Airlift to the Virgin Islands may eventually get easier and more affordable with the addition of direct flights to the mainland United States if Deputy Premier Kye Rymer’s recent conversations with eight major airlines during an industry event in Las Vegas prove successful.
However, he said, a controversial plan long in the works to expand the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport runway may have to come first.
“Firstly, and obviously, we want to get direct flights to the US mainland,” Mr. Rymer said in a statement to the House of Assembly on Oct. 25. “Our second aim is to increase connectivity and the overall volume of flights and passengers coming through our airports. And our third aim was to promote the BVI as a top-quality and high-value tourist destination and attract more visitors.”
The delegation to the Oct. 9-11 Routes World 2022 event in Las Vegas also included BVI Airports Authority Managing Director Kurt Menal; BVIAA Chairman Theodore Burke; Tourism Director Clive McCoy; and other members of the authority.
At the event, the delegation had “substantial discussions with executives from eight major airlines, two airport authorities, one tourism body, and one airport management company,” said Mr. Rymer, who is also the minister of communications and works.
He added that the delegates met with Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, Frontier Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, American Airlines, Air Canada, United Airlines and Breeze Airways.
“All of the airlines acknowledged that the BVI is a very attractive destination with very high potential, and therefore they see that we have the demand for their respective profile of passengers,” he said.
However, the airlines cited the current length of the runway at Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport as a “prohibitive factor,” he said.
“[The airlines] emphasised their strong interest in the BVI and that they would be anxious to come to the BVI as soon as we extend our runway,” he explained. “They told us they are seeing that a significant number of their passengers to connecting airports have the BVI as their final destination. So they know our potential once it becomes possible for them to land and take off. They have no doubt about the viability of our destination.”
Plans for expanding the airport have been floated for more than a decade. Though such plans have long sparked controversy in the community, successive governments have pushed for an expansion designed to attract longer-range flights and larger aircraft that can present more viable connections to the US mainland and beyond, in turn increasing tourist traffic and revenue to the territory.
Former Premier Dr. Orlando Smith’s government started working toward the expansion at least as early as 2012 and spent millions on related studies, consultations and infrastructure works.
In 2016 his government chose China Communications Construction Company as its “preferred bidder” to undertake the expansion after receiving a final bid of about $153 million from the firm in a tender process.
For reasons that were never clearly explained, however, the plan stalled.
Change of tone
While campaigning for the February 2019 election, Virgin Islands Party leader Andrew Fahie announced that his party was “not in support” of the proposed airport expansion at the time, calling it a “legacy project to” Dr. Smith.
However, after his party won the government and he was appointed premier, Mr. Fahie changed his tune. In 2020, his government effectively restarted the project from scratch, hiring Atlanta-based consultant Brakkam Aviation Management, which recommended the construction of a 9,100-foot runway at an estimated cost of $183.78 million over a period of three to five years.
No cost disclosed
Mr. Fahie did not disclose how much the BVIAA paid the firm or say whether the consultancy was tendered.
Bakkram was founded by company CEO and President Miguel Southwell, a former general manager of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, who was fired in 2016 amid a public spat with the city’s mayor, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The BVIAA’s contract with the firm resulted in a six-month interim report that made various recommendations, beginning with suggestions for expanding the airport runway, Mr. Fahie said at the time.
The report was not provided to the public.
While the expansion may still be years away, Mr. Rymer said last week that the groundwork should be laid now.
“Airlines plan their routes years in advance,” he said. “We must nurture these relationships from now, so that when we complete the expansion, the business is there, ready and prepared, to operate and commence flights.”
In Las Vegas, Mr. Rymer said, he fielded multiple requests “to supply further technical information for airlines to review their position on flying to the BVI and requests for follow-up conversations.”
He added, “We also received interest from one airline with respect to charter options to the US mainland, which is a possibility with the support of some of our industry partners.”
Another airline, he added, is “very interested” in considering a codeshare with a ferry service to the VI from St Thomas.
According to Mr. Rymer, the Routes World event brings together 2,500 major aviation service providers from around the world, and is used by participating airport authorities, airlines, destinations, and others to network and promote themselves. It’s also where “key decisions” are made as to which destinations will get airlift, the minister said.
“By consistently uniting decision-makers from the global route development community, Routes World significantly influences the world’s air services,” he said. “Over 53 percent of the world’s new routes are connected to meetings at the event.”
He called the meetings “very fruitful” in terms of potential route development to the VI.
“We were able to establish a number of valuable leads,” he said, adding, “We can now have follow-up discussions with the organisations we spoke with to increase airlift and tourist arrival and also to grow our tourism market share.”
Some market expansion opportunities, he said, also came up at the event. They would aim to tap into routes connecting through Guadeloupe, and the delegation also explored opportunities for closer partnership with St. Maarten and Puerto Rico to help attract more international passengers according to the minister.
St. Maarten and Puerto Rico officials, he said, “promised to improve their guest experience at their airports for persons travelling to and from the BVI through their airports.”
The delegation, he added, also had some “exploratory discussions with a firm of airport developers and managers” on the potential for such a firm to develop and manage the airport.
“Our aim was to get a deeper perspective on what that kind of arrangement would look like,” he said.
‘Confidence’ in VI
Mr. Rymer said one of the major takeaways from the event was that major airlines “do have confidence in destination BVI,” especially once the runway length is extended.
“It was very important for us to hear this firsthand from the airlines as we chart the way forward,” he said. “Also, we have some potential opportunities for increasing airlifts, which we can now follow up on.”