“The AIA is … a metaphor, a symbol, an alive testament to what a determined people … can achieve”
(Dr Ralph E. Gonsalves, St. Vincent and the Grenadines [SVG] 2017 Budget address, February 6, 2017).
(“Poppy show”, Caribbean usage: “Actions or events that are boastful, showy; foolish, ridiculous; worthless.”)
The nagging question of how many passengers landed at Argyle International Airport (AIA) on the various Valentine’s Day chartered flights has now been answered by the SVG Tourism Authority. The short reply is “very few.”
This observation is more evidence that the painfully slow-motion AIA exercise from public conception in 2005 to partial birth in 2017 has been no more than a “poppy show.” This is not because many of the invited foreign dignitaries failed to appear for the February 14 opening, or because far fewer than the tens of thousands of expected patriotic celebrants showed up, despite the declaration of a national holiday, or because the business sector, including our hoteliers, have always given a big yawn to the airport’s construction, or even because the airport’s financing was spurned from the beginning by our traditional donors (the World Bank, the Caribbean Development Bank, the European Union, Great Britain, the United States, and Canada).
Instead, the poppy show designation refers to the clear lack of active interest in AIA’s completion by the hundreds of thousands of diasporic Vincentians, their children, and grandchildren, as confirmed by the figures in the two tables below.
Table 1. Arrivals and Departures, Argyle International Airport, February 14, 2017
Table 2. Arrivals and Departures, Argyle International Airport, February 21, 2017
To be sure, although the prime minister announced that the airport would officially open on Valentine’s Day in a December 29, 2016, media comment six weeks earlier, actual bookings were accepted only three weeks prior to the opening, thereby making it difficult for most working people and others to make the necessary travel arrangements to come to SVG on that date.
Still, this needs to be reconciled with two other traveling cohorts: (1) many ticket-paying flyers chose one of these flights not because they were planning to travel to SVG on or about this particular date but because of the historical nature of the February 14 airport opening and (2) many of the passengers who deplaned were government officials, hangers-on, and media personnel whose passage was sponsored from the treasury of SVG or by other parties because of the ceremonial and newsworthy nature of the flights. (Every large commercial flight carries people whose costs were paid by other parties and who would not otherwise have travelled, but I contend that the February 14 fight contained a disproportionate number of such persons partly to fill empty seats that had already been paid for by the state).
My assumption is that these two categories compensated for the passengers who would have flown down from Toronto and New York, save for work and other constraints, an assertion supported by the pitiful departure numbers on February 14 and the equally wretched arrival levels on February 21.
I suspect that at least half of the 217 passengers who deplaned on February 14 from New York and Toronto fell into one of these categories. In other words, I hypothesize that no more than 100 or so passengers chose these flights because they were already planning to come to SVG on or about Valentine’s Day. For them, flying non-stop from Toronto or New York was more convenient (but not necessarily cheaper) than flying through Barbados, St Lucia, Grenada, or Trinidad, among other options. This leaves well under 100 persons who paid out of pocket solely for the privilege of flying home on one of three historic flights non-stop from mainland North America.
Explaining the higher number of non-stop departures on February 21 is more difficult. Certainly, an additional week of booking time might have made some difference but this leaves unanswered why 15 times fewer passengers arrived on the Sunwing and Caribbean Airlines flights than departed the same day.
But even at a 15-fold level, the 55-percent capacity of the Sunwing Airlines departure flight to Toronto on February 21 was far below the 95-100 percent aircraft load to popular Caribbean destinations during this peak winter visitor period. The same holds true for the February 14 Sunwing arrival flight.
This high tourist season demand also means that thousands of last minute flyers are annually disappointed to find that they cannot book a flight to their preferred destination during peak periods. Why at least a miniscule portion of the 30 million tourists who visit the Caribbean every year – plus a few more diasporic Vincentians not constrained by other commitments -- could not have been lured to St Vincent Island on February 14 or 21 to fill the 726 empty seats on Dynamic Airways, Caribbean Airlines, or Sunwing is something our hardworking Tourism Authority (which took over two weeks to release these figures) and its CEO, Glen Beache, need to explain to us.
All these empty seats do not speak well for the attractiveness of our destination or the success of our new airport, given that the combined population of the departure cities, New York and Toronto, is almost 12 million people.
This is why the embarrassing Valentine’s Day and post-Valentine’s Day passenger figures are the furthest thing from “a metaphor, a symbol, an alive testament to what a determined people … can achieve
” that one could possibly imagine unless, of course, if the aim were to achieve the poppy show of poppy shows.
As for the cost of the charter flights that Glen Beache promised would be sold out within an hour of their offering, my estimates (which may or may not include taxes) are as follows:
Sunwing Airlines: 189 seats x US$449 per one-way flight = US$84,861, or US$339,444 for the total charter for both February 14 and 21.
Caribbean Airlines: 154 seats X US$499 per one-way flight = US$76,846, or US$307,384 for the total charter for both February 14 and 21.
Tallying all the unoccupied seats on the relevant flights shows that the SVG Tourism Authority’s booking of these eight flights by the two airlines resulted in a US$461,674 shortfall, an amount the airlines deducted from the up-front full-cost deposits on these flights.
This deficit, equivalent to EC$1.23 million, does not include the dozens of “free” seats occupied by various dignitaries, public servants, and hangers-on, whose numbers would raise this sum to at least EC$1.5 million, monies that could have been spent on more worthwhile efforts.
That the Tourism Authority couldn’t even fill the empty pre-paid seats with freeloading passengers speaks volumes to its competence and our overall potential to develop the hospitality sector.
This is the 48th in a series of essays on the Argyle International Airport folly.
My other AIA essays are listed below:
1. Get ready for a November election in St Vincent and the Grenadines! But which November?
2. Lessons for Argyle International Airport from Canada's Montreal-Mirabel International Airport
3. Lessons for Argyle International Airport from the cruise ship industry
4. Lessons from Target Canada for Argyle International Airport in St Vincent
5. Lessons from Trinidad and Tobago for Argyle International Airport
6. The dark side of tourism: Lessons for Argyle Airport
7. Why Argyle won't fly: Lessons from Dominica
8. Ken Boyea and the Phantom City at Arnos Vale
9. Airport envy Vincie-style
10. Fully realising our country's tourism potential
11. Airport without a cause
12. The unnatural place for an international airport
13. The Potemkin Folly at Argyle
14. False patriotism and deceitful promises at Argyle
15. Airport politics and betrayal Vincie-style
16. Phony airport completion election promises, Vincie-style
17. Is Argyle International Airport really a ‘huge game-changer for us’?
18. Has the cat got your tongue, prime minister?
19. More proof that Argyle won't fly
20. Our very own Vincentian cargo cult at Argyle
21. The missing Argyle Airport feasibility studies
22. The world's four most amazing abandoned airports
23. Farming, fishing, and foolish talk about Argyle International Airport
24. Argyle Airport amateur hour
25. St Vincent's place in the world of travel
26. Investing in St Vincent's tourism industry
27. The Argyle Airport Prophecy: What the numbers say
28. Did the IMF drink the Comrade's Kool-Aid?
29. Why Qatar? Why St Vincent and the Grenadines?
30. Foolish words about Argyle International Airport
31. 'If I come, you will build it': Lessons from the Maldives for Argyle International Airport
32. City lessons for Argyle International Airport
33. Who really lands at Arnos Vale?
34. No ticky, no washy - Argyle-style
35. We have met the Vincentian tourism enemy and he is us
36. Hotel St Vincent
37. Why St Vincent Island has so few tourists
38. Why Bequia is a gem of the Antilles
39. Why seeing is believing in the Caribbean tourism industry
40. St Vincent's cruise ship numbers are much lower than we think
41. Lessons from Barbados for Argyle Airport
42. Cuba's tourism rollercoaster: Lessons for Argyle Airport
43. What the world teaches Black Sands Resort and Villas
44. Not all Argyle airport critics are 'internet crazies'
45. Why Roraima Airways? Lessons for Argyle airport
46. The print media's take on the opening of Argyle International Airport
47. Our Argyle International Airport 'veritable miracle'