Friday, February 17, 2012

Does the cost justify a 24-hour Tobago airport?

There is a price that we must pay for everything we own, including the amenities that we enjoy, personally or as a country. Before acquiring those amenities, however, it is necessary for us to recognize the cost of the benefits we derive from them and determine whether the cost justifies the benefits. It is therefore in this context that the implications of the opening of the ANR Robinson International Airport on a 24-hour basis are being examined.

In 2007, as arrivals to Tobago from the UK and Europe continued to decline, due in the main to the worsening of the adverse foreign advisories that followed a spate of rapes and attacks on visitors, the Division of Tourism turned to the US market where the advisories were less prominent. Caribbean Airlines Ltd (CAL) indicated in no uncertain manner its reluctance to serve Tobago internationally. The Tobago House of Assembly (THA) then engaged the services of Delta Airlines to provide airlift between Atlanta and Tobago once weekly. These Delta services were intended to facilitate particularly the dive segment of the leisure industry.

However, the divers were not prepared to remain seven consecutive days in Tobago and therefore those that arrived in Tobago on the Delta Sunday night flight were able to fly to Port-of-Spain on a Wednesday or a Thursday. But there were those who wished to fly in on a Wednesday night on Continental, Delta and American through Piarco and return directly from Tobago by Delta on Sunday morning. To facilitate the latter group it was desirable that domestic flights offering connections at Piarco should be available. Unfortunately, Crown Point was closed at 10 pm and these passengers were forced to overnight in Trinidad.

This quite naturally was a serious disincentive to these divers who could board a flight in Miami, New York or elsewhere and fly direct to Curacao, Aruba or Belize without changing flights—let alone overnighting on the way. Over the years, as well, there were times when passengers were unable to be all accommodated on the domestic services between Trinidad and Tobago and were left stranded at either Piarco or Crown Point, but this occurs at every airport all over the world. However, since 2008, arrangements have been in place for extra flights to be operated by CAL, provided prior notice is given to the Airports Authority/Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in Tobago.

In these circumstances, the THA, in 2007 or 2008, approached the CAA with the request that it considers the opening of Crown Point Airport on a 24-hour basis. At the meetings held between the Assembly and the CAA, the authority indicated that it was possible but extremely expensive and it will take some time to implement. It was pointed out that another shift had to be employed and accommodation and transportation costs also had to be factored in. In addition, adequate staff needed to be trained. In fact, it was suggested that Tobagonians should be offered scholarships to become resident air traffic controllers, thereby reducing the accommodation costs to the State. In fact, several advertisements were published in the local newspapers to this effect without responses. The Airports Authority would also have to provide additional funds to staff the extra shift/s.

Clearly, to achieve the 24-hour-a-day operation at Crown Point entailed significant facilitation costs and human resource adjustments. Both the CAA and the THA agreed that, given the challenges, it was not feasible to pursue the 24-hour opening option and it was proposed instead that focus should be placed on the operation of a late “mop-up” flight to facilitate international passengers arriving at Piarco destined to Toba- go and to accommodate local passengers wishing to use the late service.

Accordingly, CAL was approached and agreed to operate these “mop-up” flights three times a week, departing Piarco around midnight. These flights were to be used to test the feasibility of the flights since it was clear that if the services were not economically justifiable, CAL would, as it was known to do, pull the flights without warning, thereby frustrating the purpose for which they were intended and for which all the expenses were being incurred.

CAL agreed to operate the flights. The services were publicised internationally and domestically. However, true to form, after about two months, and without warning, the airline discontinued these late flights. It was able to show that the flights’ load factor averaged 15 per cent, earning $4,500 per rotation. We are told by CAL that a rotation costs US$7,000 each. This translates into a loss of approximately $40,000 per rotation or $14 million a year. At this rate, the cost of this “mop-up” flight, if operated for a year, would have represented 70 per cent of the $20 million cap that was placed on the subsidy for all the domestic services.

There are over 4,000 air bridge flights operated annually. In these circumstances, it was difficult to justify the retention of the “mop-up” flight. With the inclusion of the airport facilitation expenditure, the cost of operating this late flight was prohibitive. Since then, the crime situation in T&T has served to discourage travel on the roads of the country after 10 pm and therefore load factors on these flights can fall even further. Running an airport is a hugely expensive business that in most countries operates along strict commercial lines, generating profits that are used in the expansion and maintenance of the facilities. At many of them, the high daylight activity compensates for the lull in night/early morning traffic.

This quiet period is used to clean and service the airports in preparation for the hectic daylight operations. In Tobago, on the other hand, there are limited flight movements that do not seem to justify an uneconomical “mop-up” flight. I recall the promise by the Minister of Works and Transport almost 16 months ago at a meeting at Mount Irvine that the renovation and expansion of Crown Point Airport will commence in December, 2011. This was repeated in the presence of the Prime Minister at the ANR Robinson International Airport when the airport was renamed last year. I sincerely hope that the 24-hour initiative is not a public relations gimmick and that it will succeed and be sustained over time.

NE Wilson

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