Published On: Sun, Dec 16th, 2018

The potential and opportunities of Grand Case airport

Cdr. Bud Slabbaert on Caribbean female leadership

by Cdr. Bud Slabbaert

It is a well-known fact among economists and aviation professionals that the growth of a region may depend on the development of its airport. You may start laughing, but Grand Case airport and French St.Martin are no exception. Call it a secondary, underdog, relief, or satellite airport and when you’re done with your outburst of laughter, take a look at the argumentation below. Aeroport Grande Case does have a realistic potential of being developed into a player of its own unique kind. As for the expression relief airport, the day after hurricane Irma’s passage, the airport was operational for relief flights, despite some damage.

It will unlikely ever become an aerodrome where masses of tourists from all over will arrive. Currently three airlines (Air Caraibes, Air Antilles, St.Barth Commuter) serve the airport with up to eight daily flights to Guadeloupe and three to St.Barth. It is an insider tip that the pricing of flying from Grand Case to Paris via Guadeloupe is worth looking into. As funny as it may sound, such is also a domestic flight since it is all about the Republique of France and even all within the European Union. Grand Case could easily handle another airline and destination preferably with the aircraft types that currently land at the airport, the ATR for up to 72 passengers.

Falcon7x-Grand Case

There is another side to look at things. How about ‘Business Airport St.Martin / Aeroport d’Affaires St.Martin? Recently, French President Macron arrived on a business jet, of course owned by the French Government. This aircraft type, called Dassault Falcon 7 x, could fly to Grand Case and back from all cities on the Westcoast of the USA and also Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis and Houston. It could come from Mexico City, Quito, Lima, Bogota. This is just to mention some cities. Let it be an eye opener. It all depends on the type of aircraft that is able to handle the current short runway of Grand Case airport.

For the development of Grand Case airport as well the economy of St.Martin, it is important that the runway will be extended to 1,500 meter, as soon as possible. When realized, the larger types of long range of business jets could come to St.Martin from all of the Americas and Europe as far as Moscow, and the Middle East as far as Dubai. Of course, also some larger scheduled commercial aircraft could land.

There is no business to do on Saint Martin for these jets to come, you may say. Not so fast! These same type of ‘flying machines’ are used by high- and ultra-high-net-worth individuals for their leisure trips. A different kind of tourist. The word tourist may be an insult; let’s call them ‘elite visiteurs’. Studies have shown that the landing of one such an aircraft typically means an on-average contribution of approximately US$ 65,000 to the local economy. Every visitor arriving on a private jet, is a potential investor in the region. They may invest in real estate or commercial property when they like the destination. And they are known to be repeat visitors who are loyal and willing to assist a community.

falcon7x range-a

They are demanding and don’t accept mediocracy, but they have no problem to pay extra for excellence. They often try to avoid big airports if there is an alternative nearby. It is simply because they want to avoid masses and like things fast and easy. Their flight crews are the same, they want fast access to where their aircraft is parked. Grand Case has the advantage that it provides the ground handling services and the fueling. All the services are provided by one company, the airport. This aviation segment is lucrative for the airport, because it takes no more than two persons for the handling of the aircraft. Smaller airports can provide fast and exemplary high-quality services when managed well. Those are all points where Grand Case can make a difference and develop a form of uniqueness.

As stated in beginning, the growth of a region may depend on the development of its airport. It cannot come from the airport alone. The region has to develop in a synchronal way. If one has an airport that stands out as business airport or as airport servicing St.Martin as a ‘destination élitaire’, the surroundings have to follow suit and serve the needs accordingly. St.Martin has the potential but also some shortcomings.

The unique property “La Belle Creole” that was a five-star resort devastated by hurricane Luis is still not redeveloped and is an eyesore. It could be developed into a five-star hotel/resort complex and residences. A development that attracts the wealthy upper-class who arrive with their private jets. Not only do they contribute more to the economy because they spend more, but they also expect the services of qualified service staff or providers which results in well-paid employment. Who can be against that? There may be reasons why the property has not been restored yet. One would tend to say that it needs a ‘mover-and-shaker’ to get things going. There is an amount 35 million published. Just think! Serious investors expect a 10-15% return of investment. That means that with every progressing year that there is no operational activity, someone loses 3.5 – 5.3 million annually of not realized return of investment. And St.Martin loses out on opportunities and significant contributions to its economy. Now, it is a ‘loose-loose’ situation that needs to be turned into a ‘win-win’ situation.

It would go too far to further get into details of how the collectivity, its business community and tourism segment should plan, act and develop. The objective here is to provide food for thought with regard to the airport development. Realism? I’ve been there. I was in charge of business aviation development for an underdog airport in Switzerland that had Zurich International Airport as its rival. Yet, I was able to make the underdog the preferred airport of the operator of the largest fleet of business jets (140) in Europe. Although the odds where against me, I was able to make a turnaround and the airport received more revenue from business jets than from commercial scheduled traffic without losing any of the latter, but rather by increasing business aviation traffic. But, this is not about me, it is about the potential of Grand Case airport and St.Martin and creating a synchronized plan of action.

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Cdr. Bud Slabbaert is the chairman and initiator of the annual Caribbean Aviation Meetup conferences that will be held June 11-13 on St.Maarten/St.Martin. This 4th annual international results and solution- oriented event brings airlift stakeholders from both aviation and tourism industry, as well as government authorities together. Mr. Slabbaert’s background is accentuated by aviation business development, strategic communication, and journalism