PHILIPSBURG--“It has been ten months,” Member of Parliament (MP) Grisha Heyliger-Marten said about the adjourned and rescheduled parliamentary discussion of the general reconstruction of Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA).
Concluding that this is “way beyond” the urgent request tabled on November 14, 2022, by MP Christophe Emmanuel, MP Raeyhon Peterson and herself, Heyliger-Marten said on Friday, at the start of the continuation: “The urgency is completely gone.”
With Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs, representing the government of St. Maarten as shareholder in the airport, and Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Telecommunication and Transport (TEATT) Arthur Lambriex present in Parliament on Friday morning, Heyliger-Marten demanded that Lambriex start by giving an update on the timeline of the reconstruction.
“Where are we with the deadlines? Are they still the same?” she asked, saying that she did not want to wait another three months to get answers. “Please give us elucidation now.”
She also requested that the minister reveal where he stands “with all the firing and resigning going on at the airport,” referring to the dismissal of Communications Officer Audrey St. Luce-Jack and resignation of Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Gerben Stavast, followed by the resignation of his successor CFO Ben van der Klift. “Does this have the minister’s attention?” she asked.
Heyliger-Marten then referenced the May 12, 2020 motion, supported by 12 MPs, urging the government of St. Maarten request that the airport, via the requisite boards and procedures, present a concrete performance plan for the reconstruction of the airport. Based on the motion, the performance plan should include simultaneous timelines for financial tasks, procurement, pre-construction, construction, evaluation, opening and future maintenance.
The motion also resolved that “government should consider using this plan as an additional tool for the evaluation of the supervisory board as well as the management board and it should be provided to Parliament.”
The board of airport holding company PJIAE was to submit an evaluation of airport Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Brian Mingo within four weeks. Mingo was under fire, as he, in response to MPs questioning why the airport reconstruction had not yet begun, was not forthcoming with answers, instead was “ducking and jiving,” as MP Rolando Brison put it.
A major part of the delay of the reconstruction, Mingo said in May, was due to the “bill of quantities” still being produced. Parliament considered this remarkable, as the Schiphol and Corgan group were both made available for more than 1½ years already to provide this bill of quantities to the airport.
“These and other delays result in a proposed timeline by the airport for starting the procurement for the project to be in quarter three (July-September) of 2020, which will result in airport construction not beginning until 2021 and not completed until, at best, January 2022,” the Parliament motion stated.
On Friday, MP Heyliger-Marten pointed out that three years and four TEATT Ministers later, Parliament has not yet received an update on the execution of the May 12, 2020, motion. “How far is this minister with the execution?” she asked, stressing that “this is an urgent matter.”
Lambriex started off presenting an Executive Report from PJIA, the first one of its kind, covering the month of July 2023. “We will now be receiving this monthly, and I will be sharing that with Parliament monthly,” he said. “It has all the information as to what the passenger movements are, where the construction is at, the main timelines and milestones.”
The Departure Hall of PJIA is still set to be finished in Quarter 3 of 2023, Lambriex said. “It has been announced that on November 1, 2023, we will be having that opening. The check-in area is still on plan for January 2024, and the Arrival Hall will be finished at the end of Quarter 2 of 2024.”
Meanwhile, US $3 million is being invested in the construction of a temporary arrival hall. This is “to keep passenger satisfaction at a good level” and “to avoid noise hindrance for employees” while the reconstruction of the main Arrival Hall continues, Lambriex said, adding that “no more delays are to be expected.”
With regard to the May 12, 2020, motion of Parliament, Lambriex said he had the document in front of him, but needed “a few minutes to finish up that response.” He indicated that he was reviewing the motion and suggested that he send the response in writing.
“This is a public meeting of Parliament,” Heyliger-Marten stressed. “I specifically asked in the notification round for the minister to give an update in his introductory remarks, before the rounds [of questions – Ed.]”
Lambriex pointed to the television screen in the House of Parliament, which still showed the Executive Report from PJIA’s management. “This shows basically that the airport is still on track,” he said, after he indicated that good corporate governance does not allow government to interfere in the airport’s decisions on employment, the hiring and firing of persons, nor to question people’s motives to resign from the company.
The evaluation of CEO Brian Mingo, as requested in the May 12, 2020, motion, is thought to have taken place, but Lambriex was not sure; he had not seen the report. He put in a request for a copy, he said. Meanwhile the contract of CEO Mingo has been extended until December 2024.
“When is this airport finally to be completed?” asked MP Rolando Brison, who tabled the motion in Parliament on May 12, 2020. “Am I to understand correctly that by the end of the second quarter 2024 we should be fully operational again?”
He stressed that, from a strategic perspective, “we need to know and time the completion date of our airport with our current efforts for route development. Most airlines tend to plan their route development, their strategies, the amount of airlift, eight to nine months out.”
If PJIA is to fully reopen in the second quarter of 2024, this means, Brison said, “that airlines by now are going to start planning how many flights they are going to schedule for St. Maarten.”
In terms of load factors, St. Maarten is in extremely high demand, Brison said. “That may sound like a good thing, but with that high demand has come low supply of airlift to the island, which has resulted in the prices of tickets now being much higher than before.” The number of seats on aircraft coming into St. Maarten needs to be augmented, he said, suggesting that government facilitated the reintroduction of the overnight Miami flight.
“This is a very important flight, because it allows for the earliest time to get into the United States and the latest hour to get out of the United States,” Brison said, further explaining that the overnight flight has not returned to St. Maarten after the passing of Hurricane Irma. This is due to a monetary issue, according to the MP, who suggested government cover the cost of the flight crew’s overnight stay on St. Maarten.
When it was time for her to speak, MP Sarah Wescot Williams said she had lost the thread of the discussion about the airport reconstruction. “We just got a report on the month of July,” she said, questioning why this report was not sent to the MPs before the Parliament meeting, so they could familiarise themselves with the content. “Is the financing of the airport included?”
The Executive Report did not impress her, MP Ludmila de Weever said. “It is only four pages, with the majority of the space taken up by pictures.” The timeline of the reconstruction, as presented in the report, is “a little inconsistent,” she said.
The report mentions that the Departure Hall will be ready in October 2023, and Check-In will be completed in December 2023. “But when you go into the rest of the report, it says that the Check-In opens in January 2024. You might think that it is small little things that I am looking at, but it is a big deal when considering the high season for our airport.”
As a former Minister of TEATT, she is bombarded by taxi drivers, restaurant owners and hoteliers asking her about the airport, De Weever said. “What is happening in terms of airlift? The biggest problem we had was that people were getting scared because the ticket prices are so expensive, but then, nobody was getting any answers.”
De Weever’s advice to Minister Lambriex: “Don’t rely on an inaccurate report like this [Executive report]. You need to maintain relationships with people in order to ensure that people are coming into your country.”
De Weever, quoting from the report: “The first half of 2023 showed volumes 105% above the totals of 2019. However, the last two months performed below the levels of 2019. The exact reasons for this have not been identified.”
Shaking her head in disbelief, she said: “That is problematic. Because you are an airport. You make your money based on who is coming through your airport.”
Reading the report, she got worried, De Weever said: “What is going on here?” It is stated in the report that “the airlines have also planned for fewer aircraft in the region due to limited resources.” De Weever reacted: “Get your story straight. Get data. Because your country is depending on airlift. While we talk about diversifying our economy, this requires cash, and that cash has to come from our existing industry, which is the tourism sector.”
She warned the airport and the minister responsible: “Get it together. And get your communication going. If you have a conversation with the hoteliers, you will see that we are approaching 40% occupancy.” At this low level, Government’s coffers will not be filled, De Weever concluded. “Our future depends on people coming into St. Maarten.”
Finally, the report states that “the airport is already functioning at its maximum capacity of 1.5 million movements.” De Weever: “I don’t know what to believe. This report is very, very inconsistent.”
Lambriex requested 30 minutes to review all questions posed by MPs. Almost an hour later, the meeting resumed. Lambriex informed Parliament that PJIA’s CEO Brian Mingo had been evaluated twice, in 2020 and in 2021. No details were shared by the minister.
With regard to route development, Lambriex said that in his first three months in office, he had reached out to all airlines with flights to St. Maarten. “They were quite happy that I reached out to them,” said Lambriex, who claims that there has been a lack of communication from the Ministry of TEATT over the years. “No one reached out to the airlines, nor has done any follow-ups with them.”
His predecessors, Lambriex said, “basically performed on auto-pilot.” He said that his team is keeping the dialogue going. “Because if we don’t, we are just drifting in the Caribbean Sea.”
Lambriex added that “a press release will be issued on Monday, announcing the increase of flights from certain airlines” to St. Maarten