The government made back less than one-third of the money spent to charter the flights. (Photo: Lance Neverson/Facebook)

By C. ben-David

“The AIA is … a metaphor, a symbol, an alive testament to what a determined people … can achieve” (Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves, St. Vincent and the Grenadines [SVG] 2017 Budget address, February 6, 2017).

***

To term the opening of AIA on Feb. 14, 2017, as being premature, even immature, would be an understatement: much of the landscaping and other work was still not completed; huge gaps remained in the fowl-coop fencing surrounding the facility; contracts for regularly scheduled non-stop international flights were on the distant horizon; and the four chartered flights saw few passengers disembark and even fewer go onboard.

Indeed, a far more apt term would be to call a “poppy show” the painfully slow-motion 2001-2017 exercise from immaculate conception in the mind of the Comrade to quasi-operation on Feb. 14 of an airport for which there was neither a compelling need nor a rational purpose. This is not because many of the invited outside dignitaries failed to appear, sometimes sending lower-level surrogates instead, or because far fewer than the tens of thousands of expected patriotic celebrants showed up, despite the declaration of a national holiday, or because the business sector, including our hoteliers, have always given a big yawn to the airport’s construction, or even because the airport’s financing was spurned from the beginning by our traditional donors (the World Bank, the Caribbean Development Bank, the European Union, Great Britain, the United States, and Canada).

Instead, the “poppy show” designation refers to the clear lack of active interest in AIA’s completion by the hundreds of thousands of diasporic Vincentians, their children, and grandchildren, an assertion confirmed by the figures in the two tables below (compiled from an iWitness News story.)

Table1. Arrivals and Departures, Argyle International Airport, Feb. 14, 2017

Airline Origin Capacity Arrivals Percent Arrivals Departures Percent Departures
Dynamic Airways New York 244 12 5 0 0
Caribbean Airlines New York 154 74 48 7 5
Sunwing Airlines Toronto 189 131 69 7 4
EasySky Cuba 149 79 53 0 0
TOTAL   736 296 40 14 2

Table 2. Arrivals and Departures, Argyle International Airport, Feb. 21, 2017

Airline Origin Capacity Arrivals Percent Arrivals Departures Percent Departures
Dynamic Airways cancelled
Caribbean Airlines Argyle 154 4 3 62 40
Sunwing Airlines Argyle 189 7 4 104 55
EasySky Argyle 149 0 0 20 13
TOTAL   492 11 2 186 38

To be sure, although the Prime Minister announced that the airport would open on Valentine’s Day in a Dec. 29, 2016 media comment six weeks earlier, actual bookings were accepted only three weeks prior to the opening, thereby making it difficult for most working people and others to make the necessary travel arrangements to come to SVG on that date. Still, this needs to be contextualised by two other traveling cohorts: (1) many ticket-paying flyers chose one of these flights not because they were planning to travel to SVG on or about this particular date but because of the historical nature of the Feb. 14 airport opening and (2) many of the passengers who deplaned were government officials, hangers-on, and media personnel whose passage was sponsored from the treasury of SVG or by other parties because of the ceremonial and newsworthy nature of the flights. (Every large commercial flight carries people whose passage was supported by other parties and who would not otherwise have travelled, but I contend that the Feb. 14 fights contained a disproportionate number of such persons partly to fill empty seats that had already been paid for by the state).

My assumption is that these two categories compensated for the passengers who would have flown down from Toronto and New York, save for work and other constraints, an assertion supported by the pitiful departure numbers on Feb. 14 and the equally wretched arrival levels on Feb. 21.

I suspect that at least half of the 217 passengers who deplaned on Feb. 14 from New York and Toronto fell into one of these categories. In other words, I hypothesise that no more than 100 or so passengers chose these flights because they were already planning to come to SVG on or about Valentine’s Day. For them, flying non-stop from Toronto or New York was more convenient (but not necessarily cheaper) than flying through Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, or Trinidad, among other options. This leaves well under 100 persons who paid out of pocket for the privilege of flying home on one of three historic flights non-stop from mainland North America.

Explaining the higher number of non-stop departures on Feb. 21 is more difficult. Certainly, an additional week of booking time might have made some difference but this leaves unanswered why 15 times fewer passengers arrived on the Sunwing and Caribbean Airlines flights than departed the same day.

But even at a 15-fold level, the 55-per cent capacity of the Sunwing Airlines departure flight to Toronto on Feb. 21 was far below the 95-100 per cent aircraft load to popular Caribbean destinations during this peak winter visitor period. The same holds true for the Feb. 14 Sunwing arrival flight.

This high demand also means that thousands of last minute flyers are annually disappointed to find that they cannot book a flight to their preferred destination during peak periods. Why at least a minuscule portion of the 30 million tourists who visit the Caribbean every year — plus a few more diasporic Vincentians not constrained by other commitments — could not have been lured to St. Vincent Island on Feb. 14 or 21 to fill the 726 empty seats on Dynamic Airways, Caribbean Airlines, or Sunwing is something our hardworking Tourism Authority and its CEO, Glen Beache, need to explain to us.

All these empty seats do not speak well for the attractiveness of our destination or the chance of success of our new airport.

This is why our laughable Valentine’s Day and post-Valentine’s Day passenger figures are the furthest thing from “a metaphor, a symbol, an alive testament to what a determined people … can achieve” that one could possibly imagine unless, of course, the aim was to achieve the poppy show of poppy shows.

Surely there must have been another goal here from our Smart-Man Leader.

As for the cost of the charter flights that Glen Beache promised would be sold out within an hour of their offering, my figures (which may or may not include taxes) are as follows:

Sunwing Airlines: 189 seats x US$ 449 per one-way flight = US$ 84,861, or US$ 339,444 for the total charter for both Feb. 14 and 21.

Caribbean Airlines: 154 seats X US$ 499 per one-way flight = US$ $76,846, or US$ 307,384 for the total charter for both February 14 and 21.

The figures in Tables 1 and 2 show that the SVG Tourism Authority’s booking of these eight flights by the two airlines has resulted in a total US$ 461,674 deficit (US$ 234,031 for CAL based on 469 unsold seats @ $499 per seat for both Feb. 14 and 21 and US$ 227,643 with Sunwing for 507 unsold seats @ 449 per seat for both Feb. 14 and 21), an amount the airlines deducted from the up-front full-cost deposits on these flights.

… for only one day a year at Argyle “International” Airport.

This deficit, equivalent to EC$ 1.23 million, does not include the dozens of “free” seats occupied by various dignitaries, public servants and allied timeservers whose numbers would raise this sum to at least EC$ 1.5 million.

That the Tourism Authority couldn’t even fill the empty pre-paid seats with freeloading passengers speaks volumes to both its competence and our ability to develop our holiday sector.

 

Looking behind the façade of the facile explanation that “love is in the air,” the most burning question is why AIA was opened on this particular date? Why didn’t the Comrade simply tell us to wait until the first regularly scheduled non-stop international flights take off between Carnival and Christmas, as promised — after all, we have already waited patiently for nearly 12 years since the decision to build AIA was announced — even if this turns out to be a single weekly return trip by a heavily subsidised international airline? He could easily satisfy most of his critics and all his supporters by repeating that we need to start somewhere, this is as good a start as any, and in the long-term AIA will make us all far better off.

The farcical show on Feb.14 and its sillier sequel on Feb. 21 suggest that the Comrade received another “divine inspiration” which told him his government would likely lose the election petitions case, the next stage of which he immediately claimed would lead to a snap national election if the results again favoured the opposition, presumably even if only one of the two contested seats were lost. Without the hasty opening of the airport, a possible loss of power over the next year or so would give the New Democratic Party credit for getting AIA up and running, an intolerable outcome for a man who has nursed this invalid of an airport for so many years.

This fear plus hunger for a five-in-a-row “Labour love is in the air” victory is the only explanation that makes sense to me.

If I am correct, the poppy show at Argyle was staged as the first campaign rally in our next season of electoral politics.

***

This is the 48th in a series of essays on the Argyle International Airport folly.My other AIA essays are listed below:

My other AIA essays are listed below:

    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
    9. Airport Envy Vincy-Style
    10. Fully realising our country’s tourism potential
    11. Airport without a cause
    12. The unnatural place for an international airport
    13. The Potemkin Folly at Argyle
    14. False patriotism and deceitful promises at Argyle
    15. Airport politics and betrayal Vincy-Style
    16. Phony airport completion election promises, Vincy-style
    17. Is Argyle Airport really a ‘huge game-changer for us?’
    18. Has the cat got your tongue, Prime Minister?
    19. More proof that Argyle won’t fly
    20. Our very own Vincentian cargo cult at Argyle
    21. The missing Argyle Airport feasibility studies
    22. The world’s four most amazing abandoned airports
    23. Farming, fishing, and foolish talk about Argyle International Airport
    24. Argyle Airport amateur hour
    25. Vincent’s place in the world of travel
    26. Investing in St. Vincent’s Tourism Industry
    27. The Argyle Airport prophecy: what the numbers say
    28. Why Qatar? Why St. Vincent and the Grenadines?
    29. Did the IMF drink the Comrade’s Kool-Aid?
    30. Foolish words about Argyle International Airport
    31. ‘If I come, you will build it’: Lessons from the Maldives for Argyle Airport
    32. Urban lessons for Argyle International Airport
    33. Who really lands at Arnos Vale?
    34. No ticky, No washy — Argyle-Style
    35. We have met the Vincentian tourism enemy and he is us
    36. Hotel Saint Vincent
    37. Why St. Vincent Island has so few tourists 
    38. Why Bequia is a gem of the Antilles
    39. Why seeing is believing in the Caribbean tourism industry
    40. St. Vincent’s cruise ship numbers are much lower than we think
    41. Lessons from Barbados for Argyle Airport
    42. Cuba’s tourism rollercoaster: Lessons for Argyle Airport
    43. What the world teaches Black Sands Resort and Villas
    44. Not all Argyle Airport critics are ‘internet crazies’
    45. The media’s take on the opening of Argyle Airport
    46. Why Roraima Airways? Lessons for Argyle Airport
    47. Our Argyle International Airport ‘veritable miracle’

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 [email protected]

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 [email protected].

7 replies on “From ‘poppy show’ to campaign rally: The Argyle Airport opening”

  1. Most of us had the figures right or very close even before the flight took off from Canada and the US. The difference in the number of arrivals and departures is 110. This proves the exercise was a total failure. Ironically it was staged on Valentine’s Day – “Labour Love”. The recent tax increase is to pay for this blunder and this is just the beginning.
    Fantastic assessment Ben! Let’s see how your critics will defend these figures.

    1. KaribbeanKat says:

      Dear Skeck, he has no critics he has driven them all away along with the other writers. Its now just him and Patrick and of course Mr Chance.

      1. Peter, why not come back from the dead? You are sorely needed, more than ever, now that the airport is operational but not operating any differently than Arnos Vale.

        We will forgive or forget that you have been wrong about every single physical feature of the construction of AIA if only because you are not an engineer and knew no better than to make up everything you wrote.

        Word on the street is that your fake death was self inflicted because you were terrified about your embattled wife’s threats to expose you to one and all. Is that true? Is is also true that you are a limey through and through, a old white Englishman married to a black Vincie?

        As for your laughable claim that I have driven my critics and others away, this would defame them far more than me because it suggests they are weak-kneed dunces unable to defend their positions with credible evidence and logical argumentation.

        In fact, it was the Comrade who drove them away with his completion of this dead-on-arrival airport since, like you, they put nearly all their cards in the physical construction of the airport rather than where I put all my cards, namely, the need for and ability to sustain the debts and operational costs of AIA.

        All the best to your alter ego, Sandra Binose!

    2. C. ben-David says:

      Their reply — for over two years — has always been that an airport is being built, now realized as a built but barely functioning facility, and I should get over that fact, whatever that means.

      They have also challenged my motives, nationality, and birthright.

      They always ask what the alternatives are, as if this question either has an easy or self-evident answer.

      This is the single most important historical moment to subject AIA to close scrutiny and careful analysis.

      Any rational non-partisan person would know that AIA could and would be built.

      Now is the hard part: making the effort worthwhile, an impossible task, at least from my perspective.

  2. Forgive me, but – at least so far – the AIA “project” seems more of a symbol of what a determined people can ENDURE, rather than “achieve.” Yes, of course Argyle has been built and, all these many years later, it has “opened.” And perhaps there was not enough “lead time” to allow these first charter flights to be filled. (As others have pointed out, travelers make at least holiday plans months in advance – from North America usually no later than September or October for the following “peak” season of January and February.)

    Given that flights in and out of Barbados (forgive me for mentioning that arch-rival in your area!) continue to be frequent and convenient, and soon likely to become even more so, and given that proposed flights directly to St. Vincent are not, nor are they any less expensive, AND given that travel from St. Vincent to any of the Grenadines remains as it always has been (with the addition of a now even longer and more expensive taxi ride from the airport to the ferry/cruise ship terminal), it is difficult to see what new and attractive incentive has now been made available to the traveling public.

    (The refurbished Soufriere hiking trail, on the other hand, IS an exciting development!)

    Usually, facilities are provided in response to demand. If one runs a bus line, one does not add additional vehicles until it is clear that the existing busses are full and more people are impatiently waiting at t he bus stop. SVG took a different approach. Now it is imperative that somehow that “demand” be created.

    In essence, the chasing dog has finally caught the car. And now what…?

    The job of building “…the metaphor, [the] symbol, and [the] alive testament…” is just beginning.

  3. The Sydney Operate House in Australia, is one of the wonders of the world. However, it is still the classic learning example of how not to manage a project. It had a 1400% cost overrun. 90% of all major projects suffer from cost overruns. The new airport in SVG has major potentials.
    If I was to advice any govt of SVG, I’ll recommend to please have open competition to hire people with expertise. I can’t remember the last time I saw advertisements looking for experts. However, all jobs are being filled. There are smart non-partisan Vincentians all over the world who will be happy to contribute to SVG if given the opportunity.

Comments are closed.