With American Airlines not currently offering direct flights to Freeport until mid-February and passengers not yet able to book direct U.S. flights via Bahamasair, hoteliers and residents are anxious for approvals from the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is expected to conduct assessments of the island’s temporary airport facility this week.
Grand Bahama International Airport, which sits on the island’s flood-prone north shore, sustained severe flood damage resulting in the loss of its domestic and international terminals and the island’s U.S. pre-clearance facility.
Since that time, residents and guests wishing to fly to Freeport on scheduled international flights have had to travel through New Providence, a factor hoteliers who spoke to Perspective cited as a downside for the island’s tourism plant.
As a temporary measure to facilitate the return of scheduled international flights to the island, the airport’s operator, Hutchison Whampoa, facilitated repairs to the airport’s Fixed Based Operation (FBO) building that previously serviced private aircrafts and will, for now, be used for both domestic and international travel.
When we visited the FBO building on Friday, the airport’s contractor and his crew were busy completing their scope of work, and, on Saturday, Bahamasair relocated passenger processing from its post-Dorian location to the facility.
Speaking to Perspective over the weekend, Director of Aviation Algernon Cargill advised that the TSA would be conducting its assessments of the temporary facility this week and that Bahamasair’s first direct Freeport/Fort Lauderdale flight “is scheduled for Wednesday”.
When we contacted Bahamasair reservations, bookings for the Fort Lauderdale/Freeport route were not yet available pending the go-ahead from officials, and American Airlines reservations advised that the earliest booking for its Miami/Freeport route was available on February 13, 2020.
Last month, Delta Airlines announced that it had indefinitely suspended its seasonal service to Grand Bahama due to damage from Dorian.
On the progress of repair work at the temporary facility, State Minister for Grand Bahama Kwasi Thompson said during a phone interview Friday that the only additional work necessary which he was aware of was the erecting of fencing.
“I’ve been advised by Hutchison [Whampoa] that the fencing is in process now,” he disclosed.
“We’ve been in regular communication with them because we have attempted to impress upon them the importance of getting the airport up and running, particularly getting international flights up and running—that is a huge priority for the island so we have had to continue to press for this.”
‘There’s been very little information’
For hoteliers and other private sector business-owners, a lack of information from Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) officials on the progress toward securing TSA approvals has been among the largest roadblocks to business.
Magnus Alnebeck, general manager of the Pelican Bay Resort, said in an interview with Perspective, “Like a lot of things in Freeport, there is very little information.
“What would have solved everything would have been if the [Grand Bahama] Airport Company would have given out information to say they will be available by a date that they could live up to, [but] instead they made an announcement saying we should have international airlift back by the middle of November.”
Given that refurbishments to the temporary facility were still in progress at that stage, the November 15 target could not be reached.
Without confirmation on when scheduled U.S. carriers might return to Freeport, Alnebeck points out that it is difficult to know how the resort will stand in terms of potential bookings for upcoming periods.
“For some visitors it works going through Nassau and flying private charters, but for our mass market that Grand Bahama is really attracting, we need to have American Airlines, Delta and Spirit back to be able to land to see what it is really going to look like,” he explained.
“I think American would be interested in re-instating their flights if they would find out when the airport is going to be able to receive them.”
A lack of information on the readiness of the temporary facility is what Alnebeck believes contributed to one of the U.S. carriers having to cancel flights two weeks out “creating nervousness” in the market.
As for charter flights from Canada operated by Sunwing, he added that, “they, like any other business, are saying, ‘Look we need to start making decisions because it’s not only about cancelling flights but we have sold wholesale packages and we need to protect those consumers and find hotels for them in other destinations and if we wait too late, then the Christmas period is sold out’”.
The Club Fortuna Resort in Freeport benefits significantly from Sunwing’s packages and was originally scheduled to re-open last month, but is now showing availabilities starting December 10.
When contacted regarding concerns expressed by Alnebeck and most recently by members of the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce about the need for regular updates on the status and future of the island’s airport, CEO of Hutchison Port Holdings Bahamas Godfrey Smith declined comment.
Steps away, at the publicly-owned Grand Lucayan property, guests Helmy Younes of Egypt and Ali Alhosani of the United Arab Emirates who were on island for work on an undisclosed project, bemoaned the lack of direct flights to Freeport.
Remarking on the beauty of the resort’s beach, Younes said, “Coming through Nassau is one of the downsides because for me to come I had to take four airplanes.”
Alhosani chimed in, adding that due to the lack of direct flights, he was unable to depart Freeport when he originally intended.
Bookings for December are gradually increasing at the property due to dry dock business and small groups, according to Lucayan Resort Holdings chairman Michael Scott.
Scott advised that bookings for the spring season currently stand at 54 percent at the property’s 196-room Lighthouse Pointe.
Occupancy for 2018 was an average of 51.8 percent.
In response to our question on how the resort is working to grow business post-Dorian, he cited several initiatives including special room rates to locals and Bahamas Paradise Cruise Lines, marketing for dry dock ship repairs, and the re-introduction of brunch and buffet specials.
“Patronage is growing as Grand Bahamians gradually regain normalcy,” Scott noted.
Hopeful for a government purchase
The Castaways Resort and Suites inadvertently became true to its name during Dorian’s onslaught as hundreds who were forced out of their homes due to raging storm surge found refuge at the inland Freeport property.
Sales and Marketing Manager Vernon Grant indicated that, despite the challenges, the resort is holding its own and its occupancy levels can be greatly improved once the airport opens to scheduled international flights.
“We have always banked on the local residents and since the hurricane a lot of them have been impacted so they have been staying with us on the weekends just to get away from all that has taken place with regard to the hurricane,” he stated.
Grant said he understood the date for the re-start of scheduled international flights to be around December 15, and while he is optimistic that this timeframe will materialize, the resort’s marketing continues to ensure guests know how they can get to Freeport.
“We are very hopeful that the government will go ahead and purchase the airport to make it easier for persons to travel here into Grand Bahama and that way all of the hotel properties can benefit,” he asserted.
“I think it’s like a person owning their own house as opposed to a foreign entity owning and operating the airport,” Grant offered. “I don’t think that they have the care factor that we would desire but when you, the government, own your gateway you can feel what the natives are crying for in terms of ease of business.”
While government ministers have spoken to talks on the possibility of an airport purchase, no commitments in that regard have been made.
A short time later, over at the Port Lucaya Marketplace, Kate Robinson and her boyfriend Paulo Tahl, from Washington, D.C., had just arrived on island and were taking in the sights on their first visit to The Bahamas.
Robinson, who was all smiles during our interview, said, “We had never been in The Bahamas before and we were in Ft. Lauderdale for Thanksgiving and we decided that we wanted to come.
“We saw that the best way to give back to The Bahamas is to visit after the hurricane.”
It’s a desire hoteliers and workers in the tourism industry hope will drive many more guests to the island.