Doncher: FBO crucial to local companies, PJIA market share

~ Work on terminal still continues ~

Minister of Tourism and Economic Affairs Mellissa Arrindell-Doncher on Monday said that discussions surrounding a new FBO facility at the airport should not ignore the bigger picture or try to establish a false narrative that assumes work at the airport terminal will be delayed or stopped.

The Minister reminded that since September she issued an assessment of the damage at the airport as well as the approximate repair time of 9 months to get the airport back to 100 percent. The airport, she stressed again, will be functioning optimally long before that once management sticks to the recovery plan it has adopted. She also recently disclosed that the airport management is in the insurance phase.

“This does not mean that separate construction activities at the airport cannot and should not continue,” she said, adding that the new FBO facility is meant to help maintain the airport’s market share in the lucrative General Aviation sector and is considered by management as a key project in the Capital Improvement Program for which the airport obtained a loan on the international financial market.

The Capital Improvement Program included the resurfacing of the runway and upgrading of the facilities, including the construction of a new FBO building to accommodate the many private planes that utilize the airport in the December and January months.

The FBO facility, she explained, is vital due to increased growth in the general aviation sector. “Make no mistake, St. Maarten has competition from other airports and we must expand our facilities in order to maintain our position in this region. We cannot roll over and fall completely out of the picture in terms of the general aviation business. The FBO facility is also an important revenue stream for the airport itself, one which we will need in the recovery of PJIA,” the Minister said.

She further explained that agreements with the local FBO operators were signed almost 4 years ago. “If we continue losing business to other islands, turning away aircraft because of lack of facilities, it will also affect these hard-working local businessmen who have sacrificed and put alot into putting St. Maarten on the map in the private aircraft business. We have to provide excellent service,” the Minister said.

In this context, the Minister stressed that the bigger picture should never be ignored. “Every single passenger that arrives on a private or business aircraft is a potential investor to the island. They invest in property, in mega yachts that berth here, and they establish business contacts here. Dismissing them as a mere footnote in the business at the airport is very short-sighted,” she said.

Additionally, the Minister continues, FBO operators like TLC and Signature offers charters in partnership with local airlines serving the region, including national airline Winair. With short flights, luxury travelers don’t mind hopping from their jets onto Winair for example, to get to regional airports that cannot accommodate private jets. “If we do not modernize our FBO facility, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain private aircraft business,” she said.

“Trying to create a narrative that work on the airport terminal is in trouble because we broke ground on the FBO building is misleading and wrong. It also belittles the planning efforts of airport management and that of local FBO operators. Airport management must be diligent in its planning and execution to ensure the main terminal is back up and running in the shortest possible time after major devastation from hurricane Irma. I have not seen anything to date to indicate to me that they won’t be,” the Minister concluded.

“The FBO at the Princess Juliana International Airport has been in the planning for some years now. Considering the massive re-building, repairing and renovating construction which has to take place now, and is a considerable and very serious inconvenience to arriving and departing guests as well as to all who have to be at the airport, for whatever reason, why not include the long overdue FBO which, when everything is completed, in the shortest possible time, will give St. Maarten an Airport even better and more accommodating than before we were visited by Irma and Maria,” the Minister said.

She continued: “Taking the financial aspects of the PJIA Operating Company into consideration, the construction of the FBO is not tied to nor is the financing thereof dependent on the acceptance, approving or paying-out of the airport’s insurance claims, as the PJIA Operating Company has had the financing of the project in question in place since much before the devastating hurricanes struck Sint Maarten. We can be confident that all involved are doing everything necessary, as soon as this is possible, to bring back our airport, not only to how it was before but even better.”