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Aia 5

The suspect case created much unease at Argyle International Airport. (iWN file photo)

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My last Argyle International Airport (AIA) essay addressed the goalpost shifting at this new facility on the mainland of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) by discussing the envy-cum-pride psychological and site-based reasons government officials have offered to validate its construction.

My aim here is supplement these by interrogating the main off-airport justifications for its construction.

Greater Convenience.

In his “famous” August 8, 2005 speech, “The International Airport Project at Argyle,” explaining the need to construct AIA, the Honourable Prime Minister, Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves, argued that:

“… air access difficulties constitute a practical brake on the movement of our nationals who reside in North America and Europe in returning to their homeland as frequently as many of them would like.”

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Though I have already questioned this assertion, there is more to say. Other things being equal, non-stop flights certainly are more convenient than having to transit through other airports. Unfortunately, other things are rarely equal: non-stop flights often cost more, sometimes offer fewer amenities, generally operate less frequently, and leave unaddressed the top inconvenience factor, namely having to overnight in transit if you live far from the hubs in Toronto, New York, and Miami.

In 2018 there will be 98 nonstop flights from New York, Toronto, and Miami to AIA (or less than two per week each carrying a maximum average of 156 passengers) as opposed to over 1,600 annual nonstop multi-day LIAT flights seven days a week from Barbados (or over 30 per week averaging a maximum of around 58 passengers each) and hundreds more from the nearby hubs in Grenada, St. Lucia, and Trinidad to conveniently serve local, regional, and international travelers.

These figures suggest that the most convenient way to reach the mainland is on a small plane from a neighbouring island.

Enhanced Connectivity.

According to Dr. Gonsalves in the same speech:

“…. the integration of the economy of St. Vincent and the Grenadines with those of the OECS, CARICOM, the wider Caribbean, Latin America, North America and Europe is limited to the extent that there are huge restraints in air access. Foreign investors often shy away from St. Vincent and the Grenadines when the limitations of air access arise due to the absence of an international airport.”

It is unclear how AIA would better integrate these regions when travel within the Caribbean has almost exclusively been by small commuter planes flying between its international airports. For example, it would be grossly inefficient for big jets to fly a few dozen passengers between SVG and Trinidad, our biggest regional trading partner, only 176 miles (283 km) away.

There have also been few commercial ties between Latin America and most of the insular Caribbean nations that have had international airports for decades. Before the destructive neo-Bolivarian reforms, Venezuela used to send tons of fresh produce to the southern Dutch Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao) on a daily basis, all of it by boat.

There is also no historical evidence that the absence of an international airport has ever deterred “foreign investment” in SVG: from the time the country became a British colony in 1763 to the opening of AIA in 2017 – a 254 year period – countless foreign entities invested tens of millions of dollars on a variety of projects including sugar production, all manner of the retailing of imported goods (nearly all brought in by plane), telecommunications, banking and insurance, and factory assembly. Likewise, nearly all foreign investor exports conveniently and cheaply left the country by boat.

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Given the slow takeoff in passenger airlift from a facility supposedly built to satisfy a pent-up passenger demand, the goalposts also have been shifted to say that AIA would stimulate the growth of both our fishing and agricultural industries by allowing the seamless export of much large volumes of produce. Although I have already disputed this assertion, there is more evidence still to debunk it.

Stimulating the growth of our fishing industry. Sabato Caesar, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, has argued that:

The new international airport … is expected to play a critical role in enhancing the viability of the local fishing industry…. The minister said that investors are likely to be more inclined to get involved in fish exports, once the issue of market access is addressed.”

 

Mr. Caesar cannot be unaware that transporting most sea products by air is prohibitively expensive. The fact that the Bequia Seafood Company recently airlifted some 36,000 pounds of allegedly fresh (as opposed to frozen) tuna and conch from AIA to Miami does not contradict this assertion because such shipments are infrequent and because, “Air cargo is responsible for transporting [just] over 5% of the world’s annual catch” of marine products.

The recent announcement that Rainforest Seafoods, a multinational company headquartered in Jamaica, has signed an agreement with the government of SVG to build a state-of-the-art fishing and packaging facility at Calliaqua that would employ 50 fishermen directly and 200 fishermen indirectly offers more proof for my assertion: this facility would not affect cargo airlift at AIA because, like most such companies around the globe, Rainforest transports all its international produce by ship.

Stimulating increased agricultural production. Both agricultural Minister Caesar and Minister of Tourism Cecil McKie have made the same specious argument about airlifting farm produce to foreign destinations. The former has boldly stated that, “farmers in St. Vincent and the Grenadines will be benefitting significantly from the Argyle International Airport,” carefully leaving undefined the term “significantly” or how our farmers would benefit.

Like aquatic species, nearly all agricultural produce in the world is transported in temperature controlled boats, trains, and trucks because these are, by far, the three most economical ways to send bulk produce over long distances. Even highly perishable fresh fruit shipped internationally no longer needs to be transported by plane because of the development of “controlled atmosphere technology.”

Taken together, I estimate that no more than two percent of all the food produced in the world conveyed to other countries is transported by plane.

Stimulating visits by super rich tourists. The signing on July, 28, 2018 of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Kayan Aviation Holdings for the construction of a $US 7 million “Commercially Important People” (CIP) lounge at AIA to meet the alleged needs of millionaire visitors to Canouan and Mustique is the latest supposed airport spinoff.

Not only have we signed several other such non-binding MOU’s over the past years, only one of which (Black Sands Resort and Villas) may bear any fruit, this proposed venture will fail to meet its tourism-enhancing expectations as described by Camillo Gonsalves, the Minister of Finance. Many of the millionaire visitors to Canouan and Mustique travel there by yacht; others fly directly to Canouan from America using commercial or private jets; of the rest, most would continue to transit by plane from Barbados whose elegant and spacious international airport has two executive lounges and many upscale stores and boutiques; flying to Canouan and Mustique from the Grantley Adams International Airport (GAIA) in Barbados would always be more convenient than doing so from AIA because of GAIA’s 12 international daily arriving flights from all over the world compared to our meagre twice-a-week annual average from only three North American destinations; and the small cohort of the super-rich arriving at AIA do so in their own planes or privately chartered aircraft, landing and taking off when it pleases them. Such individuals have no interest in wasting precious holiday time at an airport.

If AIA was built for reasons besides capitalizing politically from our childish airport envy anxiety disorder, the regnant assumption that informs this series of essays, these do not include convenience, connectivity, transporting produce, or meeting the non-existent needs of super-rich travellers.

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This is the 76th in a series of essays on the AIA folly. My other AIA essays are here.

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].

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12 replies on “Phony rationales for the construction of Argyle airport”

  1. The penultimate paragraph just sums up how bitter your heart is to vincentians. But pity you don’t know anywhere horses goes a the donkeys can go to. I wish you long life to see the success of AIA but it seems that the rate of which you are putting stress on your heart to write CRAP you won’t make it. Pretty soon another bombshell is coming this one might put you on a gurney.

  2. Avatar Of Ricardo FrancisRicardo Francis says:

    This was a political strategy to get elected. It was viewed and reasoned that they needed to construct an airport that will take a long time to build so that it can be used as a voting/election tool.

    The Arnos Vale Airport was an international airport, which simply lacked the capacity to accommodate airplanes of a particular size with respect to their ability to land and take -off. An international Airport’s legal, political, and ethical definition is simple: an airfield that allows you take off and land. to travel to another country and or place outside of your jurisdiction. Arnos Vale allowed us to do so.

    The Arnos Vale International Airport simply needed to be re-constructed and the runway needed to be re-aligned towards the Villa/Shell Gas Station holding tanks. This should have been done, initially.

    The reconstruction of the Arnos Vale International Airport would have been much cheaper and could have been completed in one elected five year term. This would not have satisfied the ULP agenda and simply reduced the manipulation of the finances to construct the new facility. An investigation is required and shall and be done to examine and review the finances of this airport and prosecute the culprits who have abused and mishandled the finances to the fullest extent of the law. Godwin Friday is sleeping at the wheel.

    Clearly, Argyle should and may be renamed in the future to the Ricardo Francis International (RFI) and then it may serve its purpose. I have vision and will continue to do so. I can make bold statements because I am fearless and confident in what I know.

    Ricardo Francis, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in Waiting and in the Making

    1. Ben is getting slack. He builds his argument on the claim that in 2018 there will be 98 non stop flights from NY, Toronto and MIA to SVG. Everything else he says flows from that number.

      But Ben deliberately left out the much more important number: in 2019 CAL will fly a minimum of 104 direct flights FROM SVG to NY. Canadian Airlines will fly a minimum of 76 flights direct FROM SVG to Canada. And AA will fly a minimum of 52 direct flights from SVG to MIA.

      In short in 2019 we ill see a minimum of TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTY TWO (232) direct flights from SVG to North America. In 2016 this number was ZERO.

      CAL will increase its flights during carnival so this number will obviously increase. Other airlines might well do the same. And of course we have a CAL flight to Trinidad with a very short stop (50) minutes which is virtually a direct flight.

      These numbers do indicate two things: (1) even at the conservative number of 100 persons a flight, we have a minimum of 20,000 passengers who wish to flight direct FROM SVG to North America every year.

      (2) By Ben’s own calculations, the vast majority of these are VIncentians and they vote.

      If Ben can perhaps step in the boots of one of these 20000 plus Vincentians who travel between SVG and North America he might entertain the possibility that contrary to its economic arguments, the govt actually knew that the most compelling political reason for building AIA was because it would benefit Vincentian travellers.

      1. 1. We are in 2018, so I dealt with 2018.

        2. Since most of the travelers in the direct flights in 2019 are Vincentians who would have come home or left home regardless of these new flights, there will be insufficient value added justifying the construction of AIA, the main point I have always made in these essays.

        3. Still, I am pleased to read that you agree with me that the main purpose for building AIA was to gain votes on election day, the other main point I was making in these essays.

      2. Nearly all these alleged 20,000 passengers would have to be subtracted from the expected LIAT numbers, making us worse off without the direct flights because we own a big chunk of LIAT and have to subsidize its losses.

        One step forward and two steps back.

  3. I dwell among the rum shop crowd in St. Vincent. And sometimes I hang out with the intellectual elite. At no time whatsoever have I ever heard anyone support the construction of AIA because of its projected economic value. But I heard people complain about Barbados. And they complained about LIAT. And they looked forward to direct flights to North America. They knew far longer than most of the people blogging on AIA that it was being built in deference to Vincentian nationalism, not Vincentian economic well being. And they support it. But you are correct on this score: the fate of LIAT remains very important to SVG. It may very well be in the govt’s best interest to allow LIAT to collapse and give its routes to CAL. It may save us some money.

    1. I must be hanging out at the wrong rum shops or taking to the wrong elites!

      Still, I concede that the PM has always argued that the airport was also built to meet the “convenience” needs of nationals but that “also” was not at the top of his list of rationales for building AIA. And please don’t forget, that my overriding concern has been the economic viability of the airport, not its social or emotive values.

      Also, you must convience me that the convenience factor is now being met or will be met a few years from now when the overwhelming number of travelers, including Vincentians, will still have to commute through Barbados, Trinidad, or elsewhere simply because the number of visitors will always be too low to support multiple weekly flights by multiple airlines on large jets.

      At any rate, don’t put any faith in CAL: either or both Jamaica and T/T will pull the plug in the next few years onthe chronic money sucker. Also, LIAT in unlikely to get any money or partnerships from other Caribbean countries which are now getting a free ride on the airline’s service.

      1. The case for or against the economic viability of AIA only has value BEFORE the airport is constructed. That’s because then you do have a choice to build or not to build. However once AIA is constructed and operationalized the economic viability argument becomes irrelevant. That’s because now occupies the same position previously held by ET Joshua: it’s the only airport on the mainland. So regardless of whether it lives us to Ces and Glen and Ralph’s economic claims BEFORE construction, we cannot shut it down for the same reason we could not shut down ET without a replacement.

        Ralph understood the value of that monopoly to protect AIA from any meaningful critique once it has been built. Necessity has now over ridden nationalism and economic viability for Vincentian support of AIA. It’s the only game in town.

  4. False. Arguing about the economic viability of AIA is only now becoming relevant with the operation of the facility because previous arguments for or against were pure conjecture. Now, we can judge — if given the relevant information by the government — whether it was a good idea to build the airport from a cost vs. benefit perspective.

    Of course, there is no way to shut down the airport without re-opening and refurbishing E.T. Joshua airport, something no future government would ever attempt.

    But we can still study whether we are worse off or better off from a purely economic value-added perspective from having built AIA and having to pay for its debts and huge annual operating expenses, both of which would never come close to compensating the increased revenue to our overall economy, especially its tourist component.

    What was the value-added (revenue minus costs) of AIA between February 14, 2017 (the day the airport began operation) and February 14, 2018, a figure the government clearly knows but would never reveal because it is a huge negative number?

    What is my proof of this? The elementary fact that if the figure was even a break-even number it would have been shouted from the roof tops.

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