Regional issues discussed at Caribbean Aviation Meetup
- Chris Kjelgaard reports from Dominica on this week's Carribbean Aviation Meetup, setup to discuss the region's network.
It is no coincidence that the event, the first-ever ‘Caribbean Aviation Meetup’, was held on the heavily rain-forested island of Dominica. As a Caribbean island nation with practically no flat land – formed by volcanic activity, Dominica is the Caribbean’s youngest island and it has nine semi-dormant volcanoes – mountainous Dominica has two small airports.
The larger of the two, formerly known as Melville Hall Airport but recently renamed Douglas-Charles Airport, has a 5,700-foot runway. Ordinarily this would easily be a long enough runway to receive single-aisle jets flying non-stop to Dominica from North America, Mexico, Central America, South America and from within the Caribbean region.
However, because of Dominica’s almost-vertical topography and Melville Hall Airport’s location on the island’s east coast next to the Atlantic Ocean, jets cannot easily approach the airport from the west, which is the direction towards which the prevailing 15-knot winds blow from the ocean.
The final approach to Melville Hall routes between the sides of a steep and narrow gully, over the sides of which large trees hang. Additionally, the airport’s Runway 09 – the predominant landing runway – has a threshold displaced by 1,100 feet, leaving a landing aircraft with 4,600 feet in which to touch down, decelerate and stop.
Furthermore, Melville Hall is classified as a Category B airport by the FAA, because its runway isn’t wide enough to land most jets and the runway pavement is sometimes affected by severe flooding of the local river. So for a medium-sized jet such as an A320 or 737 to try to perform the approach to Melville Hall Airport’s Runway 09 would be very hazardous.
Years ago, Melville Hall used to receive occasional jet charter service operated by BAe 146 short take-off and landing jets, but those days are long past. Present at the conference, the man who first chartered a BAe 146 to fly into the airport told me that the first time the pilots tried to land the aircraft, they performed four unsuccessful approaches and then decided to return to Antigua, judging discretion to be the better part of valour on that occasion.
Today the largest aircraft to operate into Melville Hall are the ATR 72-600s and ATR 42-600s of LIAT, the multinational, government-owned regional airline of various Eastern Caribbean nations.
While LIAT’s ATR turboprops perform beautifully in landing at and taking off from Melville Hall Airport, LIAT’s over-extended schedule – the result of its various government owners requiring the carrier to operate many socially necessary but unprofitable routes – means Melville Hall Airport doesn’t get a huge amount of air service.
The service it does receive, though convenient for connections on certain routings – for example, LIAT’s flights to and from San Juan – mean that for many business people and leisure travellers visiting Dominica from other, not very distant Caribbean islands, connections and fares alike are dreadful.
This fare problem is exacerbated because several of LIAT’s government shareholders treat passengers wanting to travel on the airline as cash cows who should be taxed to the hilt. Often LIAT’s basic fares are reasonable, but after almost 100 per cent of extra taxation burden is added, not LIAT’s fault, its fares usually seem outlandish to locals and visitors alike.
Yet another problem for Dominica is that Melville Hall Airport is situated on the northeast side of the island, while the nation’s small capital Roseau is located on the southwestern side. Although as the crow flies the distance between the two locations is probably less than 25 miles, the mountain-climbing, vastly winding main road between them adds more than another 20 miles on to the journey.
By road, Roseau is at least 46 miles from Melville Hall Airport. Even driving fast on the island’s two-lane, heavily trafficked main road, no taxi driver can cover the distance in less than an hour. Often the journey takes rather longer. The drive isn’t cheap for the passenger.
Naturally enough, this may put some people who have visited Dominica from wanting to visit again, enormously beautiful though this verdant, mountainous island – which boasts vast tracts of true rain forest – is.
But there is hope for better air service to Dominica. Just five miles north of Roseau, up a straight, wide road which offers a 10-minute drive from the centre of Roseau, lies a small and long-neglected airport called Canefield Airport.
Its 3,130-foot runway very basically constructed of tarmacadam, boasting no terminal and located right on Dominica’s west coast, Canefield Airport was in some danger until recently of dying as an active airport. This is because its strong crosswinds makes approaches by small aircraft difficult and even today the airport doesn’t sell Avgas for piston-powered aircraft.
Ironically, however, Canfield Airport proved Dominica’s salvation after Tropical Storm Erika devastated much of the island in late August 2015. Although Canefield Airport suffered heavy flooding, the Melville Hall River right next Melville Hall Airport burst its banks and flooded most of the airport’s movement surface heavily, making all aircraft movements impossible.
Winair, a Sint Maarten-based regional airline which operates 19-seat Twin Otters, had been operating all its scheduled services between the two islands to Melville Hall Airport. However, in the wake of Erika, Winair began flying emergency relief missions to Canfield Airport instead.
Before long, Winair realised it had stumbled upon a diamond in the rough. Dipping its toes in the water last autumn with two scheduled round-trips a week between Sint Maarten and Canefield, Winair has found the route so popular that from June 20 it will operate four round-trips a week between Sint Maarten and Canefield Airport, and daily round-trips from Antigua.
While the small size of the Twin Otter means seat numbers on the route will remain relatively modest, the fact remains that Winair is increasing its Canefield service from 38 seats in each direction each week to 201 seats – a 529 per cent increase.
In extremely lively debates in which every person present participated, the Caribbean Aviation Meetup conference discussed many of the problems facing the regional air transport industry within the Caribbean region.
But standing out as the premier topic of conversation was how Dominica can do more, while spending little or no money, to encourage much more commercial, business and private aviation service to Canefield Airport.
As part of the dialogue, a group of 12 aviation and airport experts (not including me, unfortunately) visited Canefield Airport as the guests of the Government of the Commonwealth of Dominica. They immediately came up with several cheap, easy-to-implement ideas which probably will require that no political or financial capital be expended.
One idea was to add a second, strategically placed windsock, as St. Barth’s famously challenging Gustaf III Airport has done, to aid pilots of approaching aircraft judge the crosswinds more accurately.
Another was to arrange for a commercial company to provide a supply of Avgas at Canefield. That shouldn’t be hard, because Dominica’s main (but fairly small) commercial port lies only a couple of miles to the south of the airport.
Yet another idea was to provide a supply of spares for widely used private aircraft types at Canefield Airport: the airport is surrounded by warehouses, some of which appear to be little–used.
The various Dominican government ministers and representatives present at the Caribbean Aviation Meetup listened carefully, took notes and were fulsome in their praise for the practical ideas their aviation-industry guests provided as to how to improve Canefield Airport for little or no cost.
For Canefield Airport and the island of Dominica, with any luck, the Caribbean Aviation Meetup could eventually prove transforming. Well done, Dominica, perhaps the least well-served large island in the Caribbean in terms of air transport, for having the foresight to host a unique aviation event and for grasping a tough nettle.