Thanksgiving isn’t complete without a turkey, and for Virgin Gorda residents, the turkey came along with the reopening of the Taddy Bay International Airport on Tuesday.
Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley carried a turkey on a single-engine plane that landed at the newly refurbished airport.
“I salute the premier for keeping his promise to get the ham and turkey into Virgin Gorda before Thanksgiving,” BVI Airports Authority Deputy Chairwoman Patsy Lake said during a ceremony that day.
Early last year, regulators lifted a restriction against single-engine planes that had been in place since 1964, when then Civil Aviation Director Basil Fleming identified high cross-winds associated with flying into the airport.
By lifting the restriction, officials hoped to allow Tropic Ocean Airways and other airlines to operate flights into Virgin Gorda.
But shortly after the rules were relaxed, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the airport was closed along with other ports in the territory.
Now, the airport is back in operation, and plans to improve its mostly-dirt runway are in progress, according to officials at the ceremony.
“The paving of the [Taddy Bay] runway and the extension of runway of Beef Island are of utmost importance,” Ms. Lake said. “Both of these projects have already been forwarded to the [Recovery and Development Agency], who is working tirelessly alongside the [BVIAA] to see these projects through to completion in the not-so-distant future.”
The reopening ceremony began with the welcoming of a single-engine plane that test landed on the runway Tuesday morning.
Attendees were encouraged to stand near the refurbished terminal while cheering on the pilots and passengers who disembarked.
Included in the group of nine was Mr. Wheatley, who brought out a turkey to Premier Andrew Fahie.
Mr. Fahie had promised earlier this month in his budget address that government would get a turkey to Virgin Gorda before Thanksgiving.
On Tuesday, he greeted the passengers on the tarmac.
Along with guest speakers, the ceremony included performances by musician Jassie Alexander, singer Jada Barrett, and the Bregado Flax Brass Ensemble.
BVI Tourist Board Chairwoman Kenisha Sprauve said the BVITB is pleased to see the airport reopen to travelers with improved infrastructure and facilities, including Covid-19 testing sites.
“This area is home to the top luxury resorts and villas in the territory, and the Taddy Bay Airport affords our guests and residents another convenient option to access Virgin Gorda, whether by a scheduled carrier or a private charter,” she said.
BVITB Director Clive McCoy said many properties and villas are ready to welcome guests.
“The reopening of this airport is a big step,” he said. “Guests can start their vacations quicker.”
Benefits for residents
The reopening will also benefit residents, according to Mr. Wheatley.
Someone with a medical emergency, he noted, could fly to Tortola within three minutes as opposed to taking a boat and being delayed a half hour.
“This could possibly save a life,” he said. “That is significant.”
He also acknowledged that the airport has closed several times in the past, and urged the BVIAA to keep it open in the future.
Despite the lifted restriction on single-engine aircraft, BVIAA Acting Director Clive Smith said that the only single-engine planes allowed to use the airstrip will be those flown by commercial operators approved by the governor.
“The decision to lift the restriction was based solely on the safety record of these aircraft as well as vigorous monitoring requirements by regulators to ensure that the operation is safe for the travelling public,” he said.
BVIPAA Deputy Managing Director Keith Flax challenged the restriction, saying that he used to pilot a single-engine aircraft.
“There are many people who regard the Virgin Gorda airport as a dangerous place to fly into. Nonsense,” he said. “That saddens me, because many days I’d say, ‘I’m going to go to Virgin Gorda for lunch,’ and I’d just fly over.”
Attendees were invited to tour the facilities and have refreshments at the close of the two-hour ceremony.
Mr. Fahie said in his Nov. 11 budget address that the BVIAA recently resurfaced the VG runway, refurbished the pump on the fire appliance, and met with Air Safety Support International as part of efforts to reopen the airport.
“Technical works are ongoing, geared towards the expansion of the Virgin Gorda airport runway. The same is being done for the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport runway,” he said. “The funding for these are already appropriated — some in this year’s budget and some in next year’s budget — so that we can move hastily to ensure that our runways are extended.”
He also announced that the BVIAA has “teamed up” with the RDA to eventually pave the entire VG runway.
At the Auguste George Airport on Anegada, he added, the runway has been properly lit and is “in line with the required regulations, standards and recommended practices.”
Those improvements will allow safe medical evacuations at all hours, according to the premier.
Government is also working on installing a screening facility at the Anegada airport so travellers won’t be required to stop elsewhere for necessary Covid-19 tests, the premier said.