Today, American Airlines will launch direct service between here and Miami — a major step toward resolving the access issues that have plagued the territory for decades.
As the service gets off the ground, the BVI Airports Authority must work with the Immigration and Customs departments to roll out the red carpet. To that end, the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport must be fully staffed and prepared to process all flights quickly and efficiently — without ugly surprises.
Which brings us to what happened on Friday.
Only six days before the direct-flight launch — and the day after an AA test flight — airports across the territory closed without warning for most of the day. Stranded passengers and other airport users were confused and livid.
How could this have happened?
Government officials denied that air traffic controllers went on strike as rumoured on social media, but they nevertheless blamed the closure on a staffing issue at the control tower.
This excuse is extraordinarily flimsy, and it points to the possibility of much deeper problems within the BVIAA, the Ministry of Communications and Works, and perhaps elsewhere in government.
The BVIAA board and management — who claim that they acted quickly to rectify the staffing issue, but clearly didn’t act quickly enough — must now work with central government to immediately investigate and rectify any deep-seated issues that could cause further problems.
It is unacceptable for any public airport to shut down without notice.
To say nothing of the inconvenience to residents, the Virgin Islands depends heavily on reliable transportation for its economic pillars of tourism and financial services. Indeed, leaders in both industries regularly complain that air access limitations are among their biggest challenges.
The AA flights will help address this issue, but the airports closure — which doubtlessly did not go unnoticed by the airline — is a direct threat to the new service.
Moving forward, the BVIAA and its partners must provide tip-top service at the airport from now on.
At the most basic level, this means the airport must be fully staffed. If there are not enough air traffic controllers, hire more. And alternates, of course, should be on standby in case of emergencies. The same goes for all other key positions, including the Immigration and Customs officers who process passengers.
But showing up is not enough. All employees also must receive regular customer-service training to ensure that they treat airport users in a way that will make them want to return again and again.
The territory is extremely lucky to get the direct flights that are slated to launch today, and it cannot afford any more fiascos that could make AA change course.