Congestion of arriving passengers at the airport on April 27 for the peak of the Carnival 50 celebrations.
~ Teams in place to find early solution ~
AIRPORT–An above-expected passenger increase at Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) is causing serious passenger congestion in the already cramped conditions at the airport and teams are in place to come up with speedy solutions.
The executive board of the airport’s operating company PJIAE says there has been “a significant increase” in demand for travel to St. Maarten, based on official figures for the first quarter of the year.
According to first quarter (Q1) statistics, passenger demand to St. Maarten is at 65 per cent of passenger numbers of 2016 of nearly 1.8 million total that year. While the executive board is pleased with the increase in the number of persons returning to the island each month since the passage of Hurricane Irma in 2017, the airport recognises that this also presents its own challenges, most notably the increased need for capacity to accommodate these new passengers in an already-limited space.
Last Saturday alone, airport staff reported a day total of 5,916 arriving and departing passengers who had to be accommodated in very cramped conditions, with long queues and some delays being the result of the challenges faced – not to mention some flared tempers running high.
“Our Q1 figures are a good indicator of the rebound the island of St. Maarten is continuing to make since the passage of Hurricane Irma in 2017, but it also presents a greater challenge for our operations, especially during the peak hours,” PJIAE Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Brian Mingo said on Sunday.
Mingo says PJIAE is forced to make provision for more than 3,000 departing and arriving passengers during peak hours, despite creatively making use of part of the damaged terminal building to house passengers, noting that, “in the present state, we are only making use of 30 per cent of the complete floor space of our terminal.”
He added that with this temporary arrangement also reaching capacity because of the increase in departing and arriving passengers, the airport staff has to cope with longer and longer queues in all areas presently being used. PJIAE assures passengers and the public making use of the airport facilities that several teams are in place and are hard at work finding solutions to improve the current congested conditions.
“In the coming weeks, we will increase our headcounts in the terminal that can assist passengers in an effort to make their waiting time more pleasant and to improve efficiency. Airport staff are also looking into opening up additional areas in the terminal building that will provide more capacity for the number of passengers making use of the available space,” stated the Executive Board.
“We are taking these steps not only to improve passenger comfort, but also to maintain the quality and safety of our passengers and concessionaires generally.”
Mingo says congestion and the limited capacity at the PJIA terminal building is causing the executive board to step up its planning for the funding of reconstruction of the terminal and for the rebuilding of the Rescue and Fire Fighting (RFF) building. Funding for both projects has been earmarked from the World Bank (WB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) to the tune of US $100 million, plus additional liquidity support from the Netherlands.
According to the PJIAE executive board, this funding arrangement is set to be concluded in June, after which the planning part of the project, along with its construction phase, can begin, possibly as early as August this year.
If the funding goes as planned and the reconstruction commences on time, PJIAE’s executive board expects its capacity issues to become a thing of the past in 18 months, when PJIAE will once again declare itself fully functional. The target date now being set is December 2020, with the final works scheduled for completion in the first quarter of 2021.
The transformation from devastated airport facility to a makeshift construction of tents, to a cramped but functional terminal building short on capacity, to a fully-functional and totally-restored and highly-reinforced new terminal facility will have taken 3½ years once the final works are completed in 2020, but the PJIAE executive board is assuring all stakeholders, members of the public and in particular passengers who use the facilities that the transformation and wait will have been well worth it in the end.
“Some might ask why it is taking so long for this transformation to take place, but we were handicapped by many delays that we were not prepared for, including the processing of our insurance claim, which is still not concluded, delays caused by the number of special orders needed for repairs, and the attention that had to be given to replacing the airport roof,” Mingo said.
In the case of the airport roof alone, Mingo said expert help was required because of the tremendous span of the more-than-160,000-square-foot roof (15,000 square metres).
The executive board says that without the negotiation of a new funding component for the airport reconstruction it probably would not be talking about restoration of the facilities of PJIA any time soon. The scheduled works will be possible because of this funding component of more than $150 million, not including the business interruption and clean-up efforts for which airport funds were expended.
“PJIAE took the initiative to do everything it could from its own reserves, and has since escalated the much-needed assistance from local government, kingdom government, and Schiphol aviation specialists to assist with the rebuilding of the terminal. The planning is one part, but the funding and the existing operations are also important to serve the existing business demand,” Mingo noted.
Airport officials are confident that because of the importance for St. Maarten’s economy, local businesses, the security of jobs and the general livelihood of many citizens, they will continue to push for the collaboration and cooperation required to attain their goal of opening a “new” airport for St. Maarten, Mingo added.
He says that anything other than general support to put the airport back in order should be viewed as “unnecessary noise and distraction” that serves no good purpose except to hold back development and further risk the future of the airport and the growth of St. Maarten’s economy.
“Our island needs the stability and confidence that a reconstructed PJIA will provide, that will continue to increase demand for travel to and from St. Maarten in the coming months and years,” Mingo said.
In addition to Mingo, PJIAE’s executive board consists of Chief Operating Officer (COO) Michel Hyman and a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) whose position remains to be filled permanently, but is currently being filled on an interim basis by Mingo in collaboration with Financial Department Director Michael Lake.