Argyle Airport opens in St. Vincent
February 20, 2017
As he prepared to land the chartered Sunwing Airlines Boeing 737-800 jet at Argyle International Airport (AIA) on the afternoon of February 14, Captain Daniel Gibson couldn’t help glancing occasionally at both sides of the aircraft carrying 131 passengers on the inaugural flight from Toronto to St. Vincent & the Grenadines new international airport.
As a young boy raised in Dorsetshire Hill that overlooks Arnos Vale, he often had a clear view of small planes flying in and out of the nearby E.T Joshua Airport.
At age nine, his goal was to fly planes.
Gibson achieved that objective, but nothing could have prepared him for the historic flight.
One of three Vincentian-born captains with Sunwing, he was eager to be on the inaugural charter.
“I put my hands up and there were some people in high places that made it happen,” said Gibson who has been with Sunwing for four years. “This was my dream from the time they started to build this airport. As a Vincentian, I wanted to be the first pilot to bring a plane from Canada back to my birth country and here I am. I am so appreciative of the opportunity.”
Being based in Toronto also logistically worked in his favour as the other Vincentian pilots are in Ottawa and Quebec.
As the aircraft descended on the 2,743 metre (9,000 foot) long and 45 metres (150 feet) wide runway, Gibson – a Canadian resident for the last decade -- noticed hundreds of people lining both sides of the airport’s perimeter waving, clapping and taking photographs with cameras and cellphones.
His mind, no doubt, raced back to those days when he was a little boy plane spotting.
This, however, was history and Gibson was extremely proud to be part of it.
Shortly after touchdown around 4.15 p.m., Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves boarded the plane to welcome the passengers, mainly ecstatic nationals returning for the historic occasion.
“This is a dream of over 50 years by the people and we have now brought it to fruition,” he told media members on board the plane. “This is a modern gateway to the world and, in a sense, the framework for the enhancement of our possibilities. I have always said we must not allow anyone to impose on us limitations on our creative imaginations, save and except ourselves.
“We ought not reasonably to do so ourselves. This has been a great cause and great causes have never been won by doubtful men and women. We have done this by a combination of human intelligence, commitment and divine inspiration. We have done so through our own people, our resources and our friends overseas. They are varied and some of them don’t even talk to each other, but we went to them.”
Gonsalves rolled off the names of foreign leaders – past and present – and countries that played a significant role in the airport becoming a reality.
They included late Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, late Venezuela PM Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro, late Trinidad & Tobago PM Patrick Manning who Gonsalves described as ‘my dear friend’, ex-Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian and his successors, Canada, the United States, England, Austria, Mexico, Turkey, Georgia, Libya and Iran.
“We have borrowed money and received grants from the CARICOM Development Fund,” he pointed out. “This is an international venture and when you see the terminal building, you will notice in its architecture and in its interior décor that it was done with sense and sensibility and with great love resonant of our spirit and Caribbean civilization.”
Noting that the journey wasn’t easy, Gonsalves pointed to myriad financial, managerial, engineering and political challenges that threatened to thwart the project which is the largest capital project ever undertaken in the islands’ history.
“When I announced in 2005 the framework to build this airport, a large number of persons said they knew I was completely mad and they suggested I should go and see the resident psychiatrist at the time at the mental health centre” he said. “They didn’t think it was possible to be done. There were four mountains and valleys here and 134 middle income homes. I had to move mountains, fill valleys and move houses elsewhere. I had to span a stream and river and move a church and cemetery. That was just the start.”
St. Vincent & the Grenadines consul general in Toronto Fitz Huggins and former Eastern Caribbean liaison service consul and chief liaison officer Bernard John and his wife Shelley John – the St. Vincent & the Grenadines Tourism Authority director of sales based in Toronto – were on the inaugural flight.
“A light switch turned on today and we can now see what’s in the room,” said Huggins. “This has been a long time coming. The new airport opens all kinds of possibilities and opportunities for us to take advantage of.”
Bernard John said Vincentians have every right to be excited about the project.
“In the past, nationals and others travellers to St. Vincent & the Grenadines had to stop over in another Caribbean island and catch a connecting LIAT (Leeward Islands Air Transport) flight,” he said. “There is another option now and it’s much more accessible.”
When Ewan Lewis migrated in 1967, he took three flights to get to Toronto. On regular vacations back home in the last five decades, the former St. Vincent & the Grenadines Association of Toronto president had to stop off in Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and Antigua.
“Sometimes, the wait would be four to six hours,” he said. “I have had to overnight in other islands at times and that was quite the inconvenience.”
Now retired, Lewis is re-migrating to his birth country later this year.
“My children and grandchildren don’t have an excuse for not coming to visit me and I have access to a direct flight whenever I want to come and visit them in the Greater Toronto Area,” he added. “There have been three significant events in my lifetime and they are the prison release of Nelson Mandela, the inauguration of President Barack Obama and the opening of Argyle International Airport.”
Risha Toney didn’t plan to travel to the island country now.
“This is significant for someone like me who travels a lot to St. Vincent,” she said. “Sometimes, those one-hour stopovers turned into six and eight hours. When I learnt there was a charter that was going the same day that the airport was due to open, I decided I had to be part of history. There is only one first and I couldn’t miss it.”
Like Toney, Angus Fitzpatrick couldn’t miss the opportunity to be part of history.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for all Vincentians and it says that our country is now open for business,” he added.
St. Vincent & the Grenadines Tourism Authority chief executive officer Glen Beache, who attended Humber College and York University and did his Master’s in Public and Social Policy in England, could hardly contain his excitement.
“This is something that we are very proud of,” said Beache who was born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area. “I know a new international airport may seem the norm for a lot of people, but for us, it is the first time we could take wide-body planes. This puts us on a different level in terms of moving forward for tourism, investment, agriculture, sporting and business in every sense that we can.
“My ideal situation for St. Vincent and the Grenadines is that there should be a waiting list for people wanting to get in. I don’t want visitors to feel as if they haven’t left home and that when you look around, you see so many other visitors you feel as if you’re not in a new place and with a new culture to experience new things. The way to control this is the number of rooms you have, and I think that if we can get between 3,500 and 4,000, we’ll be set. We don’t need the daily flights. Three times a week will suit us quite well.”
The 171,000-square foot airport terminal building has two jet bridges and is designed to handle 1.5 million passengers per year which is more than five times the capacity at E.T Joshua. It also offers 23 commercial spaces, three restaurants and several spots available for kiosks.
To attract airlift to the collection of 32 unspoiled islands and cays in the Eastern Caribbean, Gonsalves said a 250-room hotel will be built in St. Vincent. He also appealed to the country’s private sector to consider investing to increase room capacity.
For more information on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, please visit www.discoversvg.com.