At a time when access limitations are one of the territory’s most intractable problems, the National Unity Government has scored a major victory by securing direct flights between here and Miami.
The daily American Airlines trips scheduled to start next June will bring an invaluable boost to tourism and financial services in addition to benefitting residents who travel frequently, thrilling developers and other real estate professionals, and encouraging investment.
Best of all, leaders say the flights will come at no cost to taxpayers.
We were surprised and impressed that the NUG managed to score this success after less than seven months in office. The two previous governments, after all, promised direct flights for more than a decade without success.
Even before the disastrous pullout of American Eagle in 2013, the National Democratic Party-led administration that came to office in 2011 had been promising to increase airlift. But the results were underwhelming at best.
First, the NDP administration started planning a controversial runway expansion which it claimed was required to establish direct flights to the US mainland. But that project stalled amid the usual bumbling, with leaders skipping a requirement to commission and publish a proper business case before moving forward, among other missteps.
Amid the resulting delays, the NDP announced a plan for direct Miami flights through the ill-fated BVI Airways deal, an embarrassing failure that ultimately cost taxpayers at least $7.2 million and is now under criminal investigation.
Following the 2019 general election, then-Premier Andrew Fahie’s Virgin Islands Party government promised to resume efforts to expand the runway and to source direct flights. More bumbling followed, with the apparent abandonment of the NDP’s previous work and the hiring of a new consultant whose report has never even been published.
The current government appears to have turned over a new leaf. Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley and Deputy Premier Kye Rymer say the new flights won’t cost government a dime, and no runway expansion is required.
Perhaps the NUG simply got lucky at a time when the airline industry is revamping after the Covid-19 pandemic and American Airlines is expanding its footprint across the region. But Dr. Wheatley credited Mr. Rymer’s tenacity and negotiating prowess.
In any case, they both deserve big kudos, as does the entire NUG, the BVI Airports Authority, and any other public agency that played a part in clinching the deal.
To be clear, the direct flights won’t be a panacea that will resolve the territory’s longstanding access problems overnight. Only one daily round-trip is promised, and the planes to be used seat less than 80 passengers.
But the agreement is nevertheless a giant step in the right direction, and if the flights prove successful the airline may well agree to increase their frequency with or without a subsidy.
Once the direct flights are operational, the government should publicly re-examine its plans to expand the airport, which the premier said are still in play. To that end, they should host new public consultations and commission an independent business case that examines all access options — including subsidising a more robust schedule of direct flights — before rushing ahead blindly.
In other words, the sort of leadership that finally brought direct flights to the US mainland must continue as the territory works toward a long-term comprehensive solution to its access problems.
But for today, celebrations are in order.