Published On: Sun, Dec 11th, 2022

Airport on the road to recovery

PHILIPSBURG — In the first seven months of the year, Princess Juliana international airport handled 425,000 departing passengers. “The airport is currently at 95 percent recovery in terms of traffic and movements,” airport-director Brian Mingo says.

Twenty percent of departing passengers used American Airlines (85,325) while 14 percent (59,070 passengers) flew with JetBlue, followed by Delta with 12 percent (56,006).

The majority of passengers (53.1 percent) were Americans, followed by Europeans (18.5 percent) and Caribbeans (11 percent). At the bottom of the seven top-rated airlines is KLM with 4 percent (17,423 passengers). Of the 425,000 passengers, just half a percent came from Latin America.

The three top destinations for departing passengers were Miami (13 percent, 56,287 passengers), John F. Kennedy (12 percent, 49,607) and Charles de Gaulle (10 percent, 42,977). At the bottom of this top-ten is Toronto Pearson International Airport with 3 percent and 13,810 passengers.

Princess Juliana International Airport had a top year in 2016 when it handled 1.8 million passenger movements and 890,000 departures. In 2019, the recovery year after Hurricane Irma, the airport registered 1.5 million passenger movements and 750,000 departures. This represented 85 percent of the 2016-traffic. In 2021 the airport forecasted an average of 50 percent of the 2019 numbers and the year ended just above that prediction. “We are not out of the woods yet but the forecast looks promising,” the airport stated at the time.

The airport’s strategic plan 2021-2025 contains six organizational goals to guide its improvement, rebuilding and development. Among those objectives are building financial stability, rebuilding the airport of the future and ensuring quality and safety through a renewed management system.

Improving the employee-experience is one of the key objectives, as the airport realizes that achieving its goals lies “solely in the hands of the employees.”

The airport went through a tough time in the wake of Hurricane Irma followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a dramatic drop in air traffic and an almost complete paralysis of revenue. Working on a $100 million reconstruction project, the airport recorded a $18.3 million loss in 2020. Important capital investments that were identified in the 2013 master plan, such as the fuel farm, the FBO and preclearance, were delayed because of financial restraints. The focus had to be on survival and on creating a sustainable future for one of St. Maarten’s most critical pieces of infrastructure.

The airport wants to grow hub and international passenger services by 25 percent to 830,000 enplanements by 2026. Furthermore it aims to have the terminal building restored and upgraded by the second quarter of 2023 as “the hub airport of the Caribbean with designs and technologies to enhance the customer experience.”

Redesigned departure hall aims to improve passenger experience

The new departure hall of the Princess Juliana International Airport promises to be something very special indeed. The airport speaks of “the benchmark for Caribbean hubs with authentic stores and great food choices.”

The retail floor space in the departure hall will expand by 25 percent from 2,000 to 2,500 square meters. It will become the home to 24 stores. According to airport management this is sufficient for the anticipated growth in tourism for the next decade.

IXI-Design, the in-house architect responsible for the design strategy and its implementation aims to incorporate a strong cultural representation in the departure hall, one that exceeds the needs of passengers. This will increase the performance of all concessionaires at the airport.

The increased floor space for food and beverage is one of the biggest changes the departure hall will undergo. The decision to do this is not based on someone’s wild imagination but on extensive passenger surveys, combined with the latest travel trends and insights. Passengers have indicated a desire for a wider variety of food options.

Says Emile van der Weerd, an executive consultant to the airport: “What excites me is to further build on the PJIAE’s success exploring new ways to improve the overall performance and the passenger experience. Adding a new food and beverage platform is only logical because St. Maarten is the culinary capital of the Caribbean. It holds the world record of melting-pot restaurants per square kilometer.” 

Maggie Gumbs, the airport’s non-aeronautical manager shares Van der Weerd’s enthusiasm. “The insights in purchase behavior and our aviation research have helped PJIAE to develop and further enhance the concession mix in the departure hall. Together with our marketing manager Chandra Offringa we will guide and assist the concessionaires with their product offering in line with passenger wants, needs and desires.”

IXI Design architect John Baker says that he is ready for the new concept. “My team and I are looking forward to working closely with all concessionaires to come to a unique design for the new departure hall. I am convinced travelers will love the new set-up.”

Airport strengthens aviation relationships in Las Vegas

Princess Juliana International Airport and the local Tourism Bureau attended Routes World in Las Vegas in October with the objective to position the airport as the preferred hub in the Caribbean.

Airport Director Brian Mingo and tourism director May-Ling Chun were part of the delegation that attended the three-day conference. They met with airline planners from companies like Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, KLM, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Sun Country, Latam, Avianca, Spirit Airlines, Breeze and Flair Airlines. Existing services and new route opportunities were part of the discussions.

Routes World brings together a range of airlines, airports, and tourism authorities. Some of the largest carriers of North-, Central and Latin America were present in Las Vegas. The event offers the opportunity to meet face-to-face with some of the most influential aviation professionals in the world. This was the first Routes World in the Americas since 2014; there was a higher than usual participation from Caribbean islands.

Most airlines indicated that they are still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and that they are still faced with crew shortages.  However, the outlook is positive. St. Maarten estimates that visitor numbers will reach 90 to 95 percent of 2019-levels.

The Tourism Bureau emphasized the role it plays in supporting and attracting new airlifts, increasing seat capacity to the destination and opening new markets. The Tourism Bureau is targeting higher spending tourists and furthermore focuses on diversification, extending the high season and expounding on competitive and convenient airlift services. “Those services play a critical role in further developing existing source markets and the opening of potential new markets.”

“We are pleased with the meetings we held with the airlines,” May-Ling Chun stated in a press release. “It has opened up communication with potential new airlines and it has strengthened the existing relationships. We want to further develop our airlift to the destination and attract year-round visitors to our island.”

Brian Mingo pointed to the airport’s unique selling point as a regional hub. “The surrounding islands are served by our national carrier Winair,” he said. “We need to capitalize on that to attract more airlift and yet keep it in the boutique segment.”

This approach will have a positive effect on the airport’s future development, Mingo added. “Having a great airlift program will reassure a greater recovery for our future and help prepare us to reopen with excellence.”