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Letter: Airport politics and betrayal Vincie-style
Published on May 8, 2015 Email To Friend    Print Version

Dear Sir:

The opaque, helter-skelter, and deceitful way the proposed Argyle International Airport (AIA) was conceived, justified, and built, together with the body of descriptive, photographic, numerical, comparative, and logical evidence pointing to its inexorable failure is why I have referred to the project in such cynical terms: "political airport," "show-port," "Trojan horse," "New Jerusalem by the sea," "economic mirage," "white elephant," "field of dreams," "boondoggle," "graveyard of deceitful promises," and "Potemkin folly." (The last term is actually redundant since both "Potemkin" and "folly" refer to the same kinds of fake structures built only for show.)

Each of these phrases is meant to convey that this AIA pseudo-project has had nothing to do with broad economic development and everything to do with narrow political victory: ensuring the survival of the ULP regime from one election to the other, a goal it may well achieve again. As I wrote in my very first essay, "A more brilliant Machiavellian masterstroke the Caribbean political world has never seen!"

My only regret is that other activities prevented me from writing these pieces ten years ago when my skepticism was born with the first announcement that an airport had been conceived at Argyle. But it is much too late now to turn back from the abyss.

This is in no small part because for much of the time that we have been played for fools by the overweening dynastic ambitions of our prime minister, we have been virtually abandoned by a craven political opposition afraid to bash an enterprise that opinion polls showed most voters support. This is why the NDP did an about-face in 2010 and began their "patriotic" support of a fraudulent venture they had resolutely and rightly opposed for years, a decision they surely regret on the eve of the next election as the ugly truth about the airport is slowly revealed.

At the end of this long road to perdition, all of us will be reduced to "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:47). If they happen to win the next election, the main weepers and teeth gnashers will surely be the elected members of the NDP government who will be destined to serve one chaotic term in power when they fail to prevent the inevitable collapse of an airport they now promise to turn into a success.

To be sure, the nasty business of electoral politics means that no party on God's good earth would commit political suicide to make some principled point or the other. But a more astute and diligent opposition would still have been able to offer a thoughtful voter-friendly criticism of the glaring AIA weaknesses without having to suggest or imply abandonment of the project at this point of no return, should they be elected to govern.

palm_island.jpg
Exquisite Palm Island, the Grenadines

We have long crossed our AIA Rubicon partly because in 2005 when the airport was still in its early foetal stage the opposition was unable or unwilling to vigorously argue for its quick abortion followed by the resurrection of the previous workable partnership agreements between LIAT and the international carriers landing at nearby airports, especially the regional hub in Barbados, which permitted a fairly smooth and relatively uninterrupted single-ticket transfer of passengers and luggage from England and North America to Arnos Vale, thereby defusing much of the so-called "lack of convenience" and "humiliation" arguments behind the indigenous push to build AIA.

They could have bolstered this argument by presenting figures to show that the annual transfer payments to LIAT, the international airlines, and the regional airports to make this possible would pale to insignificance compared to the cost of building and maintaining a highly risky AIA.

They could also have pointed out that we have always received what amounts to a free ride by being serviced from the costly and subsidized international airports of our neighbours and that as long as we still have the perfectly functional regional airport at Arnos Vale, these big savings would continue. And they could have argued that, if AIA were ever completed and functioning, these indirect subsidies would be replaced by unsustainable annual operating costs and/or huge tourism-killing user fees, whose approximate value could have easily been estimated using figures from other Caribbean international airports.

An opposition claiming to be a government-in-waiting could also have raised the critical issue of what in the aviation industry is called the "break-even load factor," a simple bottom-line concept alluded to in previous essays when discussing how many passengers are needed for an airline to just cover its costs. Every airline (and cruise ship company where the same economic notion applies) knows what the break-even load factor is for every one of its flights and uses this figure to compile reports and plan for the future.

Such data have to be known even to hapless tourism boss Glen Beache and other apparatchiks for the airlines they have been talking to for so very long simply because they are the furthest thing from closely guarded industry secrets. After all, except for Caribbean Airlines and one or two other state-owned airlines, all major Caribbean-bound passenger and cargo carriers are openly-traded companies whose operation and finances are made public in exact detail on a quarterly basis.

Failure to come close to meeting the break-even load factor caused Air Canada to stop servicing the big country of Trinidad in August 2008. This by itself precluded the airline from showing any interest in flying here. A shortage of passengers also means that WestJet can only muster small planes carrying a maximum of 149 passengers each non-stop from only one city in Canada -- Toronto -- to the popular holiday destination of Barbados just four times a week during the high season, a figure that forecloses the possibility that the airline will ever fly to Argyle, especially since it does not fly to a much more popular tourist destination like Grenada.

Concerns about profitability are undoubtedly behind the absence of Spirit Airline from the Barbados, St Lucia, and Grenada markets, virtually ruling out any possibility it would fly here. When WestJet is included, this means that two of the seven airlines we are supposedly "talking to" will never service AIA.

Of the other five, JetBlue also flies mainly small aircraft to the Caribbean: the "largest" five planes in their fleet carry 190 passengers each; most of its other 200 aircraft hold less than 150 passengers. Moreover, JetBlue currently flies to Grenada only twice a week while British Airways and Caribbean Airlines service this tourist island only once a week. As for Delta, it doesn't even provide service to Grenada most of the year and flies there during the high season only a few times a week.

If a much better developed and far more popular tourist destination like Grenada is so poorly serviced by direct international flights, what does this say about the prospects for international airline service to tourism challenged St Vincent island? It says that most international travellers will still have to fly here, as usual, using LIAT via the hub in Barbados, thereby rendering AIA as perhaps the most wasteful and useless government project in the history of the Caribbean.

argyle_airport_check-in.jpg

A more industrious government-in-waiting would have lambasted both the prime minister and minister of tourism at the 2015 budget debates about these matters by asking about the real vs. hypothetical number of airlines and flights that might service Argyle from North America and Europe.

A serious opposition also would have raised the issue of how many passengers would have to land at AIA annually for any of the airlines they have been negotiating with to barely break even. Just about any answer, plus follow up questions about WestJet, Spirit, Delta, and JetBlue, would have exposed the government as deliberately deceptive, grossly incompetent, or actually indifferent to whether planeloads of people ever land at AIA so long as they can use its construction to keep winning elections.

The supposed management of the proposed airport, an issue I discussed in my last essay, should also have been critiqued in a forceful manner given the long-standing global movement to privatize such complex operations because they chronically suffer from government mismanagement.

"The ministry of transport, works and housing in Jamaica has reported that five firms have been pre-qualified to participate in the bidding process to operate, finance, develop and maintain the Norman Manley International Airport (NMIA) in Kingston", a facility that has always been owned and operated by the government of Jamaica to the detriment of the Jamaican people.

Meanwhile, our government has taken the backward step of rejecting a similar privatization by placing control of AIA in the hands of "....a new wholly owned government company ... staffed by a number of suitably trained and qualified persons" whom it can easily control to meet its self-interested political goals.

To be sure, it would be a daunting task to teach our largely untravelled, unsophisticated, and politically brainwashed masses about this Argyle airport folly, as many of the silly, ad hominem, and scatological criticisms of my essays plainly show.

Still, a more skillful and "truly patriotic" opposition -- one that actually cares at least as much about the well being of our people and the future of our country as they do about their election prospects -- could have done more to educate our citizens, if only their core supporters, about the awful fate that awaits them if or when this airport is finally ready for operation. Our gullible and easily led citizens may be quickly taken in by "false prophets bearing gifts" (Mathew 7:15), but they can just as readily be roused to righteous anger when they are made to understand how their trust has only led to betrayal.

To its credit, the NDP has used its Nice Radio call-in programme to talk about perhaps the most important AIA defect, namely what economists call "opportunity cost."

The opportunity cost of an economic choice -- in this case, the decision to build AIA with largely borrowed funds -- is the net comparative value of the best alternative(s) forgone, for example, promoting agricultural development and food processing, or supporting intra-regional fast-ferry service, or helping to finance a multi-purpose medical-tourism facility, or investing in the retirement/nursing home business catering to the overseas market, etc.

For example, if the net revenue of building AIA (all direct and allied costs, including loan interest payments, minus spin-off tourism and other benefits) were a hypothetical EC$100 million per year while the comparable gain from some other venture were EC$150 million per year, the (lost) opportunity cost of building AIA would be EC$50 million per year. (This is a truly imaginary example. In the real world of the highly competitive international hospitality industry, AIA is doomed to yield our economy a net annual revenue loss of tens of millions of dollars which, in turn, would be dwarfed by the opportunity cost of more credible forgone alternative projects.)

Trying to predict future opportunity cost -- not an easy task, to be sure -- would have been part of the independent feasibility study that such a large, expensive, and complex project required. Another part of this study would also have discussed the risky nature of relying on the murky Caribbean hospitality industry to promote economic development, as the recent fire-sale of an unfinished and highly questionable project in the Turks and Caicos Islands reveals.

No such study was ever done, not because it would have been particularly hard to do, but because the ULP leadership knew full well from the start, based on previous airport and other studies, that the results would have relegated the economically unrealistic -- but politically sexy -- Potemkin airport at Argyle to the dustbin of mad development ideas. No wonder that most wealthy Western countries that have helped us so many times in the past -- notably the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, also the main countries whose citizens are expected to service AIA -- have made no free contribution to this Argyle fiasco that I am aware of.

But the NDP has chosen not to hit hard on these and other key issues for one simple political reason: a fear that this would scare off uncommitted or malleable voters by labelling the party and its leadership as "anti-development" and "unpatriotic."

So, they have taken the easy path of concentrating on the cost overruns and endless delays at AIA -- essentially side issues -- which typically plague most big projects, public and private alike, all over the world.

As they say, silence means assent: for their muted complicity in the AIA boondoggle, the NDP may well see the wily old Comrade teach them come election day that the upholder is worse than the thief.

***

ENDNOTE

This is the last in a series of 15 essays on the folly of the proposed Argyle International Airport.

Many thanks to Caribbean News Now for upholding the highest principles of media independence, impartiality, and integrity by allowing me to freely voice my iconoclastic views about AIA on its news site.

Thanks also to the many people who have been kind enough to comment, whether positively or negatively, on my essays.

My other AIA pieces may be found at:

Get ready for a November election in St Vincent and the Grenadines! But which November?
Lessons for Argyle International Airport from Canada's Montreal-Mirabel International Airport
Lessons for Argyle International Airport from the cruise ship industry
Lessons from Target Canada for Argyle International Airport in St Vincent
Lessons from Trinidad and Tobago for Argyle International Airport
The dark side of tourism: Lessons for Argyle Airport
Why Argyle won't fly: Lessons from Dominica
Ken Boyea and the Phantom City at Arnos Vale
Airport envy Vincie-style
Fully realising our country's tourism potential
Airport without a cause
The unnatural place for an international airport
The Potemkin Folly at Argyle
False patriotism and deceitful promises at Argyle

***

C. ben-David
 
Reads: 8000





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