Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
BOSCOBEL, St Mary:IT CAN accommodate at least six international aircraft with a maximum wingspan of 55 feet and a maximum length of 65 feet, as well as three small aircraft all at the same time, as a result of a $300-million upgrade. However, nothing prepared the staff at the Ian Fleming International Airport in St Mary for the group of senior citizens from Alexandria, St Ann, who descended on the facility some time last year.
"We thought they were on a tour and just passing through, but they came from there just to come to the airport. They asked us if they could put out their lunch, and so we put out the chairs and they had lunch and it was an outing for them," related Claudial Sydial, administrative coordinator/marketing officer.
This is in keeping with the growing popularity of the facility located just outside of Oracabessa and formerly known as the Boscobel Aerodrome in the wake of its rebirth and reopening on January 12, 2011. The anticipated wave of international clients is growing but the popularity of the airport with locals seems to have caught the operators off guard. The number of requests for tours from professional groups, including travel writers, schools and other organisations, is one the rise.
Sydial thinks it has to do with the fascination of having an international airport in a rural area, and this was confirmed by Sherice Irving, one of the teachers on a field trip with students from the Port Antonio Infant School. She explained the rationale for the trip: "As part of our curriculum we are doing transportation, the different ways of travelling, and we are focusing now on air transportation."
Questioned as to the reason for bypassing the Ken Jones Aerodrome located in Portland, where the school is located, Irving answers with one word loaded with attitude which says it all - "International".
They had, in fact, checked with the Norman Manley International Airport and were given a June date, but that would have thrown the curriculum out of whack. So just how well did the trip go over with students and teachers?
Irving was emphatic: "Very good because we even get more than we expected, the firemen. One group saw a plane coming in and both groups saw it take off. The firemen, immigration, customs - they got all that in one lesson, so it was good."
Meanwhile, plans are in the making for expanding the runway by 500 feet to facilitate larger aircraft. Sydial tells why: "Sometimes it's not just that they can't land. They could land but when it comes to take-off there is a thing we call the maximum take-off weight that require the plane to have a certain distance available to facilitate take-off. If they are lifting with a full load of passengers and baggage, plus fuel, which is a major contributor to overall weight, then that extra distance can make a difference."
This is in sync with the desire to grab a bigger slice of the private, corporate and even some commercial business, according to Sydial.
"We get our continuous stream of local aircraft that come in daily and have definitely seen an increase in our international flights. It's seasonal and maybe this week we have just one international flight, then come next week you see where we have back-to-back flights coming in and going out. So we're pushing for marketing to do more things."
Visiting air shows abroad is just one of the networking strategies that paid off in January with the arrival of eight private planes from the TBM Aircraft which was celebrating its centenary. The spin-off business for the people from the area, in terms of those who provide accommodation, food and entertainment for these visitors, is also another major economic contribution.
Things are set to get better with the opening of a branch of the Caribbean Aviation Training Centre which operates out of Tinson Pen, set for this year. This follows on the success of a one-month flight course for children between nine and 16 which was held last year.
So the way things are looking, the sky is the limit for the Ian Fleming International Airport.