The Turks and Caicos Islands may not be the first island that comes to most people’s minds when the word ‘island’ is mentioned, but as of 2016, they hold the distinction of being the world’s best island, according to TripAdvisor.com. In 2015, the islands welcome around 440,000 visitors to their sun-kissed shores – a phenomenal figure when one considers that there are a little over 3,300 beds available on the main island.
Of course, none of this would be possible without good transport links to the rest of the world – notably airports. The Turks and Caicos Islands Airport Authority (TCIAA) manages the operations and development of the six airports on the Turks and Caicos islands – overseeing annual growth of flight passengers to the island of around 20% on last year. We recently spoke to the Authority’s CEO, Mr. John T. Smith about the TCIAA, its role on the island and its plans for the future.
TCIAA: From loss-maker to growth leader
The TCIAA was founded in 2006, through a regulatory change which gave rise to it and the islands’ Civil Aviation Authority. The islands were home to six airports, which faced several challenges. Among these challenges, was the enforced shortening of the main runway at Providencialest from 7600 feet and had to be shortened to 7200 feet because of an obstruction at one end – a step backwards for the TCIAA at a time when it was hemorrhaging around $3m a year.
Thankfully, the TCIAA had other plans and began putting them in gear. Mr. Smith joined in 2007, with a mandate to aggressively grow the organization in line with tourism figures for the islands. “The airport is critical to the sustainability of the economy as we’re close to a 99.9% tourism base,” notes Mr. Smith. In 2008, with government backing, they embarked on the rehabilitation of the runway at a cost of $40 million, knowing that the terminal would be constucted some time later. It was extended to 9200 feet making it fully compliant for major international fleet.
They also wanted to deliver what the minister for transport of the time called, “an all-singing, all-dancing terminal.” However, this was complicated somewhat by the fact that the TCIAA operated a joint-venture in the airport at the time with a company called PAC. Slowly but surely, it began a silent takeover – buying up PACs 35% assets. The takeover was completed by 2009, allowing construction of the terminal to begin. The resulting building – which has since been significantly added to – is a testament to the Airport Authority’s commitment to sustainability.
Mr. Smith told us: “The entire terminal facility and apron is lit by LEDs as are the carparks, and roadlights. We have seen a significant redution in our eletricity consumption. We’re looking how we can embrace the use of generating electricty by solar power. We’re also looking to sink wells to recycle water. For us, it’s all about that. We’re very focused on reducing the carbon footprint as much as is practically possible.”
The 3-pronged welcoming committee
The TCIAA is effectively competing with much larger authorities of its kind all over the Carribbean and North America, but it has developed a competitive advantage: it works in tandem with other organizations on the island to attract traffic. Mr. Smith says: ““When I arrived in 2007, I thought it was best for us to operate in collaboration with others. The hotel association, the tourist board and the airport authority all work very closely in collaboration. For example, when we reach out to a carrier, we reach out with all three parties.”
In addition, the Airport Authority is operating a “new routes, new incentives” initiative, where airlines who add the islands to their list of destinations don’t expose themselves to the full costs of doing so – the Airoport Authority shares some of the financial burden for a 3-year period. “We share in the startup risk. From there, the hotel assocation and tourist board assist with marketing.” International carriers market in different countries, while the TCIAA markets regionally: the result is a double marketing offensive for the islands.
Something has clicked: For the first time, the islands are being serviced by two major airlines operating out of, Florida: American Airlines and JetBlue. This competition in turn has led to airfares tumbling by around 50%. The island also has access to other hubs in North America like Chicago and Houston, while American Airlines have indicated they’re going to start operations back into New York. Boston and Dallas also service the islands. Two local carriers have also sprung up generating traffic of their own.
The success of the TCIAA feeds into the local economy. Mr. Smith points out: “Currently, we have a staff of circa of 250-odd and growing. The Airport Authority also has under its umbrella the fire services, security, air traffic control, apron control and the whole gamut of what happens in an airport. Some other airport authorities only look after bits and pieces but we look after the lot.” This doesn’t include indirect unemployment, of course. For example, around 90% of the taxi drivers at the airport are totally dependent on business generated there.
Engagement doesn’t stop with employement. There are also school visits and training programs: “Through the training manager, William John, we’ve set up a training reach-out program. We go out to the schools on the islands and partner with the schools to introduce children to other areas of aviation. We also offer scholarships to individuals, bring them on board and give them and finance the initial training. All of the training they receive here and overseas, is paid for by the Aviation Authority.”
Suppliers and partners
The vast majority of the Airport Authority’s contracts are taken up by local companies like Caicos Oil for fuel, Flight Support and TCA Handling for ground handling, Blue Loos for waste disposal and Cargo Express, a Providenciales firm which the Airport Authority turns to for shipping when required. Local suppliers were even able to care of construction of the terminal given their experience in the development of hotels which has occurred over the past number of years. These include Dolmen Construction, SDM, RBS and EDS.
Surprisingly, the Airport Authority has only turned to international suppliers in more technical areas – principally, the civil engineering works which have been required around the airport. These have been taken care of by WSP, Howard Industries and Herzog – all well-known international brands with experience in the field.
Looking to the future
The TCIAA’s remarkable journey keeps going apace. While it may seem like everything has fallen into place, it’s worth remembering that just ten years ago, it was loss making. Last year, it generated revenues of over $35m and those are set to be beaten this year. Traffic continues to grow: US Spring Break now lasts two months, and the Ritz Carlton, which will open shortly, will generate new traffic of their own.
In terms of development at the airport, in South Caicos the runway rehabilitation is already underway .They have sent out an RFP for a new terminal building and a new combined services building which are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2017. That terminal building will offer a gleaming state-of-the-art welcome to an island, developed by locals and powered sustainably. What better way to mark the Airport Authority’s mark on the island. As Mr. Smith notes: “If the Airport Authority fails, it’s a country and its economy that fails.” Thankfully, there’s absolutely no sign of that ever happening.
for more visit www.tciairports.com
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