Jamaica Observer:  By Vernon Davidson AMERICAN Airlines’ announcement that it is now ready to operate a scheduled service from Miami to Ian Fleming International Airport just outside Ocho Rios, starting next February, is being welcomed by Jamaicans who live and operate businesses on the island’s north-eastern corridor.

American announced the revised launch date last Thursday, saying that it will operate twice weekly flights using an Embraer 175 aircraft with capacity for 76 passengers.

Previously known as Boscobel Aerodrome, situated in Oracabessa, St Mary, Ian Fleming International Airport is 15 kilometres from the scenic north coast resort town of Ocho Rios. As such, the airline and the Jamaica Government are using OCJ [Ocho Rios Jamaica] as the airport code for Ian Fleming International, given that Ocho Rios is known globally as one of Jamaica’s major tourist destinations.

News that the scheduled service, which was originally set to begin in November 2022, will now start February 24, 2024 has created a buzz, especially among Jamaicans who welcome the fact that they will be spared long road travel times to either Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston or Sangster International in Montego Bay. Additionally, some say the development will provide an economic boost on the corridor.

GRANT… I do think it is a great benefit to not only Portland but the entire Eastern belt

“I do think it is a great benefit to, not only Portland but the entire eastern belt. When you look at commuting from Norman Manley to Port Antonio, for example, it can take you up to three hours — especially if you’re going through the traffic in Kingston and the challenges that the Junction main road poses for commuters, especially to Port Antonio, and further east in the Manchioneal area, and further east in St Thomas,” Portland Football Association President Raymond Grant told the Jamaica Observer on Saturday.

“It also provides an opportunity to open sports tourism, not only for Portland but even on the north coast in St Ann — and I speak specifically to football at Drax Hall, Carder Park here in Portland, and we see what is happening also at Annotto Bay Sports Complex. So if we want to grow the sport and we want to grow economies within the eastern belt, ease of movement in terms of traffic — whether it be land or air — provides that great opportunity,” Grant said.

“So, I welcome the move and the partnership from American Airlines and the Government of Jamaica, and I look forward to even travelling that route when I’m exiting or entering Jamaica so it is something that I’m excited about and I look forward to the start,” he added.

Audley Lindo, operator of Rap Communications and Rap Auto Supplies in Port Antonio, also welcomes the development.

RUSSELL… projected that the development will bring benefits to small businesses along that corridor and prove convenient to Jamaicans from those parishes travelling to Miami

“I am looking forward to that service. Travel from Port Antonio to Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston can take up to three hours so from that point of view alone it is welcomed,” Lindo said, adding that travel from Port Antonio to Montego Bay takes an even longer time.

Additionally Lindo, who is chairman of Port Antonio Hospital, pointed to the possibility of the airport’s use for medical emergencies. “If we ever need an air ambulance service, having Ian Fleming as an option will be of great benefit.”

Lindo, too, expressed confidence that the air travel service “will have tremendous impact on the economy”.

That view was shared by Jamaica Union of Travellers Association (JUTA) Portland Chapter member Mark Lovelace, who said he and his colleagues had been talking about international flights coming into Ian Fleming for some time now.

“So we are open to it because it will be a good thing for people in Port Antonio, because sometimes we go to Kingston and pick up passengers and when we’re coming back through the Junction road in St Mary they’re kinda scared. If they’re going to Montego Bay they enjoy the ride but it’s a long drive — about four hours — so we were always hoping that if they open that airport it will be better for us in Port Antonio, so now I am excited,” Lovelace told the Sunday Observer.

He also said it will result in cheaper fares for his passengers who will use the airport to fly out of and into the island.

Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association President Robin Russell said his members are thrilled about the new service.

“Everybody is excited for it. As you know, MoBay airport is kinda over capacity so when persons are going to Ocho Rios, St Mary, Portland can come in and cut out that long wait at the airport and the long drive. It really opens up that side of the corridor so I would say, with all the new developments — Sandals [Dunn’s River] just reopening, everybody having a busy year — it’s exciting news,” Russell said.

He, too, projected that the development will bring benefits to small businesses on that corridor, and prove convenient to Jamaicans from those parishes travelling to Miami.

Reacting to the development in a post on social media platform X, Sandals Resorts International Executive Chairman Adam Stewart said: “Years in the making, this is a game-changer for Jamaican tourism, opening up the beautiful eastern side of the island, including Ocho Rios in the parish of St Ann and the parishes of St Mary and Portland, where we have four stunning resorts… This is a testament to the bright future of the Caribbean that will not only bring our Diaspora closer to home, but also connect this region of Jamaica to the rest of the world.”

Stewart’s reference of the time spent in getting the commercial air service going with larger jets was to an argument advanced by his father and Sandals founder Gordon “Butch” Stewart in 2013 that the airport was one of the “low-hanging fruits” Jamaica could pick with not a great deal of effort, and little money, in order to stem “the never-ending spiral of borrowing to pay off its debt while not earning enough to invest in development”.

Butch Stewart, who died in January 2021, had suggested that the first investment project the Jamaican Government could tackle immediately was extending the runway at Ian Fleming International Airport.

“The Ian Fleming Airport has all the ingredients for stimulating the economy. It has international status with Customs and immigration. A good deal of work has been done recently to the runway and the terminal. But that airport can only accommodate small, propeller-driven or business-style jet aircraft,” he noted then.

“The current runway is 4,780 feet long but the big regional carriers such as American Airways, Air Canada, USAIR, JetBlue and Delta, among others, need a minimum of 5,000 to 5,700 feet. Ian Fleming needs only an additional 800 or 900 feet, which is really not much, to accommodate those big jets.

“I have talked to all these airlines and they can’t wait. They have told me they would fly to Ian Fleming the day after the runway is so extended,” he said at the time.

Last Thursday, American Airlines’ Vice-President for International Operations José A Freig was quoted in a release as saying, “With this new route we further strengthen our position as the leading airline in Jamaica, operating this winter more than 100 weekly flights to the US.”

The carrier explained that the new service will represent the launch of its third destination in Jamaica as it currently offers services to Kingston from Miami and to Montego Bay from Miami, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth, New York, and Philadelphia.

Freig said the Miami to Ian Fleming Airport service will make American the first US airline to offer access to that gateway in Jamaica, which he described as a “Caribbean paradise”.

Last October, a month before the service was originally scheduled to be launched, news emerged that American requested additional air navigation services to operate its aircraft to and from the airport.

At the time the Government disclosed that American had been working with Airports Authority of Jamaica (AAJ) and Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority (JCAA) towards ensuring that all the necessary regulatory and supporting structures and arrangements were in place to facilitate the flight.

The Government explained that air navigation aids are to ensure consistency of service during periods of unstable weather conditions, after commencement of operation.

“The collective decision of American Airlines, the AAJ and JCAA is to ensure that we maintain proper international standards for the safety of crew and passengers,” the Government said.

Last year June, on the arrival of an interCaribbean Airways flight from Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, Member of Parliament for St Mary Western, Robert Montague said the area’s “excellent service, surrounded by wonderful people and great weather” are marketable to international travellers and should create new developments in the parish.

“We want the people to come in here so that all those houses surrounding us will get the Airbnb passengers, all of our shops and restaurants will get the business, and our taxi operators will get the business,” he said while addressing a welcome ceremony for the inaugural flight.

Montague had noted that the development plan for the airport was to extend the building and construct shops. As such, he encouraged St Mary residents to prepare themselves to take advantage of the structures and “make use of the opportunities that are open to them”.