub operation, and unfortunately SVG and Mustique Air do not have the capacity to deal with the volume of traffic, so a CARICOM Airlines being able to operate at this juncture would clearly be of benefit to them,” Chastanet told CMC.
But Gonsalves said if Chastanet ” had any difficulty and he wanted to make a statement, the proper thing to do would be to inform his prime minister who would call me and find out from me what are really the difficulties at the moment.
“Maybe the prime minister himself is unaware of these difficulties,” Gonsalves added.
“…I don’t want any problems to occur between St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines; we are too close in too many ways. But I have to ensure that the rules, the laws and the procedures, are followed and that we could be assured as to all the questions of safety.
Chastanet had also said he that he hopes the decision to debar SVG AIR and Mustique Airways from flying to St. Lucia can be avoided as the people of the two islands have enjoyed and shared a longstanding relationship, which involves frequent travel across the channel.