By Kadeem Joseph
The surveillance capabilities of the local Coast Guard could receive a boost come August, since the aircraft originally intended to function as a major link between Barbuda and Antigua, has also been earmarked for use by the Coast Guard.
Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said that significant progress has been made in efforts to get the “Barbuda Air” craft airborne.
“They hope to have the repairs completed hopefully by the end of July, and sometime in August that plane should be flying, providing surveillance of the coastline of Antigua and Barbuda as well as transporting individuals between Antigua and Barbuda…,” Browne said in Parliament on Tuesday in response to a query from Member for All Saints East and St Luke, Jamale Pringle.
According to the nation’s leader, the plane will also be used in search and rescue exercises.
Browne noted that the countries of the region have “relatively porous borders”, and while Antigua and Barbuda has been assisted by the US government and other external agencies, the issue remains a challenge for the region, the twin island state included.
The security of the nation’s borders has also come under the microscope, after last month’s alleged abduction of diamond dealer and Antiguan and Barbudan citizen, Mehul Choksi, presumably via boat.
This is the latest update in the long-awaited arrival of the Barbuda Air service that was first promised in 2015.
Last month, the prime minister also denied any corruption by Aviation Minister Sir Robin Yearwood in the process of acquiring the plane following the circulation of a flyer suggesting the same.
In addressing the issue on his weekly radio show, Browne also said the Antigua and Barbuda Defence Force had “decided to take it over” and would spend “a couple hundred thousand EC dollars” to fix up the aircraft.
During the 2016 Budget presentation, it was announced that the government would establish Barbuda Airways later in the said year.
At the time, the government had already acquired a nine-seater aircraft at a cost of approximately $1 million to facilitate affordable air travel between Antigua and the sister isle, Barbuda.
In the latter part of 2017, almost three years later, the Gaston Browne administration and Caribbean Helicopters Ltd (CHL) signed an agreement which would establish the airline.
It was then that the Managing Director of CHL, Neil Dickinson, announced that service would start with one aircraft but would increase to two planes by December 2017, according to media reports at the time.
However, the relationship between CHL and the government became strained after investigations revealed that parts for the government’s plane had been swapped onto the other aircraft, without permission from the government or aviation authorities.
Following those revelations, the government demanded a cease of operations, the removal of the aircraft from CHL’s care, and the return of the parts.