By Mellica McPherson-Ganda
“This situation here is really hurtful, and it [is]really painful to the people of the BVI,” a resident sadly muttered during the Speak Out BVI talk-show on 18 July, hours after BVI Airways – the airline Government injected $7M into announced that it was broke and unable to deliver the eagerly anticipated flights to and from Miami.
The shocking news echoed throughout the Territory culling disappointment, and sadness as many remarked that the situation is a Territorial embarrassment. The perceived humiliation stems from the fact that the announcement of the BVI Airways arrangement was touted by the government as a ‘game-changer” and heavily promoted beyond the Territory’s shores.
Signs of trouble in the arrangement were slightly obvious months after the grand announcement as deadlines were missed, and both the company and government became tight-lipped about a flight date.
However, that silence on flight date information was broken by the Miami International Airport. MIA in anticipation of the flights distributed more than three press releases that globally proclaimed that BVI Airways was going to commence flying on22 July.
The uncertainty about the flights was further propelled as BVI Airways issued a press release last week announcing that government was not meeting its obligations. That announcement prompted a brief response from Premier and Minister for Finance Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith to counter with a statement that demanded the company commence service.
Things became even more concerning as Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Andrew Fahie in a statement last week announced that a cow would faster jump over the moon than the airline would fly.
Finally, the speculations of whether BVI Airways would fly or not came to a shocking end on Tuesday as the company via an open letter to the BVI public announced that they are unable to offer the ‘game-changing’ service that was advertised.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE $7MILLION?
BVI Airways has 40 people on payroll and in expressing how dire the situation is the company’s management said: “BVI Airways regretfully announces that it is immediately laying off its entire flight crew (pilots and flight attendants) as a result of ongoing delays.”
However, the airline maintained that the blame for the present no-flight situation should not fall squarely on its shoulders because it did its part. “We have the planes, the organization and have secured all the difficult regulatory approvals. However, improvements to the airport required under our contract to meet basic commercially acceptable standards for processing passenger volume of this size have not been completed,” the letter stated.
“Passengers cannot be expected to wait in line for two hours to get through the security and immigration; this would be disastrous. The current system is antiquated and barely works for low density flights,” BVI Airways further explained.
In pointing the finger even more at the BVI government, the company said that the expectations relating to the terminal and others concerns were communicated previously to the local government: “There was a clear understanding from the onset that this needed to be corrected and better training of personnel provided prior to our launch of service.”
As grim as the staff dismissal and flight uncertainty announcement is, BVI Airways is still holding a glimmer of hope that government would respond favorably. In fact, the company stated: “Hopefully this will be a very short-term situation as we continue to work through remaining issues with the government and will be able to commence flights shortly,” BVI Airways said.
Opposition Leader Sings Calypso
The disappointing news from BVI Airways inspired Hon. Fahie to quote a popular calypso song as he lamented that the situation is no laughing matter.
In a statement issued hours after the BVI Airways letter went public the Opposition Leader stated: “This is serious! This is no joke! Over $13 million dollars and what will we have to show — no airport extension — no direct flights — no transparency — no accountability but the continuous hemorrhaging of the already scarce Territory’s finances!”
Hon. Fahie reminded that he asked many questions in the House of Assembly with hopes of understanding more about the flight arrangement, but scarcely got all the details. Now he announced that the government must reveal the whole story: “How much are the people prepared to suffer? It is quite amazing! Questions have been asked over and over in the House of Assembly about the contract in question, but usually no answers, but always insults! If we are going to be asked to fix this problem we must be given the truth — the whole truth and nothing but the truth!! The song writer was before his time — Millions and millions and millions and more — (you know the song!)”
“This is an ongoing pattern of wreckless and irresponsible financial management that can only be directed to one office. This entire situation will be examined further,” Hon. Fahie added.
VIP President Not Amused
The President of the Virgin Islands Party (VIP) which is the main opposition party in the Terriotry also weighed in on the BVI Airways matter cautioning that the situation may end up in a court of law.
The VIP President, Natalio Wheatley aka Sowande Uhuru announced that the matter is quite serious: “From the look they (BVI Airways) are trying to assert some sort of leverage over the government, but it is certainly a serious situation,” he said while making a guest appearance on the Speak out BVI programme.
Wheatley said that the arrangement surrounding the BVI Airways/BVI Govt seems more like a startup than a subsidy, which Premier Smith said that it was: “From my standpoint, I would say that it was a poorly conceived idea. This is just from my standpoint. The government called this a subsidy — from my knowledge of subsidizing airlines normally you have an airline that is already in operation, and the government simply buys seats. That’s my understanding of how subsidization works in the airline business,” Wheatley explained.
“This is more like a startup. You giving a grant to start up a business which is rather strange because the government doesn’t own shares in it; from my stand-point this is quite irregular. You see government put in money into an airline in this manner most times the government owns shares which means you have some type of controlling interest in the airline, but in this you have no controlling interest you essentially gave a grant and now they are saying that the money is finished and they can’t run the route and trust me BVI airways would have looked at the contract very carefully,” he added.
The VIP President said that the letter sent by BVI Airways stressed the airline’s need for money. However, he questioned whether this would be a one-off request: “I will be very surprised to see the airline fly if it doesn’t get more money from government. My question is if government gives them more money after a while would they ask for more? Would they see how far they can go in terms of this money that they’re getting?”
The majority of the callers told host Douglas Wheatley that they are unhappy with the turn of events, and pondered what could be done. One caller noted that he was perplexed at BVI Airways mention that government did not meet its end of the agreement: “You telling me that we have waited so long for this airline to officially fly, and at this point and time we are talking about not being ready on the government side! Whatever the case is it’s not feeling good. It really is not feeling good. If you care about our islands if you care about our people – the whole Virgin Islands you would admit that this is painful. Not only because we are not going to be able to fly at this point in time, but we can’t afford more financial implications as we are right now,” the resident said in a sad tone.
An obviously upset resident called, and inquired about options to remove the government from office. He stressed that this airline situation is troubling. The resident said: “We don’t need any more money being touched because that is done seven million unaccounted for. This is very ridiculous, hearing that news is very concerning…this government need to get out they are doing foolishness…”
Since the letter was released many in the community members are questioning why Government initially chose BVI Airways over VI Airlink a local company that reportedly already had the necessary travel clearances, and planes.
As of 19 July, when this article was written there was no official response from the Smith government regarding the BVI Airways announcement. However, in his 10 July midterm report the BVI Premier noted that the process of solving the Territory’s air lift problems has been challenging.
Hon. Smith told the BVI: “There is no easy solution to this problem. If we could wave a wand and make improved air service happen, we would surely do so. But that is not an option. We must explore every possibility and that is what we are doing, including our ongoing effort to begin air service through BVI Airways.”
“This ambitious concept is a challenging one to be sure. There is a reason our competitors in the region do not operate air services under their own national name. There is no Air Barbados, or Air Turks and Caicos. But those destinations have the good fortune right now of having regular, direct air service from the U.S. and so they are relieved of that burden. We are not so fortunate and so we must roll up our sleeves and find an answer that works.”
Some frequent travellers and tourists have confirmed that the St. Thomas airport link is quite satisfactory and that they see no point in a BVI-subsidized airline or a BVI airport expansion; many local people said that we are heading for trouble.