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Airports – Whence we came! – Part 1

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Fri Aug 30, 2013

As a kid growing up, I remember those days of early flights to and from our blessed homeland St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).

For those who, likewise, would remember the flights into and out of the Diamond Airport on the Windward side of the island, and the old Grumman Goose operation within the Villa cut along the southern shoreline, oh what exciting days those were.{{more}} Then sometime later came the construction of the Arnos Vale Airport, on lands owned by the Casson family. Note that I maintain the location’s name, and not the given name after some legendary person, as in the case of E.T. Joshua.

St Vincent will always carry the airport designation of SVD, as this was given to our first airport at Diamond (ST VINCENT DIAMOND) and, according to international designation standards, this abbreviated form was transferred later to our Arnos Vale Airport (E. T. Joshua), and on completion, will be given to the Argyle Airport, once Arnos Vale closes.

Airport Development: It is indeed a heightened topic that is currently occupying the minds or our people, especially with the ongoing new development at Argyle, which, as some would say, “forty years too late!” But before I venture into some detail on this development, let us all take a closer look at what we currently have as airports (from south to north), that are in use within the state of SVG.

Union Island: This was built as a landing strip back in the early to mid 1970’s by the owners/operators of the Anchorage Hotel on Union Island, who originated from the French island of Martinique, and wanted a fast gateway to fly their gold prizes (conch, lobster and fish) to the ready marketplace in Martinique. Also, Union’s airport was a great improvement over the grass landing strip that existed on Palm (Prune) Island, which was closed shortly after. Union Island was further expanded and reoriented (without night landing), during the period of the James Mitchell administration.

Canouan: The airport on this island was developed during the early 1980’s, after the island was seen as having great potential for tourism development, with the government of that day putting down the first dirt strip to attract its initial investors. Later on, as the current development process took off in flight, Canouan’s airport was further enhanced (with night landing and a runway length of 5,873 ft.), to what it is today, with help from both government and the developers. Canouan, which accommodates LIAT, now boasts of having a jet airport, and many have touted that this should really be our international gateway, but little do they understand the logistics of an international airport.

Consider for a moment just these following few points:

1. To develop Canouan to greater international standards would mean extending the runway further into the sea; this would cause much reef/marine life destruction, which the ecology could not sustain.

2. Consider for a moment also, the noise levels on such a small island as Canouan, from high levels of larger jet traffic (Boeing 747, 757, 777, Airbus A360, A380 etc.) which would hamper the tranquility of such a resort island.

3. Also Canouan does not have the land space to accommodate a large enough refueling and cargo facility as is planned for Argyle. Remember it is not only “just a bottom in a seat,” but think of the large volumes of cargo both inbound and outbound that would have to use this gateway. One also has to consider the added costs for both passengers and cargo, to be ferried between mainland St Vincent and Canouan. How would over 100,000 persons (and counting) feel, as opposed to fewer than 5,000 persons in the southern Grenadines.

Mustique: The Mustique airport was first started as a grass strip, back in the early days of Collin Tennant’s involvement in the development of that island, and over time, this has transcended to what it is today, basically a short take-off and landing (STOL) airport, with only emergency night operations, which is ideally suited for the enterprising home owners/investors there.

Bequia: This was conceptualized and built by the then James Mitchell administration and I admire him for this initiative, but oh, what a waste! This airport sees very little traffic on a daily basis; one only hopes that with the recent, new developments on the island, this airport may become profitable one day, as government has to subsidize it heavily. Do remember that this was built at no cost to the government of SVG, but was funded by way of total grant funds through the European Union (EU).

St Vincent (Mainland): As highlighted in my preamble, SVG has seen progression over time, and with an increasing population, plus the increased demand for air access, one must consider what options are available.

The Marshall, Macklin and Monaghan (MMM) report of 1998 gave several options to the Government, including the existing Arnos Vale site. Areas discussed in the document are as follows:

1. Langley Park: This location in the extreme north east, heavy in agriculture production, but because of the closeness to the volcano, not a wise choice.

2. Buccament: A location on the leeward side of SVG, but because of severe hill restrictions, this site was not considered as feasible.

3. Arnos Vale: Which is the current site with a runway length of 4,595 ft. To extend it by just about a mile plus, would mean reclaiming and filling at depths of 40 ft. or deeper. These are hidden areas in which the costs could be very enormous. Also, consider that we would not migrate to true international standards, as it would remain just a STOL (short take off and landing) aerodrome with a tailwind component, as we have always had before, and with all current restrictions still being in place.

4. Kitchen: This location stretches from Ratho Mill point to Milligan’s Cay, noted to be the best suited site by far, but the most costly to construct, as to fill three bays (Breakers, Brighton Salt Pond and between mainland and Milligan’s Cay) would be a colossal amount, several times greater than what is being done at Argyle. Also the land acquisition would put the overall cost for this site at over twice the cost of Argyle.

5. Diamond: To return to this old site, would entail several major earth works in extending the runway as far back into the areas of Choppins/Harmony Hall, to give the required runway length of 7,000 to 9,000 ft. Consider the overall cost to include a total re-routing of the Windward highway from somewhere in Prospect to exit in Stubbs, along with the much higher cost of house and land acquisition, several times more than Argyle posed.

6. Argyle: This site has been considered the site of choice by many, even by the consultants MMM of Canada and Kocks Consult of Germany, see the EIA report 2008.

Unlike us here in St Vincent, some of our sister islands in the Caribbean have been very fortunate to have as a left-over product from the last World War, the infrastructure of a military base that was later refurbished and put to very good use as their international airport facility. Unfortunately, that was never the case in SVG, so we had to start from scratch, unlike Trinidad, Barbados, St Lucia and several others, who were that fortunate to have something to start with, and in many cases saw the need for expansion over time.

To Be Continued!

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