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HomeNewsArchivesPUBLIC FORUMS SET ON PLAN TO BOOST AIR ARRIVALS

PUBLIC FORUMS SET ON PLAN TO BOOST AIR ARRIVALS

May 26, 2003 – Did you know that commuter airline traffic between St. Thomas and Puerto Rico declined from about 277,000 passengers in 1990 to around 19,000 in 2002? And that such traffic between St. Croix and San Juan dropped from about 161,000 passengers to around 10,000 in that time frame?
How many of the 15 or more commuter airlines that have served the islands at one time or another between 1990 and 2002 can you name?
And did you know that American Airlines' Miami-St. Thomas flights had their highest load factor in 1998, and their second-highest in 1996? What's a load factor, anyway? Answer: It's the percentage of filled seats on a flight. And that best figure in 1998 was 78.35 percent.
For service from St. Croix, American's load factor to New York in that 12-year span was the highest in 2001 — 69.99 percent — followed by 1991, 2002, 2000 and 1992.
And if you happened to note that 100 people flew out of St. Thomas en route to Midland-Odessa Airport in 2002 while 170 did so out of St. Croix, would you wonder why more people from St. Croix were headed deep in the heart of Texas' oil?
All these and many more figures can be pulled from a great many statistical charts in the appendix of a draft strategic plan prepared for the University of the Virgin Islands, at the mandate of the 24th Legislature of the Virgin Islands, by the consultant firm of Edwards and Kelcey (E&K) with input from a great many stakeholders in the air arrival industry in the Virgin Islands.
The plan has been created over the last 17 months in accordance with the act naming UVI to "contract with U.S. mainland consultants with expertise in the field of national transportation to develop a strategy and plan to increase our airlift to the United States Virgin Islands."
Public input as part of the process
The objective, then, is to figure out what it will take to attract more air travelers to the territory. And now public input is invited.
On St. Thomas, a hearing is set for 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday on the UVI campus in Room 101 of the Teacher Education Building up on the hill near the library.
On St. Croix, another is scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday on the UVI campus in Room 713 of the Melvin Evans Center.
Meanwhile, the draft report is available for perusal at both UVI libraries. It covers 66 pages, plus an appendix of nearly 100 pages more containing all those charts and more.
The forums have been set up to help interested residents digest all that material. Paul Leary , the project coordinator, said both will begin with a welcome by UVI President LaVerne Ragster, followed by a PowerPoint presentation by E&K. Next will be a panel discussion moderated by Leary, and then the public will be invited to comment.
A strong public turnout indicative of high public interest could help ensure that the "action steps" called for in the plan are taken by the V.I. government — and not just shelved to gather dust in the company of so many previous studies.
The university has been working on the project with a broad-based community advisory group, according to a UVI release. Its members include government and business representatives from both districts, along with university personnel. The Tourism Department, the Port Authority and the territory's two chambers of commerce are represented.
The executive committee comprises Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards; David Mapp of the Port Authority, Sebastian Paiewonsky Cassinelli of the St. Thomas Chamber of Commerce; UVI Vice Provost Henry Smith; and Leary, a retired UVI professor.
The consulting firm was selected through a bidding process. A request for proposals garnered 25 responses. The executive committee chose five semifinalists and invited them to come to the Virgin Islands and make presentations. The choice was narrowed to two finalists, and then, with the UVI president joining in the selection process, E&K was chosen.
'Action steps' a major mandate
A major mandate was that the consultant outline specific "action steps," Leary said. In the draft document this has been done. The "recommended strategies" include:
– Strategies for immediate implementation, defined as one month.
– Strategies for the short term (1-6 months).
– Strategies for the medium term (6 months to 3 years).
Fourteen specific strategies are laid out. No. 1 on the list is to "apply for federal assistance under the Small Community Air Service Development Pilot Program." No. 14 is to "develop an international transit product for St. Croix's Henry E. Rohlsen Airport."
No. 1 is something that can be undertaken immediately; further, it goes to the heart of the territory's overall No. 1 problem: the failing economy and the need for outside funds. No. 14 is at the far end of the spectrum, a far-reaching step targeted specifically for St. Croix. In between are a variety of action steps to increase the volume of visitors to the Virgin Islands.
The draft plan provides a detailed assessment of the current situation, with sections on the research methodology used in gathering data, industry trends and their importance to the islands, historical growth at the two airports, organizational and community perspectives, airline perspectives, an opportunities analysis, and recommendations.
Notwithstanding all those statistics cited at the beginning, the report makes it clear that air traffic has declined at both airports since the mainland terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. However, among 219 other U.S. airports, 86 have experienced steeper declines percentage-wise since Sept. 11 than St. Croix, and 127 have had larger declines than St. Thomas.
Some other statistics and conclusions presented:
– "Traffic at St. Croix has fallen steadily in the late 1990s. Current volumes are less than half those of the early 1980s."
– "Load factors … remain within the 65 percent to 70 percent range." Further, this range is "not unduly high for a leisure destination," and it's suggested that "aggregate seat capacities are adequate."
– While direct international traffic accounts for just over 8 percent of St. Croix's volume of passengers and 5.5 percent of those on St. Thomas, "this component has grown at twice the rate of domestic traffic."
– Since St. Thomas is a developed and proven market but St. Croix is as yet unproven, incentives such as reduced airport fees may be in order for St. Croix.

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