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2005-04-26 10:32:28

Cat Island Airport Turns Off Visitors

Small runway said to be in poor condition.

Tourists visiting Cat Island's New Bight Airport have vowed never to return due to the dilapidated infrastructure and inadequate security, a resident told the Guardian Monday.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the informer said that successive governments have ignored the airport, with no "sensible" upgrades or renovations since it was built over 40 years ago.

Recently designated an international Port of Entry (POE), in addition to local flights by Bahamasair, Cat Island Air and Lynx Air, two airlines fly directly to the island from the United States.

However, according to the resident, "The runway is in poor condition and it is very hazardous to departing and arriving aircrafts. The terminal is too small. It was built to hold 30 persons, but it is forced to hold up to 100 persons waiting to depart and to pick up guests."

According to the resident, Continental Connection, Lynx Air, Bahamas Air and Cat Island Air share one reservations desk and a cramped office. The islander said there is no Customs building and a trailer resembling those used to transport goods is stationed at the airport to welcome guests.

"On one occasion," the person related, "two guests flew in on their private plane and begged the Customs officer on duty to grant them a flying permit to leave the island immediately to go to another island. They said they would not stay on the island if it [the airport] was the first indication (of what) the island had to offer."

On one occasion, the Cat Islander went on, passengers on board a Continental Connection flight, which flies to the island from Ft. Lauderdale, thought the airport terminal was the fire station and loudly announced that they would not be returning.

The resident claimed that when representatives of Gulf Stream Airlines made their initial plans to service the island in 2003, they donated funds to overhaul the terminal, but no work was carried out until the week before the airline began servicing the island.

"Work was rushed and done sloppily to the terminal building, which only received new windows that never worked," the source said. "The new paint job was terribly done and the Customs trailer got a new floor and some old tiles and another bad paint job."

During peak operations on Thursdays, the resident continued, as many as six agents compete to obtain a space to check in passengers. And on most Friday and Sunday evenings, the resident reported, agents of one particular airline are forced to remove passengers who "forcefully" attempt to personally ensure that their luggage is placed inside the aircraft's baggage compartment.

"There is a serious lack of security at this airport," the resident continued. "Any terrorist can boldly pass through our airport. Only two reservist policemen are placed on the airport on days when international flights arrive and this is all the defence the U.S. has from terrorists entering our port entry.

"If we need an emergency flight after dark, the police and nurses must wake people up out of their bed to try and light up the 5,000-foot runway with normal car lights, which can only light up an average of 20f feet ahead," the resident said.

The irate Cat Islander also expressed concern over the limited number of fire extinguishers available in the event of an emergency.

"There are so many other problems to be addressed at the airport immediately. The government cannot wait until something happens to look our way," said the concerned resident.

Airports outgrown

Deputy Director of Civil Aviation Ivan Cleare told The Guardian that the government is aware of the various infrastructural problems at the New Bight airport. All of the Family Island airports are in need of varting degrees of upgrading, he said, and the government must "prioritize" and firstly focus on those airports that receive the greater number of passengers.

He said that as a result of the airport being designated a POE, more visitors are attracted,

creating a greater demand on the facility. Other Family Islanders share the concerns of the Cat Island resident concerning their airports, he advised.

"Yes, there are some plans to eventually upgrade it [New Bight airport], but to tell you which airports would start first, I could not say because the government owns and operates 28 airports, including Nassau and we only can make recommendations and suggestions," Mr Cleare stated.

"Depending on the funds, we will go with the more critical airports that are busier, like Marsh Harbour, Abaco," he told the Guardian.

Airport upgrades are recommended by technical staff of the Civil Aviation Department, who are aware of the challenges presented in New Bight and Bahamian airports, he said, adding that, "All of the airports are outgrowing themselves because there is so much development going on in The Bahamas."

By TAMARA McKENZIE, Nassau Guardian Staff Reporter

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