The government spent EC$986,775 to bring the chartered flights to Argyle International Airport (AIA) for its Feb. 14 opening but only generated EC$293,803 in ticket sales, leaving taxpayers to pay the remaining EC$692,954.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves made the disclosure in Parliament on Tuesday in response to a question from Leader of the Opposition, Godwin Friday.
The question was directed at Minister of Tourism, Cecil McKie, but Gonsalves responded in place of the minister, who is overseas on official duty.
Friday asked the minister to tell Parliament what was the final cost to charter Sunwing, CAL and other airlines to fly to and from St. Vincent and the Grenadines for the opening of the EC$700 million AIA — which opened six years behind schedule at almost twice the initial projected cost.
Friday also asked the minister to say how much of the cost was recovered through ticket sales and how much was paid by the government, including government-owned entities.
Gonsalves said that the money came from the budget of the Tourism Authority — which is responsible for promoting St. Vincent and the Grenadines as a destination.
“It was not intended, as was made plain to the Honourable Leader of the Opposition at an earlier meeting that there would be any breakeven here,” Gonsalves said of the flight.
The government had charted Sunwing to fly from Toronto and Caribbean Airlines (CAL) to fly from New York, with the return leg of each flight-taking place on Feb 21.
The prime minister’s comments stood in contrast to a statement by head of the Tourism Authority, Glen Beache, who has said ahead of the opening of the airport that he was confident that the tickets would have sold out within one hour of going on sale.
None of the aircraft that came to St. Vincent operated at full capacity and Beache told Vincentians in Canada in April that the flight operated at a loss, but the extent of the loss only became public on Tuesday with Gonsalves’ comments in Parliament.
Gonsalves told Parliament that supporting the flight was a policy decision regarding the promotion of the AIA.
Friday asked if there are other charters in the works now and if that is the same principle on which it is being done.
The prime minister said that the Ministry of Tourism, “within the context of the Budget approved by Parliament, will make a determination as to when and how it is appropriate to use flights to do promotions or to use flights to make a return.
“That is not a matter of an abstraction. We have stated what the public policy is already.”
Friday commented: “Mr Speaker, I think the taxpayers ought to say something about that.”
Developments since AIA opened
The prime minister said that as a consequence of the opening and the promotion of the airport, there have been several developments in relation to the airport.
He said it must be remembered that one week before the airport was opened, Friday had written to the Director of the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority asking how permission to open the airport was granted when a section of the fence was still opened.
The prime minister further said that Friday has not denied that a week before the airport opened, he told some students that the airport was not going to open on Feb. 14, as Gonsalves had indicated.
Gonsalves said that CAL, a regional and international carrier owned by Trinidad and Tobago, is now servicing St. Vincent twice a week, as a consequence of the opening of AIA.
“CAL couldn’t come here before and do that turn around because to do the turnaround within an hour in Trinidad, would require certainty that the plane would get in and leave on time. And 20-25 per cent of the time, the ATR 72s couldn’t land or take off on time with the full load because of the wind factor and other limitations at E.T. Joshua.”
But CAL, which services St. Vincent with the same type of aircraft that regional carrier, LAIT, uses, had for years been denied permission to service St. Vincent over fuel subsidy given to the airline by its owner, the government of Trinidad and Tobago.
Gonsalves further said that improvements since the AIA opened are being seen with announcement slated for later this year with other international carriers.
He further spoke of the direct flight to Cuba recently announced by Honduran carrier, EasySky and the larger Amerijet aircraft that is flying to St. Vincent.
Air Canada Rouge has also announced flights to AIA for about four months beginning later this year, pending “government approval”.