EDITORIAL: Up in the air … it’s a bird … it’s a plane … it’s not Barbuda Air

Air transport between Antigua and Barbuda has never been reliable but back in early 2015, the Government announced that it was committed to creating Barbuda Airways, (actually named Barbuda Air) to provide consistent and reasonably priced airlift between Antigua and our sister-isle.  It was a plan and decision that were generally well received, as there was hope that the air transportation woes between the islands would finally be addressed in a more permanent way. 

Chief of Staff Lionel “Max” Hurst, said at the time that the Cabinet had agreed to an initial fleet of two planes and “they will begin to fly between Antigua and Barbuda and reduce the cost of going between Barbuda and Antigua.”  Hurst lamented the high cost of flying, saying, “You know, at the moment, it’s $300 to fly between Barbuda and Antigua two ways,” and used that reasoning as the thrust behind Barbuda Air.  Kinks would have to be worked out but on the face of it, the plan sounded good.

As with all things in our bit of paradise, time passed and little was heard about the much hyped Barbuda Air.  Then, in the latter part of 2017, almost three years later, the Government of Antigua and Barbuda and Caribbean Helicopters Ltd. (CHL) signed an agreement which would establish the long awaited Barbuda Air.  The press release indicated that the new airline would be “a joint venture aimed at ensuring sustainable and affordable air travel between Antigua and Barbuda.” 

“Finally,” many said, in response to the gloating of Minister of Civil Aviation Sir Robin Yearwood that the airline represented the fulfillment of a commitment by Prime Minister Gaston Browne to improve connectivity between Antigua and Barbuda. He pledged his ministry’s support for the venture and brushed aside the long wait as simply good, hard work in making the promise a reality.  Arthur Nibbs, the parliamentary representative for Barbuda, at the time, lauded the PM and extended appreciation on behalf of all Barbudans. 

Neil Dickinson, Managing Director of CHL, seemed giddy with excitement and pledged his and CHL’s commitment to the initiative, noting that the company would be operating the service on behalf of the government of Antigua and Barbuda, in what was described as a unique public-private partnership in regional aviation. Dickinson announced that advertisements for the service were already placed on various social media and Barbuda Air was poised to begin service within two weeks; offering twice daily services between Antigua and Barbuda. Service would start with one aircraft but would increase to two aircraft by December of 2017. 

This little backstory is important because Barbuda Air is nowhere to be seen; or rather, it has been scarcely seen for one month, between late July and late August. It is our understanding that the unique public-private partnership called for one aircraft to be purchased by the Government and one by CHL.  As far as we can tell, CHL did indeed purchase an Islander aircraft on behalf of Government and it was decked out in blue and white CHL livery with tail number V2-LGS.  At the same time, the second aircraft, which was to be purchased by CHL, was actually leased from a Santo Domingo based operator.

Be that as it may, things have gotten very murky and the relationship between CHL and the Government has apparently soured.  While there is apparently an official investigation ongoing to determine what exactly transpired, it has been reported that the initial investigation carried out by Barbuda Air Chairman, Jimmy Fuller, discovered that parts for the Government plane had been swapped onto the other aircraft, without permission from the Government or aviation authorities.  Following those revelations, the Government rightly demanded a cease of operations, the removal of the aircraft from CHL’s care, and the return of the parts.  

It is said that the proverbial “cat is among the pigeons” because all of this occurred under the glazed eyes of Government and it is turning into quite an embarrassment.  And, while the Government is taking the right remedial action, there are questions that need answers because a lot of taxpayer money has been spent and there is still no Barbuda Air flying in our skies as the plane remains grounded in an airport hanger; out of sight.

Chief of Staff Lionel “Max” Hurst recently indicated that it is clear that “something untoward” had taken place and a report was being presented to Cabinet on the matter, however, that report never made it to the table for discussion, so all questions remain unanswered.  A big deal was made out of Barbuda Air and it has fallen by the wayside in a whimper but that will not erase the questions that are in people’s minds.  Where was the Government oversight of the project? What was the responsibility and action of the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority (ECCAA) in all of this, having given the green light to daylight operations in March of this year?  And, of course, ‘where de money gorn?’

These are just a few of the many questions that we hope will be answered

by the ongoing investigations and we hope that answers will be provided as they are unearthed in this latest saga.

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