Passengers disembark from American Airlines flight 3989 after it arrived directly from Miami on June 1 at Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport. Below, the flight gets a wet welcome as it taxies down the runway. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Just before 1:30 p.m. on June 1, crowds gathered at the upper-floor lounge at Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, pressing up against the windows facing the tarmac. Anticipation built as some people tracked the progress of American Airlines flight 3989 while it passed Puerto Rico, then Virgin Gorda, and then began its approach to Beef Island.

All eyes turned to the left to see the silver-bodied aircraft with its signature red, white and blue striped tail touch down on the runway. Viewers held miniature Virgin Islands flags, and some offered words of thanks as, for the first time in recent history, a direct commercial flight from the mainland United States arrived in the territory, carrying 79 passengers.

The moment has been highly anticipated since VI leaders announced the service in December. Before that, various governments had attempted to secure direct flights for more than a decade in hopes of providing more convenient access to and from the territory.

Viewers held miniature Virgin Islands flags, and some offered words of thanks as, for the first time in recent history, a direct commercial flight from the mainland United States arrived in the territory, carrying 79 passengers. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

In December, then-Deputy Premier Kye Rymer said American Airlines, which is offering the service through its partner Envoy Airlines, had great confidence in the VI. The airline didn’t require any guarantees to fill a minimum number of seats, and last month it even announced plans to offer additional flights.

The first flight arrived from Miami to enthusiastic fanfare, including a shower from water hoses on the tarmac. After passengers disembarked and passed through immigration, they were met with cheers, refreshments and entertainment provided by moko jumbies, flag-waving residents and the Razor Blades. Travellers passed through the international arrivals gate and waved to the crowd.

Some visitors were more surprised than others at the warm reception.

Terri Engel said she and her travel mates were coming from Denver, Colorado for a vacation and just happened to book seats on the inaugural flight.

“The festivities were amazing, and the people were super friendly,” she said. “We couldn’t ask for a nicer welcome.”

Tourism boon

VI leaders hope this is just the start for a surge in tourism.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, who was a passenger on the flight, said after touchdown that the aircraft’s arrival represents milestone progress for the VI.

“It opens up the BVI to the rest of the world,” he said.

He and Mr. Rymer — who is now the minister of communications and works — anticipated the AA service could bring more than 400 new arrivals to the territory each week. Dr. Wheatley urged his colleague to pursue the expansion of the Beef Island airport runway by 2027.

AA Regional Managing Director Jose Maria Giraldo recognised the hard work that went into making the service a success.

“This is a milestone for us, and it is going to be a big next step as we continue to expand our presence in the Caribbean,” he said shortly after the plane landed. Mr. Giraldo added that the Miami service opens up connections to more than 140 destinations worldwide.

Virgin Islands residents welcome the arriving passengers. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

BVIAA Board Chairman Theodore Burke said the arrival is a milestone in prosperity and enhanced global relationships.

“[American Airlines], with its rich heritage and unwavering commitment to excellence, has chosen our shores as a gateway to connect the world to our territory,” he said at the ceremony. “This alliance confirms the confidence that they have placed in our shared vision and the untapped opportunities that await both our local economy and global travellers.”

Mr. Burke added that he anticipates further expansion in the airport’s network soon.

Flight delays

The past weeks haven’t been entirely smooth sailing for the Beef Island airport, however.

All VI airports closed suddenly around 1 p.m. on May 26 — the day after an AA test flight arrived from Miami — and remained closed until 7 a.m. on May 27.

The BVIAA attributed the closure to staffing shortages at the control tower.

The Beef Island airport again closed temporarily on June 3, two days after the directs flights launched.

“The closure was forced when a cargo airline blew a tyre upon landing at the airport,” the BVIAA stated in a press release that day. “The aircraft is currently disabled on runway 25.”

Passengers from American Airlines flight 3989 pass through security and enter the territory. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

The BVIAA said it was making arrangements for the delivery of spare parts to allow the aircraft to be repaired and removed.

However, it encouraged anyone travelling through the airport that day to contact their airlines for guidance on any changes in travel arrangements caused by the delays.

The authority issued another press release on June 5 indicating it was working with a team from American Airlines in “assessing the irregular operation of AA flight 3989 with direct service to Miami, Florida on Sunday, June 4.”

“The authority assures the travelling public that the safe handling and operation of all aircraft to and through the territory will always be its number one priority,” the statement said.

BVIAA Managing Director Kurt Menal said in a follow-up statement that the delay “was as a result of the prevailing winds and high temperature.”

That day, he added, aircrafts had to depart from the east on runway 25, which is about 295 feet shorter than runway seven, which would typically be used to depart from the west.

“American Airlines operates at the T.B. Lettsome International Airport with restrictions on passenger loads on departure as a result of the current runway length constraints,” he said in the statement.

“The airline also has further restrictions that are required to be incorporated into their operational planning should they have to depart from a different direction than normal.”

The American Airlines pilot decided to remove all passengers’ luggage to reduce the plane’s payload before taking off, Mr. Menal said.

“American Airlines sincerely apologises for any inconvenience caused to passengers as a result of the required safety measures that were undertaken,” the release states.

VI Day

The date of the inaugural flight will now be an annual celebration in Tamarac, Florida. The government announced that June 1 is officially proclaimed Virgin Islands Day in the city, which is part of the Miami metropolitan area.

Tamarac City Commissioner Morey Wright, Jr. — who has VI heritage — and Mayor Michelle Gomez signed the proclamation on May 18. Dr. Wheatley and Mr. Rymer recently received symbolic keys to the city from Commissioner Hazelle Rogers in honour of the proclamation.

“This initiative signifies the convergence of national interests,” Dr. Wheatley said. “It will also have overall positive implications for the strengthening of economic ties between the state of Florida and the Virgin Islands, and allow for the advancement of tourism opportunities for the territory.”