The territory’s airports closed without notice on July 17, but reopened the next day. (File photo: INTERLINK)

For the third time in less than two months, the territory’s airports closed without notice on July 17.

The Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport on Beef Island reopened that evening, while the Virgin Gorda and Anegada airports remained closed until the next morning, according to the BVI Airports Authority.

The closures reportedly forced an American Airlines flight to be redirected to Puerto Rico and left other passengers stranded before all the airports were back online by about 10 a.m. the following day, according to the BVIAA.

The agency provided few details about the reason for the closures, and it did not confirm or dispute reports of a strike by firefighters at the Beef Island airport.

Such industrial action appears to be banned by the 2010 Labour Code, which levies a fine up to $10,000 for a strike by workers in “essential services” including fire-and-rescue, transportation and port services.

Though the closures started earlier in the day, the BVIAA did not announce them until issuing a five-sentence press release shortly after 8 p.m. July 17.

“The BVI Airports Authority is informing the travelling public that the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport has re-opened following a brief closure earlier today, July 17,” the release stated. “The airport will be operational to international traffic on July 18.”

The release added that BVIAA “officer-in-charge” Ronnie Lettsome had advised that the Virgin Gorda and Anegada airports would “remain closed temporarily as a result of operational issues within the fire service.”

‘Full investigation’

At about 10 a.m. July 18, the authority announced that all airports were operational again.

Another press release issued July 19 provided a few more details, explaining that the “operational issues” in the fire service came at Beef Island, and the BVIAA had subsequently decided to close the VG and Anegada airports in order to reallocate manpower there.

BVIAA Chairman Theodore Burke said that the authority has launched a “full investigation” and it is “committed” to avoiding such disruptions in the future, the release added.

“A thorough review of our processes, primarily as it relates to staffing levels and operational disruptions, is under review,” he said.

The BVIAA did not respond to a request for more information.

May 26 closure

The territory’s airports previously closed under similar circumstances on May 26 — the day after American Airlines tested its new direct service between here and Miami.

Amid social-media rumours of a strike by air traffic controllers, BVIAA Managing Director Kurt Menal explained at the time that the facilities were forced to close after the authority “could not satisfy the minimum requirement in staffing levels to ensure continuous operations of the control tower in accordance with applicable regulations.”

The same day, Communications and Works Minister Kye Rymer explicitly denied that a strike had occurred.

“While I recognise the many challenges faced today, I am pleased to report that there was no industrial action taken by the staff at our air traffic control tower, and the issues faced were as a result of the authority’s inability to satisfy a regulatory requirement with regards to staffing levels — issues that they have been addressing at all levels on an ongoing basis to ensure a permanent solution,” Mr. Rymer said at the time.

The Beacon received no advance notice of the May 26 closure, and the BVIAA didn’t respond to queries about it.

June 3 closure

On June 3, the Beef Island airport closed again — this time two days after American Airlines launched its new direct service to Miami.

“The closure was forced when a cargo airline blew a tyre upon landing at the airport,” the BVIAA stated in a press release that day. “The aircraft is currently disabled on Runway 25.”

The airport was reopened by the next day — only to experience further issues with the “irregular operation” of an American Airlines flight to Miami.

Mr. Menal said at the time that the June 4 delay “was as a result of the prevailing winds and high temperature.”

The aircraft, he said, had to depart from the east on Runway 25, which is about 295 feet shorter than Runway Seven, which would typically be used to depart from the west.

“American Airlines operates at the T.B. Lettsome International Airport with restrictions on passenger loads on departure as a result of the current runway length constraints,” Mr. Menal said in a statement.

“The airline also has further restrictions that are required to be incorporated into their operational planning should they have to depart from a different direction than normal.”

The American Airlines pilot decided to remove all passengers’ luggage to reduce the plane’s payload before taking off, Mr. Menal said at the time.