Grand Bahama Airport – What’s Next?

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A WELCOMED SIGHT – It was a sight for sore eyes, as hundreds of passengers disembarked a flight from Canada, when the Private terminal at the airport was repaired and opened to international passengers, following a long closure because of Hurricane Dorian.

By E.J. Rolle

Compass Contributor

According to sources for the Compass, C.K. Hutchison Holdings is playing hardball with the government when it comes to the Grand Bahama Airport, and apparently there is nothing the Government can do about it.

Ever since Hurricane Dorian devastated both the international and national airports, the game of “footsie” between the Government and Hutchison began.

“Hutchison knew that they had no plans of rebuilding or even trying to fix the airport after Hurricane Dorian,” said a source, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because of being so close to the prolonged negotiations.

“They had rebuilt that airport so many times, after so many storms and I think they just had enough. Dorian was bad and the damage to the airport was beyond what anyone in Grand Bahama had ever seen before.

“Besides, after Hutchison got away with collecting the insurance money for the damage to the hotel and they got the government to turn around and purchase it from them, they figured they won big and could do the same thing with the airport.”

Once word had spread that Hutchison had no intentions of rebuilding the airport after Dorian, the Government of the Bahamas knew that they had to step in, because the gateway was important to the rebuilding of Grand Bahama’s economy.

In fact, Minister of tourism and Aviation, Dionisio D’Aguilar confirmed the government’s interest in potentially acquiring Grand Bahama International Airport, amid concerns that the GBPA and Hutchison were both reluctant to invest the necessary eight-figure sum to restore the airport to international aviation standards.

“Just be aware that the operator of that airport is potentially looking to sell and the Government of the Bahamas is potentially looking to buy,” said D’Aguliar. “The particulars and the nuances and the facts of the deal, are not really ready to be discussed in the public domain.”

But the deal is not straight forward, which may explain why the negotiations have been drawn out for the past few months. From all indications, and according to Sarah St. George, Vice President of the GBPA, there are other people in the mix who have also expressed interest in the airport.

Ms. St. George has not disclosed the names of the other interested parties. But apparently, they have pit these “other interested parties” against the government, in a battle to take over GB Airport.

One of the questions that never came up was why wouldn’t Hutchison rebuild the airport? According to Ms. St. George, “the GB airport has been a loss-making operation for its owners”, who each hold a 50 percent stake.

“It’s not because Hutchison have a problem with finding money,” said the Compass source. “Hutchison is a big company, with lots of money, but, as I said earlier, the company has had to repair that airport so many times, I think they’re tired of it.” 

According to Wikipedia, CK Hutchison Holdings has net total assets of over $133 billion (2016) and employs close to 270,000 people around the world.

Such a truth brings back to mind the rumblings of years ago which suggested that Hutchison never really wanted the airport nor the (Grand Lucayan) hotel from the start, but it was all a part of the deal which the government at the time “forced” them to take in order to open the profitable Container Port.

Ten months after Hurricane Dorian wreaked havoc on Grand Bahama, destroying the airports in the process, the GB airport remains in a state of limbo. For months, the Government has been in negotiations with Hutchison for the purchase of the airport, but the negotiations ran long and has been interrupted with the global pandemic of Covid-19.

AIRPORT DAMAGED – This was one of the hangers at the Grand Bahama Airport that was destroyed from Hurricane Dorian in September, 2019. Both the International and National airports were destroyed.

Just last month, Minister of State for Grand Bahama, Senator Kwasi Thompson told the media that “it remains an unacceptable position for the Government” that the airport’s current owners are unwilling to restore the island’s major aviation gateway to international standards, following the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Dorian.

“We entered into talks with Hutchison,” said Thompson. “The talks were slightly delayed as a result of Covid-19. We have continued those talks. We are actively in discussions with them, actively in negotiations with Hutchison with respect to the turnover of the airport.

“The airport is a high priority for the government. No island, particularly an island that is in the process of rebuilding, can do so without an active airport.”

According to reports, the government and Hutchison/GBPA were discussing a deal that would see the two joint venture partners receive $1 each for the respective 50 percent equity stakes in the airport. However, both would be allowed to retain the Dorian-related insurance settlement proceeds, leaving the government to both finance the airport’s rebuilding and find a management partner to operate it.

But with the present financial woes of the government because of the Covid-19 Pandemic, and a dried up tourism inflow, it could leave the government with second thoughts about taking on a major project like the building of a modern international and domestic airport.

“One thing I will say is that the airport is presently open,” said Kwasi Thompson. “There is a temporary structure that is in place. Prior to Covid-19, there were international flights that were coming in, domestic flights were coming in.

“So, the airport is active for domestic flights coming in. We expect that when the country opens up fully for international flights that the temporary facility will also accommodate those international flights. But we understand that it is not an acceptable position for Grand Bahama to be in for any long period of time. We are going to continue to aggressively push with Hutchison to arrive at an acceptable agreement with respect to the airport.”

In the meantime, the Government was able to revamp the private airport to some semblance of operation, which allowed some international flights to come into the island, but without US Customs, American flights refused to fly into Grand Bahama.

In addition to Bahamasair, flights from Canada were allowed in. But the airport suffered much because of a lack of major American airlines flying into the hub.

To make matters worse, the majority of the workers at the airport are in the state of “being fired”. 100 workers had already lost their jobs and the remaining employees are “on deck” for termination.

There is no guarantee that the government will have the finances to purchase the Grand Bahama Airport. The question that arises is “if the government doesn’t purchase the airport from Hutchison, what is going to happen to the only aviation hub on the island”?

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