Following more than 10 years of failed attempts by successive governments to secure direct flights to the United States mainland — and vigorous debate about whether such flights were even possible without a major airport expansion — American Airlines is preparing to offer daily direct service to Miami starting in June.
Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley and Deputy Premier Kye Rymer — who announced the flights during a press conference on Dec. 2 — said the service could bring more than 400 new arrivals to the territory each week in a major boost to the tourism economy.
Tickets are now available for booking, and leaders said the service comes with no strings attached.
“Their interest is such that we did not have to spend one cent to get them to add this service,” Dr. Wheatley said, adding, “They see the opportunity and potential that the BVI presents, and they responded to that.”
Mr. Rymer also noted that the airline — which will offer the service through its partner Envoy Air — didn’t require any guarantees to fill a minimum number of seats.
“This speaks volumes for the confidence American Airlines sees in the Virgin Islands and the high demand for our destination,” he said.
Direct flights between the VI and the US mainland haven’t been offered for more than three decades. British Caribbean Airways launched a VI-Miami service in 1986 but closed it the same year after American Airlines began operating in the region.
VI travel got even more challenging when American Eagle, an American Airlines affiliate that linked the VI to Puerto Rico, ended 27 years of service in the Caribbean in 2013.
Since then, VI leaders have been trying to improve airlift as ticket prices skyrocketed and passengers increasingly opted to fly to St. Thomas and take a ferry to this territory from there.
However, ongoing efforts since 2013 have led to many dead-ends as previous administrations pursued a two-pronged approach: extending the Beef Island runway to accommodate larger aircraft; and heavily subsiding a new airline — BVI Airways — with planes small enough to operate on the existing runway but large enough to make it to the US.
Such efforts proved unnecessary under the new agreement with American Airlines. On Dec. 2, Dr. Wheatley commended Mr. Rymer — the minister of communications and works — for his tenacity in working with interested airlines to find a suitable fit.
Natural Resources and Labour Minister Mitch Turnbull, who also attended the press conference, spoke similarly.
“The aggressive approach of the minister of communications and works, honourable Kye Rymer, is what got us to this place,” Mr. Turnbull said.
Asked if there were any other factors that facilitated the launch of direct service after so many years of failures, the premier said no.
The aircraft that will be making the journey is the 76-passenger Embraer E175.
In September, a larger E190 safely landed at Beef Island on the existing runway, and Mr. Rymer said it proved an aircraft of that size could safely operate there.
He added that AA’s technical team later confirmed the E175 was a suitable match for the flights.
However, the 76-seater may not always be able to depart with a full load depending on weather and other conditions, he added.
The flight is set to depart daily from Miami at 10:25 a.m., arriving at 1:30 p.m., and depart from Beef Island at 2:30 p.m., arriving at 5:30 p.m.
American Airlines said in a Dec. 2 statement that the “seasonal” flights will “start on June 1, 2023 and will run through the summer, restarting again in November.”
That schedule appears to suggest that the airline would suspend flights during the height of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, which starts in June and lasts through November. The last day of summer will be Sept. 23, but the airline did not give a specific window for pausing the service.
‘Easier’ and ‘faster’
Mr. Rymer said the connection is especially beneficial because American Airlines is the largest carrier stationed at the Miami airport, providing connections to more than 140 other destinations.
The new flights should make travel “easier, faster, and more convenient,” facilitating access for both recreational and business trips, the minister added.
“This is a game changer for the Virgin Islands because it opens up a world of possibilities for us,” he said.
Asked about the ticket prices, Mr. Rymer said they would be up to the airline, but he noted that the direct flights reduce the costs associated with other connecting travel.
As of press time, July tickets ranged from about $1,500 to $3,600.
Though direct flights are soon to be a reality, the government intends to continue pursuing plans to extend the runway at Beef Island, according to the premier.
Dr. Wheatley said American Airlines’ dedication and other indicators “support the view that we do need to press forward with our mission to extend the runway at Beef Island and to invest in the infrastructure that will allow for the expansion to take place.”
Efforts to expand the runway over the past decade have been fraught.
Governments under Dr. Orlando Smith — who served as premier from 2011 to 2019 — started working toward the expansion at least as early as 2012 and spent millions on related studies, consultations and infrastructure works.
A tender process was held in 2016, but the project stalled for unexplained reasons after China Communications Construction Company was chosen as the “preferred bidder” following its bid of about $153 million. Another bid came in just under $200 million.
Simultaneously, Dr. Smith’s administration pursued a partnership with new airline BVI Airways, which he lauded as an avenue for establishing direct flights to Miami with two 85-seat jets capable of taking off from relatively short runways.
But that effort flopped too, costing the VI more than $7 million with nothing to show but an ongoing criminal investigation into the deal.
When a new government was elected in 2019, then-Premier Andrew Fahie first claimed not to support the proposed expansion, but he soon changed his mind and described the project as a “must.”
In mid-2020, 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 in June 2020, adding that consultant Brakkam Aviation Management found that a shorter runway of 7,250 linear feet would cost approximately $150.65 million.
Later, Mr. Fahie’s government described plans for a two-step approach, aiming to first establish direct flights via the current 4,642-foot runway and then work on the expansion. In March, he said an airline had contacted the VI about possibly offering direct flights to Miami three days a week.
Expansion still ‘required’
Dr. Wheatley, who was appointed premier in May after Mr. Fahie’s arrest in Florida, said on Dec. 2 that the airport expansion is still “absolutely required.”
He added that while the VI is “not a mass tourism destination,” expanding the runway to about 5,900 feet would allow “long-haul flights” from place like New York, further boosting tourism.
Mr. Rymer added that discussions with other airlines are continuing, and he noted that the increase in tourism dollars could ripple through the VI community.
The minister also thanked BVI Airports Authority Managing Director Kurt Menal, BVI Tourist Board Director Clive McCoy, BVIAA Managing Director Clive Smith, BVIAA Chief Governance Officer Drusilla Fahie, and other team members for liaising with several airlines in recent months to develop new routes “not just to the mainland USA, but to other regional and Caribbean destinations as well.”
Mr. Rymer said the team is currently in conversation with Winair, Caribbean Airlines, and other regional carriers about other routes, and further details are to come.
“The restoration of American Airlines flights to the Virgin Islands, especially at this time, is a major accomplishment for us,” Mr. Rymer said. “A lot of hard work has gone into making this a reality.”
To accommodate the anticipated increase in tourism, Mr. Rymer advised tourism businesses to prepare now.
He also echoed the premier’s encouragement in last week’s budget address for residents to consider outfitting their buildings to serve as Airbnb accommodations.
“I want to endorse that recommendation because there is going to be a demand for rooms from June 2023, with over 400 additional persons arriving in the Virgin Islands,” Mr. Rymer said.
Asked how he will ensure that residents are not priced out of already expensive rental properties, Dr. Wheatley said the government plans to enact protective legislation.
He added that the Department of Trade, Investment Promotion and Consumer Affairs has several related plans in the works, including a Fair Tenancy Act.
He added that widespread stakeholder input will be sought on the controversial issue.
“Government has a responsibility you see around the world in terms of helping to create affordable housing for individuals that will not become like slums, not become rundown,” he said. “We have to tackle affordable housing.”
To maintain national security with the potential increase in travel, Dr. Wheatley said recent legislation concerning passenger arrivals should prove useful.
Mr. Menal said during the Dec. 2 press conference that per a memorandum of understanding signed about four months ago, security officers with customs, immigration and the police will be working collectively to secure the territory’s borders.
“We actually think about safety before we think about business, because if it’s not safe you cannot make money and you cannot move passengers seamlessly,” Mr. Menal said. “In that aspect, we are most confident.”