A hotel in Bequia has asked the government whether it would assist in covering US$12,000 to $25,000 in costs it incurred as a result of the closure of the airport in Bequia last weekend because the fire truck there broke down.
The sole fire tender at J.F. Mitchell Airport is a second-hand truck donated from Canada a few years ago.
Stakeholders were informed around 9 a.m. on Friday that the airport was closed and it remained closed until 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, resulting in loss of money and reputational damage to hotels on the island.
The breakdown could not come at a worst time, as the 9-mile sea bridge between Kingstown and Port Elizabeth was affected by a surging sea that prevented the inter-island ferries from docking.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who is also minister of national security, said on WE FM, on Sunday, that the airport reopened at 9:30 that morning.
“And I really apologise for the inconvenience particularly for persons who wanted to leave from Bequia Beach Hotel. But their guests got out yesterday on the Bequia aircraft. They were delayed a little,” said Gonsalves, whose ministerial responsibilities include the fire service.
He said part of the problem was that there was a mechanical problem, which the government was trying to get solved in Bequia “by a competent person” who couldn’t resolve the issues.
“And we had to send down somebody but the problem was, nobody could have gone on the waters,” he said, referring to the sea surge on Friday and Saturday, which affected inter-island ferry service.
“Eventually the problem has been sorted out,” Gonsalves said.
He further said his government has budgeted in 2024 US$1.6 million for new fire tenders for Bequia and Union Island.
“And in fact, we have made the initial payments of US$400,000 last month, because that’s why we consider the matter to be of urgency,” the prime minister said.
“The unfortunate thing is this that these fire tenders, there’s a long lead time. It going take between 18 months and 24 months to deliver. I received a paper with some recommendations as to how we can proceed in the in the meantime,” the prime minister said.
Gonsalves was speaking a day after Bengt Mortstedt, owner of Bequia Beach Hotel, wrote to him, complaining about the consequences of the lone fire truck breaking down and the airport being closed as a result.
Hotelier writes letter of complaint
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by iWitness News, Mortstedt said his hotel was notified on Friday that the fire truck at the airport was inoperable and therefore the airport was closed.
“Having encountered this scenario on previous occasions our reservations and guest services team began to work in parallel to assess the situation and find solutions. We offered the services of our in-house mechanic quickly as due to the surge conditions all ferries being cancelled, an AIA mechanic may take some time to arrive,” he said, referring to Arygle International Airport, which is located in St. Vincent.
Mortstedt explained that Bequia Beach Hotel operates its own aircraft shuttle service with a 9-seater King Air, adding that the majority of guests prefer to travel Bequia by air, and utilises the hotels service.
He said that on Friday the hotel had nine passengers departing at 1 p.m. and nine more due to arrive on the 5 p.m. flight.
“No flights operated that day from Bequia due to the broken fire-truck likely affecting all tourism stakeholders,” Mortstedt said in his letter to the prime minister.
The hotelier pointed out that the lone fire truck is shared between the island and the airport and just a few days earlier, it had to leave to attend to respond to a fire and the airport closed without warning until the truck returned.
“This unexpected scenario adds difficulty to operating at Bequia airport,” he said.
The businessman told the prime minister that a few years ago the island gratefully accepted the arrival of “a newer fire truck, donated to the country from Canada and thankfully stationed at Bequia Airport”.
He, however, noted that the truck was “parked outside in the salty sea blast, not inside” even though the fire truck that it replaced “broke down on ever increasing occasions causing severe disturbances to tourists as well as Bequia residents’ travel plans and onward connections”.
Mortstedt said the impact of the closure of the airport on Friday was made worse because the surging sea prevented ferries from operating.
“A mechanic from AIA could neither be flown over as the airport was closed,” he said, adding that in addition to the 18 passengers that were due to fly on the hotel’s aircraft, they had two guest who were scheduled to travel on SVG Air — a total of 20 persons affected.
The hotelier said it became clear just after 1 p.m. that the fire truck could not be fixed as there was “an issue with the water pump.
“Our aircraft was stuck on the ground, unable to get approval and clearance to depart or position without passengers to St. Vincent in order to perform our own sectors.”
He said the hotel was able to get arrange travel by speedboat for its 11 departing guests and charter Mustique Airways for five of the passengers with tight connections and put the others on Inter Caribbean 4:25 p.m. flight to Barbados.
However, that was cancelled and the passengers had to travel via Grenada at 9 p.m. and, therefore, missed their connection in Barbados.
Meanwhile, the passengers who were due to arrive, had to extend their stays in Barbados the hotel had to rooms in Barbados for arriving passengers from London.
“… this means lost hotel nights and revenue for us, and costs,” Mortstedt said, adding that his hotel is aware that claims for compensation from passengers directly and from tour operators are expected.
He said that on Saturday, the day on which the letter was written, the hotel’s aircraft was due to conduct two return flight between Bequia and Barbados, with 23 guests booked.
“Unfortunately given the events of 9 February, we have witnessed little in terms of action or urgency from an official standpoint to re-open the airport as a matter of importance:
“A part for the truck was sent down in the late evening 9th February on a speedboat arranged by a fellow hotelier to be fitted. As of 9:30 am on 10 February we understood the part was lying untouched as we received the request for our mechanic’s assistance to fit the part — there appears to be minor interest and urgency at present to sort this issue,” Mortstedt wrote.
He said that re-positioning a fire truck on a temporary basis from Kingstown on the Saturday morning ferry would have alleviated the situation somewhat and allowed a short-term solution.
“Safe operations is at the heart of our philosophy as is hospitality, and we are frustrated by the fragility and lack of backup with this critical single point of failure that has far-reaching consequences,” Mortstedt told the prime minister.
He further said that long overdue rehabilitation works have gradually been carried out to the airport terminal at the J.F. Mitchell Airport, but the departures section is still not usable.
“The nearside apron re-surfacing of last summer was very welcoming, reducing risk of foreign object debris damage to aircraft. The replacement of the fire truck a number of years ago was very positive, at this point statistically less prone to break- downs, albeit a single break-down is extremely difficult to overcome as highlighted,” he further said.
‘reputational damage for the country’
The hotelier told the prime minister that a lack of any backup fire truck to safeguard operations “presents a serious and expensive recurring lesson for stakeholders.
“The penalties of guests’ missed connections, hotel stays etc. accumulate very quickly in addition to reputational damage for the country as a tourist-friendly destination both from guests and tour operators.
“We ask therefore whether assistance with costs that will be incurred due to the prolonged inoperable fire truck (ongoing and not final) can be offered?” Mortstedt said.
He said that the cost incurred thus far included US$800 for speedboat charter, US$2,387 to charter Mustique Airways charter for five guests; US$828.80 for four tickets on InterCaribbean, US$5,222.65 for a charter for 12 passengers on Air Adelphi, US$2,712.13 for nine SVG Air tickets and “Lost hotel revenue in Bequia, claims for incurred costs & nights in Barbados & refunds on tickets which tour operators and guests will demand.
“We estimate these costs to total between USD 12-25,000+ depending on today’s outcome, guests’ claims and necessary refunds, goodwill credit. Receipts will be available,” Mortstedt said.
He said Friday was a day for “service recovery, as our team worked tirelessly to try to provide 5 star service and assist guests to their onward connections, help with repairing of the fire truck, contact arriving guests to inform and delay inbound arrivals.
“This fragile problem could be solved both in the short term (send down a fire-truck temporarily in parallel to repairs would allow operations) and more critically in the long term (maintenance & a second permanent fire truck; a benefit to the island).
“We hope this letter written in good faith is taken as constructive, as that is our aim. To implement stronger more robust systems and standard operating practices with fewer fragile single points of failure between the private and public sectors which benefit the country as a whole,” the hotelier said in his letter to the prime minister.
Correction: The downpayment on the fire trucks was actually US$400,000 and not US$400 as initially reported.