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Operations to commence at AIA on February 14, 2017

Operations to commence at AIA on February 14, 2017

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Beginning February 14, 2017, all flights operating into and out of St Vincent will do so from the Argyle International Airport (AIA).

The long awaited official announcement of the date on which the AIA will become operational – Valentine’s Day – was made yesterday on radio by Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves.

Two international flights among those landing at new airport

And on that historic day, at least two international flights originating from North America will be among those landing at the new airport.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority (SVGTA) Glen Beache told SEARCHLIGHT yesterday that Caribbean Airlines (CAL) and Sunwing Airlines have both confirmed that they will operate inaugural charters on February 14 into the AIA from John F Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York and Pearson International Airport (YYZ) in Toronto.

Beache said details are still being worked out with these airlines about how the bookings will be done and when the flights will be listed online.

“Sunwing is actually a charter company so they will have to go to Sunwing themselves to book it; that is from Toronto to SVG….We are working with CAL now to see if they will do the bookings, if not, then we will have to work with a tour operator, either a travel agent from St Vincent or a tour operator out of the States….,” Beache stated.

He said that the return leg of both flights to North America will be on February 21, but he is not yet sure if the charters will be taking bookings from people hoping to travel out of the AIA on February 14 and return to SVG on the 21st.

The CEO explained that not offering a return charter might work out cheaper for the country if all the seats going back up are not sold.

“If I can’t sell out that, it makes no sense.”

“If you don’t do the return… because they are going up so much lighter, the charter fare will be actually be $15,000 less, because going up with people and luggage, where they lose money with that, is the weight, the fuel. So if the plane goes back up empty, it is $15,000 less.”

Beache shared that both CAL and Sunwing will be using Boeing 737 airliners which have 137 economy seats and 16 seats in first/business class to fly into the AIA.

The cost of the return airline tickets are still being worked out, he said.

“We are working out the fares and so on; chartering a plane is not cheap, but we have to at least try to make back the money we are going to spend on it.”

In terms of a charter from the United Kingdom, Beache said he is not yet sure if one will be arranged in time for the opening.

“Right now, we are speaking to Thomas Cook, Virgin and British Airways out of England, we are not sure yet what will happen as yet regarding that.”

According to Beache, efforts are being made to have both flights from North America land at the AIA about one hour apart, hopefully at 3 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon of February 14, at which time a welcoming ceremony will be held.

He disclosed that the Prime Minister has set up a special committee led by Minister of Transport and Works Julian Francis to deal with the opening ceremony. He said it is that committee, which will decide on the programme on that day.

Regularly scheduled flights

The CEO of the SVGTA disclosed that talks are being held with the US based airline JetBlue and WestJet of Canada to reschedule their date of start up of regular flights to the AIA.

According to Beache, both airlines had been ready to begin regular flights to the AIA since October, but the airport did not open in time.

“JetBlue is interested in coming in in October / November 2017, but we are in talks with them to get them in by June, 2017.”

“American Airlines, their inaugural flight was actually supposed to be on December 16, 2016; obviously we did not open in time, but we’re negotiating with them right now to see exactly when they are going to start. I am figuring that they will start going directly into Miami in the first half of 2017.”

He said discussions are also ongoing with CAL for regularly scheduled flights.

“CAL is definitely a possibility for JFK and Pearson.”

Beache however admitted that arranging flights out of the United Kingdom is a bit more challenging.

“The United Kingdom is a bit more difficult in terms of the way they do business.”

He said the closure of the Buccament Bay Resort a few weeks ago also affected negotiations because of the loss of 112 hotel rooms.

“It should also be known that one of the reasons we were able to get so far with negotiations with them (with airlines from the UK) is because of the rooms at Buccama; Buccama was part of it.”

He however assured that the Government is working on having the rooms at the Buccament Bay Resort back up and running.

He also said that the airlines are pleased about the minimum quality standards for the tourism industry which have been instituted by the SVGTA.

“A key part to all of this, and all of them have said it, …. has been the fact that we have put in the standards. The minimum standards for hotels, taxi drivers and so on.

“Well, they have always gotten alot of complaints, about service, that has been one of the biggest issues: so to see these things in place, the airlines are happy about it. They are very happy in terms of moving forward.”

Beache also said the possibility is also being explored of St Vincent being used as the home port for some of the cruise lines that operate in the region and meetings will be held early in 2017 to try to arrange for this.

“One of the good things about St Vincent is that the cruise ship terminal is only half an hour drive from the Argyle International Airport, so it is a quick turnaround for the cruise ship.”

AIA will maintain the IATA code of SVD

Beache explained that come February 14, all airport operations at E T Joshua will cease, but the AIA will maintain the International Air Transport Association code of SVD which was used at E T Joshua.

“Nothing will be going into E T Joshua, everything will be going into Argyle International airport from February 14. It is a direct transfer. They will be using the same code.”

According to Beache, the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority (ECCAA) has a few more things to check, but is overall happy with everything so far. He said initially the plan was to groove only the northern and southern ends of the airstrip, but instead, the entire strip was grooved, which cost $2 million.

“But the pilots like it, it helps the water run off.”

He said most of the ground handling equipment is here, and he is having talks with the ground handlers and the airlines to make sure everything is in place.

Beache said as difficult as the construction of the airport was, it is nothing compared to becoming operational.

“We are looking to have TSA in here by February, because they have to come in here to do their security checks. All the things that you have to put in place. It’s not going to be perfect, but at least it will be operational. Every international airport is a construction site at some point.”

In closing, Beache thanked the Mustique Company Ltd., who he said has been of “great assistance” to the Government in terms of “doing certain things.”

Construction work on the AIA began in 2008, and the project is estimated to have cost in excess of $720 million. Funding for the project was provided by grants and assistance from a group of countries referred to as the ‘Coalition of the Willing’, loans and the sale of state lands. Members of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ include Venezuela, Cuba, Taiwan, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, Austria, Iran, Libya, Qatar, Georgia and Kuwait.

The project has missed several dates on which it was supposed to become operational, the most recent being December 15, 2016.

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