By Kenton X. Chance
The Tourism Authority could pay out more than a half million Eastern Caribbean dollars of taxpayers’ money to secure the two international charter flights expected to land at Argyle International Airport when it begins operating on Feb. 14.
It will attempt to recoup the money through sale of tickets, but a lot of the arrangement, including signing the contract with the airlines, is incomplete.
“We are paying for the charter. People who are coming in on the flight have to pay for their tickets,” Glen Beache, head of the Tourism Authority, said on Boom FM on Wednesday.
Asked how much it is going to cost, Beache, who has for years been negotiating to bring airlines to the new airport, said, “That’s what I’m saying. We are working all of that out right now. We don’t have the final figures yet. Remember I said we have to work out the taxes.”
Pressed for an approximate amount, Beache, who announced the flights last Friday, said, “I really can’t tell you yet” but later said, “You could probably say around 100 [thousand] US dollars (EC$267,000).”
That figure might or might not include the taxes, Beache said.
The money will come from the Tourism Authority, a state agency responsible for marketing the Vincentian tourism product.
“We pay the money upfront and we recoup the money from ticket sales. And I should say this. Because of the significance of this day, we are not looking to make a profit. I’m looking to break even, to just recoup what we’ve put out. It’s as simple as that. I don’t see what is so difficult about that.”
On Feb. 14, Caribbean Airlines (CAL), which is owned by the government of Trinidad and Tobago, will make one flight from JFK, New York to Argyle and Sunwing Airlines, a Canadian low-cost airline headquartered in the Toronto, will fly from Lester B. Pearson International Airport.
The return flight will be on Feb. 21, Beache said, adding that he is confident that he would be able to sell all the tickets.
“I don’t think I’ll have a problem with that… I’m convinced that once I announce these details that within an hour, every plane would be filled.”
He, however, admitted that the outbound flight “is a problem”.
“And it’s something I’m taking a chance on,” he said, adding that St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) was the first country to advertise in Trinidad in 2001 that SVG was the place to be for non-carnival lovers during the twin-island republic’s carnival.
When questioned again about the cost of the flights, Beache said:
“Don’t try to push me in that direction when I can’t give you that information yet. I made it clear as to why we went about it this way, because I wasn’t even going to announce this, you know, but we knew the time was short so we gave people the date to get vacation time that time.”
Beache announced the airlines on Friday, one day after Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves confirmed, as had been rumoured on social media for days, that the airport will begin operating officially on Feb. 14.
Beache added: “But this is not a process of chartering a plane today and I get a plane tomorrow. I am hoping that, by next week, we have everything in place to be able to come to the people and say this is what it is going to cost, this is how much it is costing us to charter this flight, this is how much each ticket cost. I will be above board. As I said, I don’t want to make a profit off this thing. I do want to recoup what I am putting in. I know it is a big deal for a lot of people to fly directly into St. Vincent and the Grenadines and that is the main aim of it.”
He said a tour operator in Canada who has been working with the Tourism Authority for a while and who Sunwing knows will be selling the tickets from Toronto.
Beache said he thinks that the cost of the tickets will be “comparable” to a regular scheduled flight.
“I think so. I mean, obviously, a lot of things come into play — oil prices at that time. All of that comes into what they are going to charge us and so on. But, as I said, I’d be above board with what we are paying for the charter so that people can work out exactly what it is and see that. I’m not looking to make a profit, it would be easy for me to, but I think looking and looking at this event and what it means for the country just to recoup.”
iWitness News, on Thursday, visited the websites of JetBlue and Air Canada to get an idea of how much a passenger travelling leaving from Barbados — which is 90 miles away from St. Vincent — might pay to travel to Canada or New York on Feb. 14 and return on Feb. 21.
The lowest available ticket to New York (on JetBlue) was US$284.76 (approx. EC$760) and to Canada (on Air Canada Rouge) was 609.88 Canadian dollars (approx. EC$1,193.72).
If the international airport is not operational, a person leaving St. Vincent would have to travel, most commonly on LIAT, to another Caribbean destination for a connecting flight, with Barbados being the most common. The cheapest return ticket to Barbados on the date specified was US$209.70 (EC$559.90).
Beache said that the Sunwing aircraft, a Boeing 737- 800, seats approximately 170 passengers, each of whom will be allowed one piece of 50-pound luggage.
“Just like the international airlines,” Beache added.
And while the return leg of the flight will be on Feb. 21, Beache pointed out that the aircraft will not remain on the ground for a week.
As a matter of fact, I just informed Sunwing that we are going to be selling the return tickets,” he said.
“We are working out cost with them right now because one of the things we have to do, cost is not as simple as them charging us and we say ‘Ok, let’s divide it by 170 people.
“Take for example, and this comes as a shock. If we don’t sell return tickets, it is $15,000 less for the charter. And the reason for that is that you don’t have to wait, you don’t have to fuel so you are travelling back a lot lighter.”
He said working out the cost will take some time, because the Tourism Authority has to work out some details with Argyle International Airport (AIA), the state-owned company that will be running the airport.
“Are you gonna waive any of the taxes? Are you gonna waive the departure taxes? Which is no. You can’t waive the departure tax because the departure tax goes to IATA (International Air Transport Association). Are you gonna waive the landing fee? So all those things have to be worked out. So we are speaking to AIA presently to see what they are willing to waive for that.”
However, the government will not sell the return tickets for CAL.
“CAL has been difficult to get in for that time because it is Trinidad carnival. So, that plane, as soon as it lands here, it turns around right away and heads to Jamaica to do another flight,” he said, adding that the flight returns a week later to take the passengers back.
Regarding when he would have details about who to contact to acquire tickets, Beache said, “Part of the problem is because this was announced during the Christmas season, as you know, a lot of these people went on vacation and so on. Hopefully, we will sign the contract with Sunwing officially by next week, work out details with the tour operator — I would hope in two weeks’ time I’ll have a press conference.”
Beache said he did not want to announce the flights because he knew that without the detail “people would be, as you see – well, you know, ‘It’s not true.’ It’s this it’s that. But, we want to make sure and that, as a matter of fact, why we put it for a week, from the 14th to the 21st, because this early, it would be harder for people to get longer vacation time.”
He said the Tourism Authority was yet to secure a flight from London.
“We are working with London right now. It a bit more difficult coming out of the United Kingdom. We’re speaking to Thomas Cook, we are speaking to Newmont, a tour operator that does a lot of Caribbean business.
“… they might be willing to do the charter flight themselves, which would take that off of me, which I would not mind.”
Regarding advertising the flights, Beache said: “At any other time, I’d tell you that we’d have a proper marketing plan, but I think once we make the announcement press conference, we use our social media campaign, we use our overseas offices and the consulates in New York, Toronto, and, hopefully, England, yeah, they will be sold.”
The flights will be marketed just to Vincentians, Beache said.
“Don’t get me wrong. If some tourists get to book their flights before, I’m not kicking them off or anything. Don’t get me wrong with that. But I think the flights are going to be filled with Vincentians. I mean, the phones have been ringing off the hook with everybody,” he said, adding that a couple who was supposed to arrive on the 13th cancelled their flight after Gonsalves made the announcement.
“We will be operational on the 14th,” he said, and pointed out that there would be no tour of the terminal building as well as no access to the apron on that day.
“Because we will have all the security, we will be fully operational on the 14th.”
The flights on Feb. 14 will take place even as the airport is yet to get international certification, which Beache said can only come after the airport begins operating.
(Scroll for video of Glen Beache declining to say on April 1, 2016, one month before the airport was scheduled to open, the airlines that would land there.)