Letters to the Editor: AIRLIFT TO ANGUILLA

By anguillian March 14, 2016 09:25 Updated





Dear Sir

In the last few years there has been considerable clamouring from some sectors of the community with regard to “airlift”, and the consensus seems to be that Anguilla’s airport runway needs to be lengthened to accommodate direct flights from thousands of miles away. It cannot be denied that many travelers, given a choice, would opt for a direct flight rather than one involving connections. Add to this the current alarmingly low occupancy figures at the resorts on the island, and it is easy to understand why the hoteliers and would-be developers are convinced that a much-extended runway would be the panacea we need. If hundreds of people fly in each week on direct flights, the argument goes, we can get the occupancy rates up to the levels that make us all money. Of course we have to balance this in the context of Anguilla: one of its advantages in the past (when it regularly got accolades for “best beach in the Caribbean” etc. although such accolades are infrequent now) was that the repeat guests returned to Anguilla simply because it was not an easy place to get to. Its relative inaccessibility was part of the allure.

And this runway-lengthening idea seems to have found sympathetic ears in the Government of Anguilla and with senior civil servants. Indeed, didn’t the Honorable Minister of MICUH recently say that he would be satisfied with one such flight a week? On Tuesday March 1, on the Government’s Radio Programme “Upfront: A Conversation with the Nation” the Honorable Chief Minister/Minister of Finance announced that the British Government has agreed to inject 40 to 50 million pounds into the island’s economy particularly for the airport expansion project. It all seems to be such an obvious truism.

Readers with experience of how things work, will have seen a flaw in all of this. Our leaders, whether they are elected politicians, appointed senior civil servants, employees of supranational bodies like the ECCB, or influencers in society like leading lights in the tourism industry, often get it wrong. After all, they are fallible. Think about the story about “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. But having reminded ourselves not to always unquestionably swallow what we are being told, let’s simply look at the facts and keep in mind that sometimes, with the best of intentions, there are unintended consequences.

In The Anguillian of 19 February we were told: “The Anguilla Tourist Board (ATB), Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport (CJLIA) and the Anguilla Air & Sea Port Authority (AASPA) are presenting a united front at the 2016 Routes Americas Conference, which takes place from February 16 – 19, 2016 in San Juan, Puerto Rico….. The Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport is in a unique position to receive new carriers, as the airport is capable of handling larger commercial aircraft including the Boeing B737, Airbus A319, and the Embraer E190. Current air service to Anguilla includes Seaborne and Tradewind Aviation from San Juan and Anguilla Air Services from St. Maarten, while service on LIAT via Caribbean Helicopters from Antigua resumed on February 12, 2016.”

Of these aircraft that can already be handled at our airport apparently WITHOUT lengthening the runway, the Embraer E190 seats 100 passengers and has a range of 2400 nautical miles or, to put it another way, such a flight can bring in 100 tourists non-stop from New York, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Lima or Mexico City. The Airbus 319, depending on its configuration, can handle up to 160 passengers per flight and has a range of 3750 nautical miles, enough for a direct flight from Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lisbon, Las Vegas or Sierra Leone in West Africa – and the Boeing 737, depending on its configuration, can handle up to 220 passengers. It has a range of 5775 nautical miles enough for a direct flight from San Francisco, Moscow or Vancouver.

No doubt some money would need to be spent on the airport to accommodate three or four of these flights a day, bringing in hundreds of people on direct flights from any of our targeted marketing areas, but if we are told by the experts that the airport “is [currently] capable of handling” such flights, then we can spend money on where it is needed, rather than on some white elephant runway extension.

So let’s see where that money could be well-spent. In September 2014 LIAT announced that they were cutting back to one flight a day into Anguilla, arriving at 5.35 pm from Antigua and returning there at 6.30 pm which was seen as a terrible timetable because it would not allow for many connections, so most persons would have to overnight in Antigua. Our former Chief Minister, Hubert Hughes, lamented: “We cannot ignore the fact that airlines continue to look for routes which are very lucrative to them. Anguilla has not been lucrative”. Not too long ago, the hospitality industry in Anguilla was approached to see if they would contribute to a load guarantee and we are told that other destinations in the region do give load guarantees to the airlines – in other words, the governments or marketing bodies would say to the airline, “We will guarantee payment of x number of seats on that flight” – but Anguilla has not had the resources to do that, with the consequence that the airlines have placed their aircraft onto more profitable routes. And that, my friends, is the reason why the number of people flying into Anguilla is not what it could be. If we cannot get LIAT with its ATR42s and ATR72s to fly into Anguilla, what madness says that we can get Boeing 747s to fly in here on a bigger runway, seeing that we already have a runway which can accommodate hundreds of people a day on a Boeing B737, Airbus A319 and Embraer E190? At the very least we should be looking at what our competitors in the region have done in the past, and are presently doing, with regard to the load guarantee matter, and see what we can learn there.

And let us not forget the hard work and diligent service being put in by the local airlines which do an excellent job shuttling passengers between the airports in Anguilla and St. Maarten. If Anguilla were to have direct intercontinental flights, those airlines would be out of business and their excellent crews would be out of work. So we can assume that they would lobby against this happening too.

So here’s what we do, because Anguillians are smart. We use what we’ve already got first. The people marketing Anguilla and its accommodation need to hit the targets, if needs be, by using some of the 40-50 million pounds grant to offer some load guarantees as this could be the key which opens the lock. We can then bring in the ATR42s and ATR72s. While we’re getting a few flights a week at that level, we develop the Boeing B737, Airbus A319 and Embraer E190 capacity, and have direct flights using them from New York and beyond. Once we’re getting in thousands of tourists a day, by those means, we’ll be seen as an attractive possible investment to a private firm who’d be prepared to develop the airport further. Because until the people marketing Anguilla, and its accommodation, can hit those targets, we would not meet the due diligence requirements of such an astute developer.

We don’t need to expand the runway for quite some time to come.


Up, up and away.

By anguillian March 14, 2016 09:25 Updated


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