Should we be undertaking airport expansion at this time?

Dear Editor

It has come as a surprise to most Guyanese to learn that the Government of Guyana signed major contracts a month or so before the last general elections in a foreign country committing huge sums of money for three projects.

We are accustomed every week to hear the Head of the Presidential Secretariat inform us about major contracts that are approved by the Cabinet and the amounts of money involved. I cannot remember Dr Luncheon informing us about these contracts and whether they were discussed and given the “no objection” clearance by Cabinet.

I have no problem with the hydropower project. Questions of cost, possible corruption especially with regard to the building of the access road and manner of contract signing are being taken up regularly by several persons with good intentions. Everyone will agree that Guyana has the potential for hydropower and that we need it for a cleaner, cheaper energy source the cost of which does not go up appreciably with the price of oil. In the medium term the project pays for itself.

But what about the airport expansion? Has a feasibility study been done? If so I would love to see it. A few years ago, the then President of Guyana said that the government would not build the Linden-Lethem road because it was not economically feasible; he did change his mind a few months later. However, only a month ago we read in the papers that a feasibility study for that same road had just been completed and handed over to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. So a major statement was made without a study. Is it the same with the airport expansion?

The big difference is that this is not just a statement. It is a commitment to build including the signing of a contract to the tune of US$143 million (which has now gone to US$162 million), US$22 million of which is to be spent by the government this year. A loan from the Government of China of US$138M is in the making.

The question is should we undertake the airport expansion at this time. Among the factors to be considered when embarking on a major project are the need for and timing of it; creating employment; facilitating the expansion and development of other areas, eg agriculture; improving the lives of the people in the area of social services; the cost and conditions of the loan capital; and alternative use of scare funds.

With the present level of passenger traffic at the CJIA, we do not need a larger terminal building. There are only a few days in the year when there is a build-up of passengers at Immigration and Customs, mainly during the pre-Christmas period and the early days of the North American summer, (or when a couple of Immigration Officers are absent). Rain during boarding or disembarking can be a nuisance, but nothing that a few umbrellas cannot solve. There is hardly a day when there are three or more jet aircraft on the tarmac (and that is most likely when one is late or has broken down). The Boeing 757-200-ER, with Rolls-Royce engines is capable of accommodating approximately 200 passengers and taking-off and landing at Timehri at maximum weights. It has the range for non-stop flights to New York and Toronto. This is the same aircraft type that GAC operated, North American operated into Guyana and Delta operates into Guyana now. The same is true for the Boeing 737-800 operated by Caribbean Airlines. Any attempt at a bigger aircraft, say, to carry 300 passengers, will result in reduced frequency and thereby affect marketing. Guyana does not import or export enough air cargo to warrant larger aircraft.

The main means for dramatically increasing passenger traffic is tourism. But tourism is the sick man of Guyana. We have been trying for decades to improve it without success, and the reasons are obvious. With the state of our capital city, parks, botanical gardens, zoo, we are already starting on the wrong foot. A study of tourism in the Caribbean will show that most of the tourists are ordinary working people who save their money, buy a package which includes staying at a hotel or the beach for a week or so, enjoy the sun, sand and surf, do some shopping and then return home. It is relaxing and cheap. Guyana tourism depends on its forest. The market for that kind of tourism is relatively small and, in the case of Guyana, very expensive.

Because of our small population and low per-capita income, our ‘export‘ tourism has to be small. Maybe as much as 80% of tourists to Guyana are Guyanese living overseas and returning home to visit friends and relatives (VFR). This number will increase from year to year (as more Guyanese are emigrating). But the need is for more foreign tourists and this is not on the horizon.

I know that some political leaders have been talking about Timehri being a hub for other carriers. But should we take such a risk (and spend so much money) when Barbados and Trinidad already have the facilities and Suriname is also improving? Or should we wait until we have the need for a larger airport, build it and then encourage intransit flights?

So what can we do with U5$150M if we can still get the loans for other purposes? Ask the man in the street and you will get a thousand answers. I have only one suggestion.

The Ogle Airport is becoming extremely busy. Just about a month ago, the Director of Air Traffic Services of the GCAA met with the pilots and safety managers operating out of Ogle. The main purpose of the meeting was to deal with lengthy delays at Ogle. A major suggestion was to have a parallel taxi-way which would cut down delays by more than 75%. Furthermore, the aircraft stand (in front of the terminal building) is hopelessly inadequate. International flights from the Caribbean will increase significantly by the end of this year thus reducing the traffic into Timehri.

The government should invest in Ogle either as a loan to OAI or in equity to bring that airport up to real international standards, especially when it starts to operate at night.

Editor, I have no doubt that Guyana will need a larger airport some time in the future. When we can look ahead and see this need more than three years ahead, then we can plan on building. And when we do, we should start with the runway first rather than the terminal building.

Yours faithfully,
Fazel Khan

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