On March 29, I attended the second of two public meetings held to discuss the proposed expansion of the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport on Beef Island. This meeting followed the one held in East End on March 27.
The meeting, although not especially well attended, was well run by Deputy Premier Dr. Kedrick Pickering, the minister of natural resources and labour. Dr. Pickering made it clear at the start that the government, for reasons that he clearly defined, had decided to proceed with the upgrading of the airport. Government officials had in hand some five recommendations from a consultant commissioned by the previous government. To this had been added a sixth recommendation, which had been added at the request of the Airports Authority. The main options under consideration were options four and six, the options which had been discussed at the East End meeting of March 27.
These are the options that were discussed in my March 29 letter in The BVI Beacon.
I was favourably impressed with Dr. Pickering’s straightforward approach and with the logic of his comments. While I do not agree with all of the conclusions drawn, and while I think that there may well be weaknesses in some areas, it seems obvious that the government is deeply committed to considering all of the factors involved in the final decision and that the preservation of the environment is of high interest in the decision-making process.
That does not, however, as Dr. Pickering made clear, indicate that the project in total would be rejected for environmental reasons only. There was an obvious feeling that the old story of omelets and broken eggs could apply in this case.
The base argument is that the two main “pillars” of the local economy are tourism and offshore finance. As has been previously noted, the government probably realises most of its income from the latter source. But most of the employment income in the territory inevitably comes from the tourist industry. And it is this industry that is becoming of major concern to the government. Concerns date back to 9/11, when the tourist industry was devastated by the terrorist attacks.
The local effect of those attacks on the tourist industry was obvious when the Tortola incinerator complex, which had been running over capacity, ran out of waste and was forced to shut down intermittently. The tourist industry has not really recovered, either locally or generally in the Caribbean, since that date.
And now, to add to the basic problem, the advent of Cuba as a tourist destination in competition with the established older destinations may have a further adverse effect. Cost, as ever in a tight economy, will remain a major factor. And Cuba is noted for low cost.
The government believes that access to the VI must be improved. Part of the programme to improve this aspect of the local system is the improvement of all ports of entry, both for ferries (in West End and Road Town) and aircraft at Beef Island.
The aircraft situation is made more urgent by the apparent imminent disappearance of the San Juan-Beef Island route of American Eagle. This development can possibly be added to the rumoured departure of LIAT from the local scene. If both of these things happen, the VI could essentially be left with little or no airlift capacity.
The idea that Cape Air and/or Seaborne would pick up the “slack” is patently ridiculous. Cape Air flies nine-seat aircrafts. Seaborne flies Twin Otters on floats, which probably would be incapable of landing at Beef Island. For Cape Air to match the four 70-seat ATR-70 flights per day of American Eagle, it would have to operate more than 30 round-trip flights to and from Puerto Rico each day. Given a day stretching from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., this amounts to three flights per hour. This is impractical in the extreme. So it is obvious that, if American Eagle backs out, there will need to be another airline (other than Cape Air) which starts to operate flights. Considering LIAT’s reputation and past performance, it possibly should not be LIAT that we depend on.
The government has been talking to Air Canada, Delta and JetBlue on the subject of providing flights, preferably direct flights, to the territory. It is also talking to others, but has, in reality, had no firm positive response from any carrier. This fact alone probably represents the main weakness in the government proposals. But without the runway extension, there is very little possibility that any major airline will be interested in coming to the VI, either from San Juan or direct from the US. There is at least a chance — however small — with the expansion.
Another important factor is the high cost of airline fares to Tortola from San Juan, and presumably from any US starting point. A VI family discovered that the fare for a family of five from Beef Island to Miami (to see Disney World) was $800 more expensive than the equivalent flight from St. Thomas. And that comparison included the ferry rides plus a night in a hotel in St. Thomas. They travelled from St. Thomas.
Until this sort of discrepancy is corrected, the concept of flying from Tortola rather than St. Thomas will remain a non-runner.
Options on the table
The runway extension options under consideration are the “realignment” option (option four) and the simple extension option (option six). The advantages and disadvantages of both of these options were discussed in the March 29 issue of the Beacon. The public meeting added little to the general discussion published therein.
The realignment option exposes the landing aircraft to more of a crosswind situation under most conditions. I suspect that these increased crosswinds are responsible for the fact that the option uses a runway width twice as wide as option six. This is, of course, a major factor in the $78 million cost of the realignment option.
In addition, the Airports Authority noted the probable presence of increased wind shear arising from the eddies around the mountain on Beef Island. While these would also affect the other option, they would probably be more severe.
The approach to the realigned runway would, however, be closer to “straight in” rather than involving a rather sharp turn to starboard as with the “simple” extension. The approach patterns are currently under study.
From an environmental standpoint, it becomes obvious that option four will eliminate the salt pond located to the north of the existing runway. It would, however, have much less effect on Trellis Bay.
Option six, the “simple” extension, provides a more complex approach pattern, but is less affected by crosswinds. The overall result seems to be that the width of the runway can be narrower (75 feet vs. 150 feet), with the attendant decrease in cost to an estimated $38 to $40 million.
But the effect on Trellis Bay is much more severe. The majority of the extension is to the east, and this comes fairly close to closing off the “mouth” of the bay. Unless the point on the south side of the entry to the bay is removed, I give Trellis Bay less than 10 percent chance of surviving as a reasonable mooring area. And the extension comes very close to The Last Resort on Bellamy Cay. I frankly give the restaurant very little chance of survival — because of noise pollution if nothing else.
There are other questions as well.
• If option six is chosen (as appears probable at this point), the question of how to keep the airport open during the construction period becomes of interest. Dr. Pickering really could not answer this one.
• The means of access from the bridge to the terminal area has not been fully considered. It is obvious that either the existing road will have to be relocated or some form of tunnel provided.
• It is all too easy to draw “pretty pictures” on slides, but the extent of the fill areas for both options will inevitably control the amount of damage to the surrounding sea areas, and definitive engineering effort has been expended in this area.
• Kraus-Manning is responsible for the preparation of the environmental impact assessment. The company has sub-consultants for the projected social impact and marine impact assessments. This report is due at the end of April. However, there is no fixed procedure to be followed after the EIA is submitted. This has several implications:
• It is uncertain whether the EIA will be available in total for public review.
• It is not clear whether there will be any further meetings after the EIA is submitted.
• As usual, there may well be a tendency to proceed regardless of what the EIA says.
• It is totally uncertain exactly how much definitive engineering will be provided by Kraus-Manning. The firm was far from a dominant presence at the meeting.
While the meeting was much more informative than I expected, I am sincerely doubtful that the very serious questions can be answered in the one-month period that has been allowed for the preparation of the EIA. I suggest that the EIA submission at the end of April be a “progress” submission and that the final submission — and perhaps the final decision on which (if any) option — be delayed until more definitive engineering is completed.
There is also an apparent need for a much better understanding of exactly which airlines are interested in providing flights, how many flights, from where, at what cost, with what aircraft, and what local facilities (such as refueling facilities) will be required.
We are gambling on spending a minimum of $40 million — which could well double, given our track record — and to this point in time we have exactly no definitive economic justification.
We know that we could be in trouble, and the government is to be praised for attempting to take steps in good time to correct the problem. But let us hope that these steps are not driven by panic.