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Letter: Argyle Airport amateur hour
Published on February 4, 2016 Email To Friend    Print Version

Dear Sir:

“We have airlines who [sic] have already indicated their interest and none wants us to mention their names, because, obviously, they don’t want their competitors to know until quite late what they are engaged in,” Dr Gonsalves said at an Argyle International Airport (AIA) symposium on November 8, 2011.

“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!”
(Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, 1808)

AIA has already missed five completion deadlines: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. It is well on its way to missing its 2016 deadline but will certainly be ready to operate just in time for the next election in 2019 as Camillo Gonsalves becomes our first president following a successful constitutional referendum six months earlier, effortlessly facilitated by the splintering of the New Democratic Party into three warring factions in late 2016.

Though my assertion about Vincie politics 2019-style is frivolous conjecture, the missed airport deadlines are in serious lockstep with the on-again, off-again reference to, and negotiations with the international airlines said to be “interested” in making AIA their next Caribbean tourist destination.

The latest talk about airlines appeared in a news item in the Friday, January 22, 2016 Searchlight newspaper, which reported that the St Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority (SVGTA) has been having discussions with eight international airlines concerning routes to SVG on completion of AIA. Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, January 19, the beleaguered chief executive officer of the SVGTA, Glen Beache, listed the airlines as West Jet, JetBlue, Air Canada, Delta, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, and Air Berlin.

I have already argued why six of the named airlines are unlikely to ever service AIA (Airport politics and betrayal Vincie-style).

Of the other two, Air Berlin, a carrier mentioned some time ago, flies only once or twice weekly to three high profile Caribbean destinations: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Curacao. It transports passengers only once a week from London to the popular Varadero resort area in Cuba even during the peak month of February. Since there are no flights from Toronto or New York to anywhere in the Caribbean, there is little hope that Air Berlin would ever come to our mainland.

As for Virgin Atlantic, it sends non-stop jets to Barbados from London every day during the winter season but has only one non-stop flight to Jamaica and none to Grenada during the same period, ruling out any reasonable expectation of flying to tourism-deficit St Vincent Island.

Curiously missing from Glen Beache’s list is Caribbean Airlines (CAL), a carrier that as recently as last month was mentioned by Prime Minister Gonsalves as committed to servicing AIA. As well, Dr Gonsalves told thousands of party supporters at a December 6 election rally held on the unfinished runway at AIA, “…that airlines from North America, Europe and Latin America will fly to Argyle. He, however, declined to name any of them besides CAL”, backtracking on his earlier eagerness to name the airlines interested in servicing AIA.

The issue of naming, dropping, renaming, and refusing to name (see opening quote as well) airlines has been going on since at least the beginning of airport earthworks in August 2008. Mr Beache only adds to the growing sentiment that AIA has been a pie-in-the-sky misadventure orchestrated by rank amateurs, if not charlatans weaving a tangled web of deceit, by stating that:

“It’s [AIA] very close to opening. And I know one of the big questions is simply which airlines will be flying into St Vincent and the Grenadines…. We are not going to know exactly which airlines are flying into St Vincent and the Grenadines until the airport is completed, and until a CEO has been put in position at AIA.... The airlines will have to speak to whoever the CEO is, because all sorts of things are coming into these discussions -- in terms of landing fees, turn rate, depending on how many times they’re coming per week... a lot of things.”

gonsalves_argyle1.jpg
Ralph Gonsalves kisses ground at Argyle

So, rather than being “quite late” in the negotiations on the eve of the airport’s supposed completion by April 2016 -- a place the opening 2011 quote from Dr Gonsalves implies we should now reached -- we are still at the starting line eagerly awaiting the revelation of AIA’s CEO.

If a CEO must be in place for serious negotiations to commence, what has been the point of all the years of previous “negotiations” -- if this is what they actually were rather than one informal and pointless meet-and-greet after the other -- with these and other airlines? After all, the prime minister was hell bent on building the airport whatever the obstacles, real or imagined, based on a politically useful fairytale premise that “If you build it, they will come”.

If an airport CEO is so necessary to facilitate airline bargaining, what do we make of the prime minister’s remarks two years ago that “…it is expected that some of the international airlines will enter into service agreements in 2014 with the government to operate out of the Argyle International Airport”, a statement made long before any search for an airport chief executive officer.

And if a CEO were actually needed, what do we make of a similar comment in the prime minister’s January 2015 Budget Address that several (unnamed) airlines have expressed such a strong interest in adding SVG to their routes that “Air service agreements are expected in the first half of 2015 with several of them”?
Such conflicting and repeatedly unmet airport and airline expectations and requirements fly in the face of Mr Beache’s January 19, 2116, press conference remarks that: “Contrary to what some people believe, that you just go out and ask and they will come [my italics], that is not the situation. There are a lot of things that have to be discussed... nobody owes St Vincent and the Grenadines anything. If the airlines are not making money, they are not going to fly – it’s as simple as that.”

This does not sit well with the most important assertion in Dr Gonsalves “historic” 2005 airport speech that “If you want to have a dramatic lifting of tourism and investments in hotels and allied businesses, you need to have access.” Translation: “If you build it, they will come.”

gonsalves_argyle2.jpg
Ralph Gonsalves inspecting the unfinished Argyle International Airport

The conversion of Mr Beache from someone who likewise viewed airport supply as driving airport demand – versus the evidence-based normal reverse causal sequence -- to someone who now understands that the travel industry is full of complications occurred only recently. For years Mr Beache, like the prime minister, was among those who naively (or conveniently) believed that “you will just go out and ask and they will come” when he admitted at a December 2, 2014, press conference that “This has been an eye opener for me. I mean marketing is my forte, but the airline industry has so many intricacies”.

The most obvious “intricacy” that Mr Beache seems to have just discovered is the self evident assertion that “No airline is coming here unless they can make money. No one is coming here because they have a love for SVG.”

“Love for SVG,” of course, was how the prime minister hoodwinked the Vincentian people at home and abroad -- not the 1.4 million annual visitors, mainly tourists, the airport is designed to handle -- in 2005 into supporting the airport project in the first place!

Another “intricacy” Mr Beache noted at the same press conference is that: “…one of the biggest weaknesses is the fact that SVG has no history of direct international travel; therefore, there is no way of knowing what sort of traffic will come into the country, once the airport is open.”

On the contrary, most observers would see our 55-year experience with E. T. Joshua Airport and our late entry into direct international travel as among our biggest strengths since this allows us to learn not only from our own long airport experience but from those of our neighbours what it takes to attract and satisfy thousands of potential overseas visitors. But this learning exercise would have required a comprehensive economic feasibility study of the costs and benefits of AIA, an exercise the honourable prime minister chose not to carry out (The missing Argyle Airport feasibility studies) because the results would not have pleased him.

From my perspective, all of this explains the two opening quotes and why poor Mr Beache is chronically caught flat footed or out of step with the prime minister on one tourism issue after another.

***

This is the 24th in a series of essays on the folly of the proposed Argyle International Airport.

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
Airport politics and betrayal Vincie-style
Phony airport completion election promises, Vincie-style
Is Argyle International Airport really a ‘huge game-changer for us’?
Has the cat got your tongue, prime minister?
More proof that Argyle won't fly
Our very own Vincentian cargo cult at Argyle
The missing Argyle Airport feasibility studies
The world's four most amazing abandoned airports
Farming, fishing, and foolish talk about Argyle International Airport

C. ben-David
 
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Comments:

C. ben-David:

Forget the message; just shoot the messenger. Brilliant thinking.

John dePass:

In reading about this the writer seems to glad that there has been no airline that has agreed to fly to St Vincent. Why is that?


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