Airports in the Caribbean and the south-east US have long been used to the dangers of destructive storms – but this year has seen one of the most ferocious hurricane seasons in living memory.
Three huge hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria – hit the region from late August to early October, closing airports and disrupting airline services - sometimes for a few days, sometimes for several weeks, depending on the scale of destruction the storms left behind.
One of the most severely affected airports has been Princess Juliana International Airport in St Maarten – located on the Dutch side of the island also known as St Martin.
Princess Juliana International Airport was previously most famous for its iconic landing approach, with aircraft skimming over the heads of sunbathers on the beach at the end of the runway.
But Hurricane Irma put the airport in the headlines for different reasons after it caused severe damage to its terminal building and other facilities in early September.
Irma destroyed 75% of the terminal’s roof with flooding throughout all levels of the building. There was also damage to the air traffic control tower and perimeter fencing. Fortunately, the runway itself was not damaged, but the landing lights needed for night flying were destroyed.
The airport asked for an advance of $10 million in insurance payments to help it reopen for commercial flights again, which staff managed to do on October 10 by creating temporary facilities such as moving baggage reclaim to a makeshift tented structure.
Michel Hyman, acting CEO of Princess Juliana airport, says that being able to resume commercial flights was “a signal to the world that the island is open for business again”.
“Despite the severe damage the airport sustained with the passage of the monster storms Irma and Maria, we have been able to get back to the point where we can have commercial service again,” adds Hyman.
“Of course, we’re not back up 100%, but we recognise that the way the airport goes, so goes the island. The safety and security of passengers, our employees, visitors and other users of the airport remain priority number one for us, in spite of the fact that we are operating from temporary facilities.”
But while the airport is operational again with several regional and US carriers, including LIAT, Caribbean Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, resuming flights to the island, there seems to be a long road ahead to get back to a similar level of operations enjoyed before the hurricanes struck.
Encouragingly, KLM is scheduled to resume transatlantic flights from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in mid-November, although its services to St Maarten will now operate via Curacao instead of the previously non-stop service. KLM’s sister carrier
Air France is also to operate services from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to Princess Juliana over the Christmas and New Year period.
“We urge all users and stakeholders to bear with us as we embark on the restoration of the airport to its position as the leading airport in the region,” adds Hyman.
Airports in other parts of the Caribbean have also suffered from this year’s tempestuous hurricane season – the British Virgin Islands Airports Authority was only able to reopen Terrance B Lettsome International Airport on Tortola on October 2, nearly a month after Irma had wrecked most of the infrastructure across the islands.
Recovery efforts in the BVIs were further hampered by Hurricane Maria, which passed through the islands just two weeks after Irma.
Denniston Fraser, managing director of the BVI Airports Authority (pictured below), says that repairs had to be carried out at Lettsome International Airport before the airport could secure commercial flight authorisation from Air Safety Support International (ASSI), which manages air safety in British Overseas Territories.
“Major concerns for ASSI were having competent staff in place, addressing issues with the fence, ensuring that equipment, control tower equipment and generators are in a reliable position so that the airport can function properly,” explains Fraser.
Ironically one of aviation’s most famous entrepreneurs, Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson, witnessed the destruction first-hand as he was forced to shelter in a wine cellar at his Necker Island private resort which suffered severe damage from Irma.
The widespread destruction of some Caribbean destinations’ infrastructure may end up being the biggest barrier to restoring flights and routes to previous levels – many of the worst affected islands, such as Puerto Rico, were still largely without electricity and other key services more than a month after the hurricanes struck.
Hotels in some destinations have also been badly affected with all properties currently closed in the British Virgin Islands, and only around 30% of properties operating in St Maarten, although authorities hope this will be up to 50% of all rooms by the end of the year.
The BVI Tourist Board had a policy of discouraging tourists from visiting the UK territory until November 1, while the islands’ authorities have been busy trying to restore electricity, water and other key utilities.
With no hotels for tourists to stay in, the BVIs is hoping that its yachting sector will come to the rescue in the short term with the hosting of the BVI Charter Yacht Society Boat Show in November becoming the destination’s first major event post-Irma.
While airlines have been keen to talk about supporting the most affected destinations, the lack of available infrastructure to welcome tourists is likely to be a barrier for some time to come.
Antigua-based airline LIAT has already resumed flights to St Maarten, Puerto Rico, Dominica and Tortola in the BVIs, but the schedule is far from being back to normal.
Shavar Maloney, corporate communications manager for LIAT, says: “We are constantly reviewing the market with a view to returning to our pre-hurricane schedule but this is dependent on the conditions and logistics on the ground. We are also monitoring demand as this will affect how we allocate services.
“There have been several issues on the ground that will affect a return to full commercial service. There are connectivity issues in some territories where there is limited phone and internet service which are needed to run our operations.
“Some islands still have curfews and there are also still no utilities or hotel accommodation on some islands. This means there will be fewer leisure travellers on our flights to the affected islands.”
So while even the most badly damaged airports were able to return to commercial service within a few weeks, getting passenger demand back to previous levels will take time.
St Maarten, for example, is expecting an 18% drop in tourist arrivals in 2017 due to the hurricanes, but the destination’s government has launched a “Build Back Better” campaign that aims to “achieve a recovery that is better, fairer, stronger and more resilient than the situation before the disaster”.
Rebuilding Princess Juliana airport, which catered for 500,000 passengers in 2016, is at the core of this disaster recovery strategy. There are plans to enhance the rebuilt airport by introducing a US pre-clearance immigration facility and trying to achieve Category One safety status with the US Federal Aviation Administration to “enhance interline agreements and connection business”.
This determination to rebuild with an improved infrastructure is however tempered by a realisation that the destination’s full recovery from the impact of the hurricanes will “most likely” take two to three years.
Unlike most other natural disasters, you normally get a warning about a potential hurricane coming your way. This means there are steps that can be taken to minimise damage and disruption
Most airports have an emergency action plan to deal with hurricanes. Here are the main details of Miami International Airport’s procedures: