E. T. Joshua Airport at Arnos Vale

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not represent the opinions or editorial position of I-Witness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to news.iwitness@gmail.com.

I have already suggested that if Argyle International Airport (AIA) brings in 21,000 more visitors five years after its completion, this would be both a miraculous achievement and an unmitigated disaster. This is because even with this highly optimistic estimate, there would be an unsupportable net loss to the economy just from the costs of paying for building and running the airport, never mind the additional annual millions in infrastructure and other expenses to make the mainland safe, accessible, and enjoyable enough to attract 21,000 additional holiday visitors.

Based on a comparison with Dominica, even 21,000 more arrivals still leaves at least a 9,000 passenger deficit for a single American airline to break even flying from Miami to Argyle only five times a week.

The airline industry is a bean counter’s paradise, as should be clear from the large number of bankruptcies, restructurings, mergers, and acquisitions in recent years. The profitability is just not there to persuade Air Canada, American Airlines, American Eagle, British Airways, US Airways, jetBlue, Virgin Atlantic, or WestJet — just to name the main overseas airlines servicing Barbados — to support regularly scheduled flights to SVG without being granted exorbitant and unaffordable subsidies and concessions. (Don’t count on occasional charter and other non-scheduled flights — as others have tried to do — to make up the difference because these represent an insignificant part of the Caribbean international airline holiday business).

This is why Air Canada, a major player transporting tourists to the Caribbean for decades, isn’t even on the list of airlines that, under the “guidance” of Dr. Gonsalves, AIA officials are supposedly “talking to”. (One that is on the list — Spirit Airlines — does not even fly to neighbouring Barbados, St. Lucia, or Grenada, not a good sign that it will ever service SVG).

Add in the costly subsidies, extortionist concessions, and sky-high infrastructure installations and upgrades needed to attract major hotel development and then take into account the risks associated with the volatile bank-loan dependent Caribbean hospitality industry, and you have a perfect recipe for failure in an already debt-ridden country like SVG.

None of this means that international carriers — including Spirit — would refuse to fly here, if the price were right. A government ready to “bad-spend” what all the signs say will be a one-billion-dollar unnecessary airport would never hesitate to throw away millions more of borrowed funds to bribe airlines to fly here if this would ensure one more election victory.

In a recent Searchlight newspaper editorial, self-proclaimed “community activist,” Renwick Rose, undeterred by or oblivious to any of these issues, argued that: “Few Vincentians can honestly deny the critical need for this [AIA] vital infrastructural project and the potential it possesses for stimulating socio-economic development. In addition, it provides a means of at least easing many of the travelling inconveniences that our people have had to put up with over the years. Vincentians, home-based and in the diaspora, have had to spend countless hours in transit lounges because of no direct access to international flights”.

Like many before him, including the Prime Minister himself, Mr. Rose does not spell out in concrete terms what “potential” AIA has for “stimulating socio-economic development,” except in the vaguest way possible, preferring to use the phrase “at least” to suggest that easing travelling inconveniences for Vincentians at home and abroad is reason enough to celebrate the completion of the airport regardless of its actual developmental consequences. For those who do not share this view but instead “deny reality” and “dangerously” oppose the airport, “history is bound to deal harshly.”

Gregor Nassief, President of the Dominican Hotel and Tourism Association, addresses and quickly dismisses the issue of “convenience” — the pleasure of flying non-stop or with minimal connection hassle from home to final destination — when he argues that:

“Regarding convenience, travellers worldwide are accustomed to going through hubs, getting off one plane, getting on another, and continuing their journey. What they expect, however, is a convenient connection in terms of time/reliability (not having to wait too long for the connecting flight), baggage (baggage going straight through to their final destination i.e. Dominica) and an in-transit connection process (no need to go through immigration and customs and have to check-in again for the connecting flight).

“Here is an example of a typical and inconvenient connection: an American Airlines passenger arriving to Antigua, having to go through immigration, pick up their bags, go through customs, go to the LIAT check-in counter, go through another check-in process, pass through immigration, then security, etc. This is the problem we need to focus on solving. We have seen great improvements with Seabourne in San Juan and WinAir in St. Maarten, due to the agreements they have with various international airlines like American, Jet Blue, United, Air France and British Airways, thus allowing and enabling “convenient connections”. “Fixing LIAT” means significant improvement in its service and reliability such that similar agreements with international airlines become possible”.

All that can be added to these sensible comments is that they apply equally to SVG. If LIAT, the international airlines, and the nation of Barbados are the main problems, why are we in the process of dumping E. T. Joshua International Airport down the latrine to build a new prohibitively-expensive airport at Argyle rather than trying to fix what’s wrong at the source, as Puerto Rico and St. Maarten have done? This would have meant negotiating at least the following: (1) ensuring the transfer of the baggage of connecting international passengers directly to LIAT to end the needless immigration, customs, and check-in clearance; (2) closing the cramped, uncomfortable, and segregated LIAT departure lounge (Gates 1-9) by integrating overseas connecting passengers into the spacious general departures area with all its amenities and services; and (3) absolutely prohibiting the acceptance by LIAT of any excess checked baggage during busy times of the year — a backward but financially lucrative practice that guarantees delays and harms those who do not have too much luggage by virtually assuring that many of them will have their bags left behind — as airlines in North America and elsewhere have done for years.

Long ago, LIAT and other Caribbean airlines were contractually partnered with international airlines to allow passengers and their baggage to go unescorted and without harassment from North America to SVG. It is high time that this partnership be resurrected, at least as an option for those willing to pay the extra ticket costs.

As for the issue of having to go through hubs to get to the final destination, only in densely populated regions in Western Europe is this not standard practice because most international airports are a few hours drive away at most. Not everyone lives in or close to a big metropolis in North America, the home of major airline centres. So they have to travel great distances by car, train, bus, or regional aircraft even from cities containing hundreds of thousands of people to the nearest international hub when they travel overseas. Having to overnight far from the terminal or rush from one distant gate to another on top of this are not pleasant experiences, especially given the often long wait to clear and re-clear immigration, customs, and security.

Some commentators have even argued that the inconveniences and indignities of indirect and interrupted travel have deterred many Vincentians from returning home to visit until AIA is operational. This is nonsense, perhaps even deliberate propaganda, promulgated by pro-AIA and/or pro-ULP fanatics.

First, flying anywhere in the world in the age of international terrorism has become an increasingly time-consuming and frustrating experience, something many Vincentian overseas residents seem ignorant of because their only overseas travel is to and from home. Second, we know that our people love to complain about the slightest inconvenience and the most petty indignity. Third, any Vincentian who really wants and has enough money to visit home will do so regardless of the so-called inconveniences. Fourth, those who make this argument on their own behalf, most likely can’t afford to return — or don’t have enough money to “show themselves” during their visit — or are in their host country illegally, and mask this with LIAT bashing and/or AIA praising. Fifth, and most important, AIA is not primarily meant to accommodate Vincentian travellers anyway but to stimulate the local economy by encouraging foreign tourists to come here instead of going elsewhere.

The spacious, comfortable, and elegant Grantley Adams International Airport, Barbados.
The spacious, comfortable, and elegant Grantley Adams International Airport, Barbados.

But bargaining for better service in Barbados was not the path chosen by our self-described brilliant negotiator, the man whose skill, courage, and tenacity got us off the hook for EC $180 million in the Ottley Hall fiasco, a wondrous accomplishment which should have made fixing things in Barbados “easy as kiss hand.” This didn’t happen because Dr. Gonsalves, a cunning grassroots politician if there ever was one, has always known that Vincentians wanted their very own brand-new international airport to replace what one Searchlight newspaper letter-writer has recently called the “low class” “nationalistic eyesore” at Arnos vale, “too pale, sombre and warehouse-like” compared to the airports of our neighbours.

The same writer even claimed that if building AIA is “economic suicide,” our national pride still demands that it be built. Apart from the fact that these criticisms could easily have been met with a lavish renovation of E. T. Joshua airport costing one-twentieth of what we are spending on AIA, such comments reveal a childish sense of envy, perhaps even a destructive sense of national inferiority. Call it “airport envy anxiety disorder,” if you like, a proper affliction for our good Doctor to cure anew every election season.

***

ENDNOTE

This is the ninth in a series of 14 essays on the folly of the proposed Argyle International Airport.

The rest may be found at:

  1. Get ready for a November election!
  2. Lessons for Argyle Airport from Canada’s Montreal–Mirabel Int’l
  3. Lessons for Argyle Int’l Airport from the cruise industry
  4. Lessons from Target Canada for Argyle Int’l Airport
  5. Lessons from Trinidad & Tobago for Argyle Int’l Airport
  6. The Dark Side of Tourism: Lessons for Argyle Airport
  7. Why Argyle Won’t Fly: Lessons from Dominica
  8. Ken Boyea and the Phantom City at Arnos Vale

***

C. ben-David

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to news.iwitness@gmail.com.

5 replies on “Airport Envy Vincy-Style”

  1. Patrick Ferrari says:

    C-ben

    I have often said, in print, that building the Argyle airport was the easy part. You begin then you end and the cost is done. After that, the cost and headaches are forever.

    I said, too, in print, a point you made pellucidly clear, that I remember when LIAT and BeeWee were engaged to be married, I left E.T. Joshua and arrived in Miami without the baggage, the customs, the second LIAT and the immigration hassle, it was all we needed. That is no different to the hub-and-spoke model airlines use all over the world.

    But no. Instead of treating the AEAD (airport envy anxiety disorder), we nurture it – with somebody else’s money.

    1. LIAT and others had to support the loses the airline partnerships yielded — which is why they opted out — but these are nothing compared to building and maintaining AIA. Don’t forget also that having a big, expensive hub in Barbados is a gift or subsidy to us which will be lost with AIA, issues I will discuss in my last piece.

      I only pray that you and others will fill in the many gaps in my data and analysis — everything but what has been carefully hidden from us is available on the Internet — because what I have written is only the tip of a tropical iceberg.

  2. Clement Percival says:

    Those of us who are trying to bring some rational perspective to this matter are like the proverbial “voices crying in the wilderness”, only in this case it is wilderness of the darkened minds of the Renwick Roses and others of that ilk, who simply refuse to accept that their tight embrace of certain postures supporting the follies of their leader, is misguided if not downright dangerous. Every time I read a comment about the “potential” of the AIA, I shudder. I would like to see the plan laid out by these persons that will realize the potential that is is so easy to spout about. That plan, as C.ben David, and I dare say, myself, have been pointing must address the actualization of a tourism product that will be positioned on the international market and that generate the visitor flows that will make the airport really effective. That plan must address the issue of increasing the volume of physical products that will be taken out via the airport. That plan must address the operational costs of the airport. That plan must address the incentives that must be offered to airlines. As I said in an earlier comment, we may find that despite the astronomical costs of its construction, that may well have been the easy part of the Airport. The real work and real issues will be there going forward. Is Renwick Rose saying that no price is too high, no costs too much for us to have a so-called international airport. As I have heard it, that is like spitting up in the air, and when it falls back on our faces we call it rain! ( I would have used another word than spitting, but what with the Serious Crimes Unit on the prowl through cyberspace, I don’t want to face the fellas in black. So I am not even using the “pee” word.)

  3. Dr. Dexter Lewis says:

    C-ben,
    I am glad to see someone making the critical points about air travel to and from SVG that need to be made.

    The problem has always been the airLINE not the airPORT. If politicians see that you are not paying close attention and they have no answer for the former they provide you with the latter, pat themselves on the back and say “what a good boy am I”. Then you elect them.

    Personally, over the last 20 years I have flown into SVG over 150 times (less frequently in recent years) and I do verify all that you say in respect to the solution. I have repeatedly said to supporters of building AIA that after it is complete SVG will still be in the same position it was as when the project was started. The problem would NOT have been solved because deceitful politicians are not aiming to solve the travel problem but to get elected.

    I also concur with what you say about supporters of the airport. One of my brothers who lives in Canada and is a loud supporter of AIA and says it is the only reason he has not returned to SVG more than twice in 40+ years. In fact he is extremely fearful about flying and recently is unable financially to fly to SVG. But he keeps saying that he has not returned because of “the airport situation”. We know better.

    I would make one correction to what you said about size of city and consequent number of interim stops. I once tried to go from Atlanta, (a city with over 4 million people and one of the busiest airports anywhere) to visit my brother in Denver, (another American city of several million people) but was told I could NOT get a direct connection, no matter what.

    Somone in position must focus on the REAL solution to our air transportation issues and not give us a mirage.

  4. How about a train service from Argyle to Kingstown? There will be plenty of room through the Cain Gardent tunnel, just use some of the four lane facility, or make it bigger. We could put in the high speed Japanese system, run it right through to Sandy Bay, Sandy Bay to Argyle in 4 minutes and on to Kingstown in 3 minutes.

    I know Ralph will jump at this idea because he just loves such silly things. It suits his grandeaur approach to everything.

    If a track is installed all around the island in a big curcuit, the train could go so fast it could overtake itself. I thought you would like that Ralph, you could see yourself coming whilst your going.

    It will only cost about 500 million, US dollars that is. So King Ralph will find that very cheap, he will be able to get another coalition of the willing to fund it and he can sell off his houses and those of his cousin, the unelected unelectable one.

    Ralph get a refund from the Cubans because of the seven year overun at Argyle. Then make sure for the train service the Cubans sign a contract this time. They will be able to build that in about 20 years.

    By the way it won’t affect the cross coutry road, and it can skirt the international stadium at Diamond.

    Thought you would all like this poem

    ‘From A Railway Carriage’

    By Robert Louis Stevenson

    [otherwise known as Ralphs folly express]

    Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
    Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
    And charging along like troops in a battle
    All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
    All of the sights of the hill and the plain
    Fly as thick as driving rain;
    And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
    Painted stations whistle by.
    Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
    All by himself and gathering brambles;
    Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
    And here is the green for stringing the daisies!
    Here is a cart runaway in the road
    Lumping along with man and load;
    And here is a mill, and there is a river:
    Each a glimpse and gone forever!

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