THE tourism industry’s lobby for an extension of the runway at the Ian Fleming International Airport in St Mary deserves to be explored.
Their thinking is that a longer runway will be able to accommodate larger jets — those with passenger capacities of up to 100, thus increasing visitor traffic in St Mary and Portland.
Last week, Mr Mike Henry, the former minister of transport, told us that this was what he had in mind when he “led the development charge of the airport” during his time in office.
At the time, Mr Henry had compiled a list of 21 cities in the USA, one each in Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela, as well as the Caribbean that were within the 1,650-mile radius of the Ian Fleming Airport and which were in the range of the CRJ700 — a jet with a seating capacity of between 66 and 78.
The aircraft is one in a series developed by a Canadian manufacturer and utilised by a number of major airlines as regional carriers, meaning that they take on short-haul flights, thus feeding the hubs of the larger airlines from smaller markets.
Having that type of air service here would no doubt be of great benefit to our tourism industry, as Port Antonio in particular could see a revival of its once dominant status as a visitor destination, given that travellers would see a significant decrease in their ground transportation time.
That point was forcefully made in yesterday’s edition of the Observer North East by Jamaicans living in Portland, who say that because of the distance, they are required to pay between $15,000 and $18,000 for ground transportation to the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, and between $8,000 and $9,000 to the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston.
The fact that the drive to either airport is no less than three hours obviously adds to their frustration, as we heard from Ms Jocelyn Simms, who told us in no uncertain terms that it was “very distressing to come in on a long flight and then have to drive another three hours to get to where you are going”.
Travellers, particularly those in the leisure segment of the market, don’t take kindly those conditions, which is why we are a bit puzzled that a decision was not taken, at the outset, to have a long enough runway at Ian Fleming to accommodate the size jets we now want to attract.
That, however, is now water under the bridge. What the country needs to do now is examine whether the runway can be extended at all, and, if that is possible, what will be required to do so.
Mr Earl Richards, the president of the Airports Authority of Jamaica, has been reported by the Business Observer as saying that no more land exists for an extension. In fact, he said that were that to be done, there would need to be a realignment of the north coast highway in the vicinity of the airport.
Mr Henry, however, holds a different view, as he has said that there are lands, owned by the Roman Catholic Church, which can be acquired for the proposed project.
It seems to us, therefore, that the Government — given that it still owns the airport — needs to examine both claims and decide whether it will address the issue.
What must not happen, though, is that the proposal is shelved, especially if the extension is possible.