Passengers livid

MONTEGO BAY, St James – Stranded passengers were livid Thursday as they complained bitterly about the gross inconveniences suffered because of the closure of Sangster International Airport (SIA) for several hours.

Among them was Oral Davis, who was scheduled to leave for Canada.

“It is bad, bad, bad. It has affected me significantly. I was due back in Canada by 10 o’clock tonight [Thursday night] and I won’t be back until best case scenario about 6:00 am tomorrow [Friday]. That is going to affect me both financially, emotionally, and everything. This is not good. But then again what can I do? I just have to deal with it,” he said.

A woman, who gave her name only as Kelly, said that some members of a group she was travelling with will not get home to Nebraska, United States, until Saturday night.

“We were supposed to be on our flight at 2:00 pm [Thursday] and now we are not getting home until Saturday night when we were supposed to get home tonight,” said Kelly.

In addition, she said others members of her group who are travelling to Texas and Arkansas are not going to get home until Monday morning. “Everybody has got different flights. My flight doesn’t leave until 4:45 pm tomorrow [Friday]. And we have to go all the way to New York, and then to Denver, and then we go home to Omaha, Nebraska,” Kelly said.

She was also upset that members of the group had to dig into their pockets to pay for additional accommodation.

“[The airport] is not giving us any accommodation, so we have to come out of pocket. We have to go get us a hotel, we have to pay for the hotel, we have to pay for a shuttle to take us to the hotel. They are not accommodating and that’s not good,” she claimed.

Walter Smith, who was scheduled to depart Sangster International for Atlanta, United States, at 5:00 pm Thursday afternoon, was at a loss as to where he would be staying at the airport until his flight leaves at 9:00 am Friday.

“We have no place to stay, we have no transportation. Our hotel was a resort and the time limit for that is up. So I don’t know what recourse we have,” he said.

No flights could get in or out of SIA between 7:00 am and about 2:30 pm on Thursday. According to Sharon Hislop-Holt, manager, commercial business development and marketing for MBJ, operators of the Sangster International Airport, 30 of the 52 incoming flights were diverted to the Norman Manley International Airport, while 12 were cancelled.

“For those flights cancelled, arrangements have been made with the passengers. Some airlines have already indicated that they have extra flights operating tomorrow to facilitate those passengers impacted,” she said as she announced the reopening of the runway. “The airlines that have indicated that they have not yet cancelled the flight but delayed those flights, those flights will come in to take those passengers out.”

Hislop-Holt added that some airlines had made arrangements to provide accommodations for some passengers while some travellers had made their own arrangements.

“Also, the ticketing area of the airport will remain open to facilitate any passenger who is unable to make arrangements for accommodation for this evening,” she said.

Thursday evening, Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett rapped MBJ for failing to have a contingency plan in place after a hiccup with ongoing runway work inconvenienced about 15,000 passengers.

“I just want to urge that redundancies and other alternatives are available whenever construction or any other at our airports involving mechanical equipment. Care must always be taken to ensure that redundancy exists in all the engagements and activities,” he told the Jamaica Observer in reacting to the chaos at the airport.

He said MBJ needs to do better.

“We are just urging that there is a tightening and strengthening of the airport management and operations to ensure that incidences of disruptions are minimised or eliminated. We do recognise that from time to time there will be issues, as they happen in all the airports across the world, but the actions must be swift and immediate to ensure that there is return to normalcy,” added Bartlett.

Minister of Science, Energy, Telecommunications and Transport Daryl Vaz also expressed similar concerns and has promised an investigation after receiving reports from the major stakeholders involved.

“I have asked for three independent reports, one from MBJ the concessionaire, one from Airports Authority [of Jamaica], and one from the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority. Once those reports are received by me, within 24 hours an investigation will be launched to see exactly what could have caused this situation, which is totally unacceptable. It is an inconvenience to the travelling public,” he said.

Speaking on Nationwide News Network, MBJ CEO Shane Munroe explained that an issue arose with the quality of the asphalt being used on the runway and, in the interest of safety, a decision was taken to temporarily close the runway. The asphalt used is produced at a location near the airport.

“Yes, there are alternate sources for that but, again, these things have very detailed specifications. Those could not be activated in time. Whilst arrangements were made later in the day to have the alternate production in place, it’s not something that could have been ready for the time of operation,” said Munroe.

The CEO conceded that their contingency plans failed.

“There are some gaps that we have to investigate. This is with the contractor. These are contractual and legal issues that will have to be addressed at a later time. There will be a thorough investigation. Rest assured that we take these things very seriously. We have to look at compliance, we have to look at performance oversight, adherence to protocols. Where there are gaps we address those so it doesn’t reoccur. But, again, there are some contractual and legal issues that will have to be addressed.

In the meantime, Vaz has expressed concern about “reputational damage” caused by the disruptions at the country’s major tourism gateway.