$100m upgrade for Boscobel aerodrome - Duckenfield idea shelved, Ken Jones bypassed

Published: Friday | March 20, 2009

Mark Titus, Business Reporter

Government has, at least for now, shelved its plans for a new interna-tional airport for eastern Jamaica and will, instead, expand and upgrade the aerodrome at Boscobel, St Mary, on the island's north-eastern shore.

The decision to go ahead with the $100-million development of Boscobel at the expense of the Ken Jones aerodrome, near Port Antonio, the Portland parish capital, will likely distress business interests in the area.

However, the Airports Authority of Jamaica (AAJ) says that while an expansion of Ken Jones, as a catalyst for the development of Portland, would appear an obvious choice, that, technically, would make little sense.

"The logical thing would have been to develop Ken Jones," said Earl Richards, the president of the AAJ. "Various studies that have been done show that the Ken Jones runway is not feasible from an aeronautical perspective because of mountainous obstacles."

The plan, therefore, is to extend the runway at Boscobel "to the maximum that the site would allow and to convert the aerodrome from a domestic aerodrome to an international port of entry, primarily for general aviation aircraft," Richards told the Financial Gleaner.

The current length of the runway and what maximum length it can accommodate, were not immediately available.

Richards expects that the Boscobel upgrade, including the expansion of buildings and the installation of lights, will be completed by the end of the summer.

Dale Westin, general manager of the Errol Flynn Marina - a Portland facility which the authorities hoped would attract mega yachts and burnish Portland's ambition to brand itself, once more, as the Mecca of high-end tourism in Jamaica - sulked at AAJ's decision to by-pass Ken Jones.

"I am very disappointed to hear that they have made such a decision," Westin told the Financial Gleaner. "It would have been ideal in attracting the high-end spenders to Port Antonio."

When it came to office 18 months ago, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration talked of a big international airport at Duckenfield, St Thomas, to help spur investment in eastern Jamaica, a largely unspoilt part of the island where development has lagged.

STRONG scepticism

Earl Richards, president of the Airports Authority of Jamaica. - File

However, despite the optimism of government ministers, there has been, from the start, scepticism about such a project, which would be the island's third international airport.

Duckenfield, despite poor roads to get there, is hardly more than an hour's drive from Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport, on which the Government has in recent years, spent billions of dollars to upgrade and re-kit.

There were also questions about the economic feasibility of a new airport and the Government's ability to source the financing to fund it - concerns that would have deepened in the current global economic crisis.

Project grounded

So, while the project has not been formally abandoned, most analysts expect it to lie fallow for the foreseeable future, although this was not the declaration of the AAJ's Richards. He said that necessary preparatory work, including feasibility and environmental studies, was at a very preliminary stage.

What Richards suggested was still on the agenda is the long-standing proposal robustly supported by the transport minister, Mike Henry, for the development of Vernamfield, an abandoned American World War II airbase in central Jamaica, into a transhipment and aircraft maintenance facility.

"The idea is that it will be a major cargo hub that would also have facilities for the maintenance and servicing of aircraft from all over the world, with the possibility of a multi-modal facility being created," Richards said. "That has not changed."

Critics of this proposal fear that it would be a waste of resources and potentially siphon cargo business from Norman Manley, from which the Airport Authority earns an estimated half of its revenue, thus undermining its attractiveness for divestment. The Sangster airport in Montego Bay, which handles the bulk of the island's visitors, is run by private operators under a lease arrangement.

Richards also said that the plan to relocate the closed Tinson Pen Aerodrome, from adjacent to the Kingston transhipment port to the Caymanas area in St Catherine, was still on. The Port Authority of Jamaica has taken over Tinson Pen for use as a container storage facility.

The move is being spearheaded by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) and no time frame has been fixed for it.