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Field of Dreams (Part 2)

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By Frank E. da Silva Tue, Aug 14, 2012

(Reminder, this first appeared in 1999)

Scenario – imagined sequence of future events. Option – liberty of choosing. Viable – capable of existence and development as an independent unit.

For years now Vincentian politicians have been dangling the prospect of an international airport to voters as one would a carrot before a rabbit about to lose its freedom. The argument as to what is best – extension of the current strip or a brand new airfield – becomes loudest whenever election looms near. Before the last election, the Opposition, ULP raised the issue.{{more}} Mitchell, who had previously come out on both sides of the issue, reacted by brandishing a paper, declaring that he had a commitment of US$100M for construction of an international airport. We now know that Mitchell lied, but he opened the gate to the Opposition and those who see this as an opportunity to advance their warped political agenda, when he later reversed himself.

[Mitchell never reversed himself. I bought opposition misinformation. The funding is detailed in his book, Beyond the Islands, at page 421. In fact, in July 2001 a ULP delegation headed to Taiwan to get permission to switch half of the money to the construction of the cross-country road.]

Profitable routes

When the ULP raised the issue back then, I stated that it was making a promise it could not keep – at least not before the next General Election. I also pointed out at the time that both Grenada and St Lucia with international airports were in dire straits just for the upkeep of their facilities. In fact, American Airlines rather than paying for landing rights was demanding a combined US$1M not only from Grenada and St Lucia but also the well established Antigua airport, if it were to continue to service them. BWIA had already curtailed its flights out of Grenada and had also switched to a smaller aircraft to service St Lucia – utilizing, for the most part, the airport at the port of Castries, not the international airport.

The payloads were insufficient to make the routes profitable – a factor now completely ignored by those shrills calling for an international airport. The MD 90-30 with maximum take off load [144 passengers] can operate on runways as short as 5,000 feet. The 757-200 with maximum take off load [201 passengers] can operate on runways 5,900 feet. Our present runway is 4,650 feet. Government plans would make it 6,500 feet. What is the average number of passengers now entering and leaving SVG per day? Are they all heading from and for the same destination? Forget about 65% of capacity, would they be even 35% of capacity? Does anyone recall an airline named Carib Express? Maybe tail wind would not be such a factor after all?

Political tool

Five years previously, I would have been on the international airport bandwagon. But having paid close attention to the difficulties encountered by our neighbours, I realized that practical was preferable to prestige; that a self-sustaining smaller airport would not become a burden to already cash-strapped Vincentians. It was now my contention that what we needed in SVG was to extend the landing strip at Arnos Vale to facilitate cargo planes ferrying produce out of SVG and an arrangement with regional carriers to drastically reduce the waiting period of passenger embarking or disembarking international carriers in Barbados and St Lucia. In this era of cost cutting and airline hubs, a two-hour wait for transfer is not unreasonable.

Apart from the fact that an international airport for SVG seems to be a useful political tool, no one has demonstrated any convincing economic reason to undertake the construction of such a facility. Of course, they have advanced a number of scenarios – what-could-be-if. They play to a public in search of hope. There are no downsides in their prognostications. The boom they forecast for SVG if only we would build an international airport has not occurred in either Grenada or St Lucia. These same people who time and again have bemoaned the fact that Vincentians have not been able to organized the age-old Nine Morning festivities for maximum economic benefit or any benefit at all, now advance the theory that all we need is an international airport to see a drastic change in peoples’ attitude. Carnival, I supposed, would suddenly be well organized and profitable. Sport tourism and eco-tourism [Jerrol Thompson] the latest buzzwords of our pseudo-intellectuals, would have us raking millions. Pity the Grenadians, St Lucians, Antiguans and Bajans have not yet thought of that.

Conjectures

As justification for construction of an international airport, some opined, as how “one could see for instance a qualitative change in life in Grenada since the construction of its airport” [Adrian Fraser]. The suggestion being that Vincentians would experience a similar change. But could we not attribute this change [providing we agree with the assessment] to the fact that at about the same time the airport was completed, Grenadians were once again enjoying political freedom? And this must, in any case, be shocking news to those who worship at the alter of Maurice Bishop that life in Grenada got better after his demise. Even if we were to accept that the construction was responsible for the apparent-to-some “qualitative change in life” now that we know that just the maintenance of the airport has become a burden to the Grenadian taxpayer, should we still proceed?

The proponents of the international airport tell us it would be more cost effective to build a new airport at a cost of US$225M than an expansion at US$55M. We know what the production would be after construction at $55M, while all we are given are conjectures for our $225M. We have been told by our local economist [who should know, Ivan O’neal] that given our current indebtedness no one is going to lend us money for construction of an airport or for anything else for that matter, yet this is the same person screaming the loudest for an international airport. We have been told that given the Mitchell/NDP track record, the cost of construction would more than likely be doubled, yet this person is all in favour of entrusting huge sums to this “inept administration”. Which leads me to believe that all this is opposition for opposition sake – a trifle disingenuous.

Awakened

It seems to me “that in light of the number of large projects that have gone sour, the Government” have become “more cautious”. It now favours what is viable over what is impressive and prestigious. Maybe they realize that it is easier to raise $55M than $450M, which does not leave us with any options. Maybe they realize that our farmers seeking to gain a foothold in the American market cannot wait seven years [time suggested by Ken Boyea] for an international airport.

Maybe Mitchell has learnt from his mistakes – Union Island Marina, Bequia Airport, the soon-to-be-opened Cruise Ship Berth [we shall see] and the grand-daddy of them all, Ottley Hall – that because you build them, does not mean, “they will come”. Maybe Mitchell has been awakened from his “Field of Dreams”.

Next week, the conclusion.

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