An Atlanta-based consultant recently recommended two options for expanding the runway at Beef Island, Premier Andrew Fahie announced Friday. The recommendations have not been provided to the public. (File Photo: TODD VANSICKLE)

During last year’s election campaign, now-Premier Andrew Fahie opposed the incumbents’ rush to extend the Beef Island runway following the government’s receipt of a $153 million bid from the China Communications Construction Company.

The effort, Mr. Fahie insisted, should not be an immediate priority at a time when so many urgent hurricane-recovery projects were not completed. He has since changed his tune, however, and on Friday he disclosed that his government had effectively restarted the project from scratch, hiring an Atlanta-based consultant who recommended options “that will allow us to build a new runway without much land reclamation.”

“This will allow for the construction of a 9,100 linear foot runway at an estimated probable cost of $183.78 million,” the premier said, adding that a shorter runway of 7,250 linear feet would cost approximately $150.65 million.

Working with the BVI Airports Authority, he said, the government hopes to expand the airport and runway to attract longer-range flights and larger aircraft that can present more viable connections to the United States mainland and beyond.

“The consultant advises that this entire project, should we decide to proceed on this option, will take three to five years from start to finish, including financing, design and construction of the new runway, and the ancillary improvements to the taxiway, aircraft parking apron and passenger terminal, among other project tasks,” the premier said Friday, June 19 in the House of Assembly.

This expansion, he added, could also provide the potential for direct flights from Europe and the United Kingdom.

“This now makes it imminent for major hotel chains that have long expressed an interest in the potential of the BVI but which were discouraged by our limited airlift capacity, to now venture in because the potential for viability would be increased,” Mr. Fahie said, though he did not name the chains.

He added, “Covid-19 has, expectedly, thrown the timetables off, but we are confident that once air travel and tourism begins reawakening, these initiatives will resume.”

The consultant

The Atlanta-based consulting firm, Brakkam Aviation Management, was engaged in December to help in assessing, shaping and planning the role of air transportation in the territory going forward, Mr. Fahie said.

He did not disclose how much the BVIAA paid the firm, or say whether the consultancy was tendered.

Bakkram was founded by company CEO and President Miguel Southwell, a former general manager of the Atlanta International Airport who was fired in 2016 amid a public spat with the city’s mayor, according to the Atlanta

The BVIAA’s contract with the firm resulted in a six-month interim report that made various recommendations, beginning with suggestions for expanding the airport runway, Mr. Fahie said. The report has not been provided to the public.

History of project

Mr. Fahie’s explanations about the need for the airport expansion echo the arguments made by his predecessors in the National Democratic Party-led administration of then-Premier Dr. Orlando Smith.

Dr. Smith’s government started working toward the expansion at least as early as 2012 and spent millions on related studies, consultations and infrastructure works.

In 2016 his government chose China Communications Construction Company as its “preferred bidder” to undertake the expansion after receiving a final bid of about $153 million.

For reasons that were never clearly explained, however, the plan stalled even as elected officials continued to insist that it was still in the works.

While campaigning for the February 2019 election, Mr. Fahie announced that the Virgin Islands Party was “not in support” of the proposed airport expansion at the time, calling it a “legacy project to [Dr. Smith].”

If the VIP were voted into office, he said, it would focus instead on expanding ferry service and hosting more events designed to attract tourists. He added, though, that a VIP administration might revisit the expansion at a future time.

Talks with airlines

On Friday, Mr. Fahie also listed several other tasks undertaken by Brakkam.
The firm, for example, reached out to JetBlue and WestJet and found that while the airlines’ “interest to serve the BVI was strong, the current runway length at the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport neither renders such service operationally nor financially viable,” the premier said.

He added, “We have to deal with our infrastructure capacity so that we can get the larger aircraft to come in.”

Representatives from Caribbean Airlines also visited the airport in the recent
months with a view toward adding the VI to their route network, he added.

Mr. Fahie also explained that for its size, the Beef Island airport accommodates a large number of private corporate jets, but lacks a fixed-based operator facility for them.

Brakkam proposed to use a tender process to develop such a facility located immediately east of the existing passenger terminal, coupled with an associated large hangar capable of accommodating two modern corporate jets, the premier explained.

In collaboration with the BVIAA, Brakkam developed a call for expressions of interest, to which four companies responded and were shortlisted, followed by a request for proposals and a draft lease development agreement, according to the premier. Responses to the RFP were due on Monday, he added.

VG airport

The premier went on to explain that Brakkam also was tasked with reviewing the four proposals that were received last year in response to a request for proposals to design and construct new runway pavement at the Taddy Bay
Airport in Virgin Gorda.

The firm recommended to the board to separate the project into two parts — one a design and construction management function, and the other a construction function, according to Mr. Fahie.

It also recommended that the design and construction oversight function be awarded to Canadian firm AVIA NG, which proposed the lowest price, he said.

The project is scheduled to be completed by early December, he said.

Terminal improvements

At the urging of the BVIAA board and in collaboration with the airport administration, Mr. Fahie said Brakkam also recommended to the board a $290,300 plan to upgrade the appearance of the Beef Island airport terminal
on an interim basis.

According to the premier, this will include improvements to the restrooms and ticketing areas, roof repairs to the passenger terminal, and the expansion and renovation of the international arrivals area.

This work is expected to be completed by Nov. 30, using “a pool of construction firms,” he explained.

Brakkam has also recommended the reconfiguration of the airport’s unoccupied restaurant space to serve food and beverages post-security only, reduce the size of the restaurant, and permit the security checkpoint area to be expanded into the partially vacated restaurant space, the premier said.

A restaurant operator was selected through a tender process prior to Brakkam’s engagement, and is set to launch by November.

“Separately, Brakkam has worked in collaboration with airport administration to develop rates and charges for the opening of a new airport VIP lounge, and
has developed and issued an RFP to solicit and engage a hospitality sector entity with either airline lounge, hotel, restaurant, or school-of-hospitality operational experience,” Mr. Fahie said.

To make way for the expansion of the airport facilities, Brakkam, working in collaboration with airport administration, also has developed a request for proposals for the relocation and development of a new fuel farm to service commercial aircraft at Beef Island, according to Mr. Fahie.

Additionally, Brakkam assisted the BVIAA in revising its insurance policy to ensure adequate coverage for typical and costly storm damage such as mould removal and repairs, “which were not previously covered in its policy,” according to the premier.

The firm also helped implement “strict guidelines that now consistently require performance and payment bonds from contractors, [which] eliminates the BVIAA being exposed in the event contractors do not complete the project or fail to pay their subcontractors,” Mr. Fahie explained.

LIAT talks

Brakkam has also been “instrumental” in assisting the BVIAA in its recent discussions with LIAT, the premier said, allowing the authority to put forward with an “alternative arrangement” to the annual subsidy the airline had requested to continue operating in the VI.

He did not disclose the details of the arrangement. The consultant also conducted an extensive organisation assessment of the BVIAA airport administration, the premier said, adding that its “management qualifications, culture, structure, key processes and the level of staff engagement were all examined.