Airport storeowners not optimistic ahead of VCBIA reopening

Big Banana, a popular eatery in the VC Bird International Airport
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By Orville Williams

Business operators inside the VC Bird International Airport (VCBIA) are expressing doubts over their market prospects, ahead of a resumption in commercial travel.

The Cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda recently announced that the airport will re-open on June 1, with several regional and international flights scheduled to arrive over the course of the month, and while some sections of society are looking forward to the benefits of the resumption, some business owners inside the airport are not as hopeful.

Michelle George, the managing director at The Tailor’s Daughter – a boutique gift shop located in the VCBIA’s departure lounge – said while she is happy that things will be turning around, she is not really expecting any significant return to business in the short term.

“As a business person, I’m very excited about the fact that we seem to have gotten the virus under control [but] I am not optimistic about the business prospects opening. Okay, we’re going to open, we have a flight coming in on June 4 [but] it’s going to be mainly Antiguans coming back, from what I have read. [The flight] is incoming [and] we only deal with outbound passengers.

“Now, if there are outbound passengers that day, we don’t really have an idea of the demographic, so I don’t know. I’m going to assume that they may have been Americans that were here and maybe some Antiguans that are looking forward to just travelling, but I’m not expecting much from that initial flight,” she said.

Jeff Hadeed, the owner of Big Banana – another business located in the VCBIA’s departure lounge — shared similar sentiments.

“Obviously, everybody is keen to see some return to normal business operations. In my opinion, no matter what opens [or] how it opens, it’s going to take us quite a while before we get back to normal. We are obviously dependent on tourism and travel in the world, so I imagine that while we may open, I don’t think we’re going to see the same levels of business for a while,” Hadeed said.

“I suspect the first weeks of travel are going to be mostly people repatriating, going back to where they left stuff unfinished or were locked out.”

Both businesses have suffered from the significant economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, being largely dependent on tourism-generated revenue. However, both operators expressed genuine concern for the safety and wellbeing of their employees.

George disclosed that she had maintained salary payments to her staff – though at a reduced percentage – throughout the duration of the lockdown; however, the uncertainty of the immediate future is worrying.  

“Going forward now, I have to staff my store, so what happens when I put staff in there for that one flight that doesn’t have anybody going out? I have to pay them; I’ve got to replenish the stocks; I’ve got to deal with rent and utilities.

“I’ve already had my staff off for [almost] three months and I don’t see that we’re going to be making enough revenues for me to pay them. It’s a very sticky situation, because although the store needs to be staffed, I don’t see that there’s going to be enough money coming in to make it viable under the current situation,” she explained.

Hadeed, even while expressing his delight at the prospects of resuming business, also voiced concern for his staff.

“We are happy to be able to put people back to work. The psychological benefit of being open is huge, because it’s one thing to sit at home and see zero income but still have expenses, versus seeing some form of income, albeit not profitable.

“At the same time, you’re able to ease the pressure, the strain on your employees and the economy to some extent. That is positive and we welcome that,” he shared.

Both George and Hadeed also commented on the health implications of returning to business. The Ministry of Health, the Antigua and Barbuda Airport Authority (ABAA) and other responsible entities are expected to develop protocols for airport operations. Hadeed explained that because nothing has been shared as yet, they were taking it in stride.

“On the airport, we don’t actually know yet what the protocols are and what is going to be required or not required, so I think it’s a little bit early for us to say that we’re happy or unhappy. We really have not received any firm communication about what’s going to be expected either of our personnel or of travellers,” he explained.

George additionally shared that there was some unease among her employees, as they are without any concrete information.

“I know, with regard to my staff…they are definitely concerned about the protocols. A lot of mention has been made about customs and immigration and taxi drivers, but nothing much has been said about [the staff] working in the departure area. We’re kind of unsure at this point, what the position is,” she said.

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