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$18,000-taxi ride

Portlanders say commercial flights at Ian Fleming Airport will save them heavy ground transport costs

BY INGRID BROWN Associate Editor — special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, January 21, 2013    

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PORTLAND residents are just as eager as tourism stakeholders to see commercial flights operating out of the Ian Fleming International Airport in the adjoining parish of St Mary, as they insist that in addition to taking more visitors into both parishes, scheduled air service will significantly slash the high ground transportation costs they now pay to get to the island’s two main international airports in Kingston and Montego Bay.

Although a designated international airport, Ian Fleming — named in honour of the late British author who created James Bond — is unable to accommodate larger jets because of the length of the runway — 4,780 feet.

A call for the runway to be extended to land aircraft with passenger loads larger than those of private jets has been getting louder in tourism circles, as they say the move will reduce ground travel times for visitors.

Persons travelling to and from Portland to the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay are required to pay between $15,000 and $18,000 for ground transportation and between $8,000 and $9,000 to the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston. “Can you imagine, we have to drive for more than three hours to get to Montego Bay and pay so much money when we are supposed to have an international airport just next door in St Mary?” said Portland resident Irene Douglas.

According to Douglas, she has often wondered what goes on at the Ian Fleming Airport as she has never seen anyone going or coming from the facility.

“Every time I happen to pass over there it just so quiet... it no seem nutten like what an international airport is supposed to look and sound like,” she said.

Similar sentiments were echoed by fellow Portland resident Jocelyn Simms, who strongly believes that the operation of commercial flights out of that airport would be extremely beneficial to tourists and locals alike, who would have been spared both the hefty cost and the long drive to Kingston or Montego Bay.

“It is very distressing to come in on a long flight and then have to drive another three hours to get to where you are going,” she said, adding that this can be an immediate turn-off, particularly for first-time visitors.

Simms said when her relatives from overseas visit they have to be prepared to set aside as much as US$400 to be transported back and forth to the airport.

“And while the money is bad enough, it is even worse that them have to travel so far that we can’t even go to see them off sometime,” she said.

A visit to the airport by the Jamaica Observer North East last week revealed that there was very little for staff to do as there were no flights to be processed.

In fact, the silence at Ian Fleming was deafening as security guards, customs and immigration workers sat idly by with no passengers in sight and no immediate scheduled arrival.

The residents say they often get the impression that it is private property as the buzz associated with airports is noticeably absent.

Meanwhile, Jamaica Union of Travellers Association (JUTA) operators from the Portland chapter say the operation of commercial flights out of that airport could finally allow them to get some much-needed business.

Mark Thorpe, a private provider of ground transportation at a guest house, believes that if commercial flights begin to operate out of Ian Fleming, they would be hired to transport not only tourists but also Jamaicans who would opt to use the airport instead of going to Montego Bay or Kingston.

“Instead of the $15,000 or $18,000 to MoBay, maybe a driver would take about a $6,000 to $7,000 to go to that airport and because the road to there is good more people would prefer to go there instead of even Kingston,” Thorpe told the Observer North East.

He said despite transporting visitors from all over, neither he nor his colleagues have ever got a job to pick up a passenger from Ian Fleming because of the clientele the airport attracts.

“Me always pass and wonder what happen over there because we never, ever see not even one person going in or out,” he said.

Thorpe noted further that such a move would come at a time when operators are unable to get jobs. JUTA operator Leroy Grant said some of his colleagues have been forced to enter the taxi business as there is simply no work for them.

A lot of the JUTA operators in Portland, he said, can only rely on church and school trips, but with a lot of these institutions now acquiring their own buses, this will no longer be an option.

“Is six months my bus don’t move further than my home to the street in front of my house because there are just no jobs for us,” said Grant. He noted that his JUTA colleagues in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios are more likely to get the job to transport tourists to Portland.

“So opening up the airport (for commercial flights) may be a good move which would help us,” he said.

The JUTA operators, who were seen playing dominoes in the middle of the day, said this is often what they do all day.

“We no get no form ah tourists or visitors,” he said.

Grant explained that when the first cruise ship of the year docked at Port Antonio late last year they were excited that they would finally get work transporting tourists. However, only five drivers got work that day.

“We felt so good that day that we put on we white shirt and we didn’t even mek back the money fi buy soap fi wash it,” he said, adding that “this is no longer a feasible business for this chapter”.

As such, he said, many of his colleagues have sold their vehicles and have left the trade.

Another JUTA operator, Sherman Roberts, said given the cost they are forced to charge for the lengthy journey to Kingston or Montego Bay, some guest houses have even been using minibus operators to pick up their guests from the airport and the unprofessionalism of these drivers is leaving a sour taste in the mouths of visitors. He cited a recent incident in which an employee at a guest house arranged with his friend, a minibus operator, to pick up a visitor from the airport.

“The man tell me say the driver come for him in a minibus mark Morant Bay to Port Antonio and it was so shaky that not even him baby car seat could stay one place,” he said. The visitor, he explained further, later told him that he did not know a professional transport service like JUTA existed until he asked a friend to recommend a taxi to transport him back to the airport in Kingston.

He noted also that some tourists often express frustration about having to travel for nearly four hours from Montego Bay to get to their destination in Portland.

“Sometimes the guest house will tell them seh is a two-hour drive and they get mad when they realise that it is nearly four hours when you include a rest stop,” he said. “So if the airport open up, I think it would be really better for us.”

An employee at the airport who requested anonymity told the Observer North East that they field calls almost daily from Jamaicans and tourists alike asking whether they can get a commercial flight out of the airport. For now, the airport facilitates only small international and locally operated chartered flights bringing a total of 14 persons.

“Sometimes we have some of the local charter flights taking tourists from the other airports to here,” the employee said.

The airport only operates between the hours of 7:00 am and 7:00 pm, unless there is a special request to remain open longer to accommodate a charter.

The employee noted further that the airport has all the facilities in place to accommodate passengers coming in on a commercial flight.

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