TOURISM interests on Jamaica's north and north eastern coasts want the Ian Fleming Airport runway to be extended in order to land larger jets.
Adding another 1,000 feet of pavement could accommodate commercial airlines flying directly to the St Mary-based airport from as far north as New York, while planes from South American countries, like Colombia, and any Caribbean point of origin could touch down there.
Airports Authority of Jamaica President Earl Richards says there is no space for building an extension.
"At present, it is not on the agenda," said Richards. "The runway is maxed out at the moment... so in order to extend the runway, one would have to go across the North Coast Highway or realign the highway in that section."
But plans for a bridge that would run over a roadway, thus creating the needed space, were drafted more than a year ago.
What's more, former transport minister in the previous Jamaica Labour Party Government Mike Henry, who speaks with passion about the airport, says there is land that can be acquired to extend the runway, some of it owned by the Catholic Church.
In a letter to the Jamaica Observer last week, in response to hotelier Gordon 'Butch' Stewart's proposal for the Government to extend the runway, he proposed that a bond to develop the airport be issued.
"I appeal to Mr 'Butch' Stewart, Mr Michael Lee-Chin and Mr Chris Blackwell, to name but a few stakeholders, to float an Ian Fleming Airport Development Bond; and have others, including the public, subscribe, including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, which owns some of the land that is needed for the expansion of the airport's runway," Henry said.
Whether Stewart, Lee-Chin and Blackwell -- three of Jamaica's foremost entrepreneurs -- will act on Henry's plea is yet to be know. However, the Government has, on more than one occasion, made it known that it intends to privatise the island's airports.
In fact, according to Richards, small airports could be included in sales packages for the island's two international airports -- Norman Manley in Kingston and Sangster in Montego Bay.
"Since it is Government policy to privatise airport operations, then one of the options is to privatise Norman Manley in a similar way to Sangster. But another option is to privatise Norman Manley with a number of other aerodromes. But no decision has been made; people are just looking at the pros and cons and implications of doing A versus B," Richards told the Business Observer.
The Airports Authority president suggested that if Ian Fleming were acquired by private capital, the owners/operators would possibly look seriously at a runway extension.
"It's open to various interests in the tourism sector," he said, emphasising that the State was not thinking of a major investment of that kind in this current environment.
Last week Stewart, chairman of the Sandals resorts chain and the Observer, suggested in an interview that the Government move immediately to extend the runway at Ian Fleming International in Boscobel, St Mary, which was officially opened two years ago.
Noting that the airport -- named in honour of late British author and journalist Ian Fleming, who created James Bond -- already has Customs and Immigration service, Stewart said it had the potential of opening up Ocho Rios, Port Antonio, Port Maria, Annotto Bay, Highgate, and beyond for tourism, which would spur unprecedented development of the region.
"The current runway is 4,780 feet long, but it is too short. The bigger regional jet aircraft of between 55 and 100 seats, such as flown by American Airlines, Air Canada, USAIR, JetBlue, and Delta, need a minimum of 5,700 to 6,000 feet," said Stewart.
"It's not a great deal of work. Ian Fleming needs only an additional 800 or 900 feet, which is really not much, to accommodate those regional jets," he argued.
Jon Baker, founder of the Portland-based tourism and music company GeeJam, agreed.
"We want that runway to be extended at Ian Fleming because we believe that is an important gateway into Port Antonio," Baker told the Business Observer.
The extension, he said, will "allow a whole new class of jets to come into that area, and that is going to be very, very important to Port Antonio".
One of the more popular of that new class of jets is the CRJ700 made by Bombardier Aerospace, a Canadian firm regarded as the third largest aeroplane manufacturer after Boeing and Airbus.
The CRJ700 has a seating capacity of between 66 and 78.
Henry, while he was transport minister, had complied a list of 21 cities in the US, one each in Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, as well as the Caribbean that were within a 1,650-mile radius of the Ian Fleming Airport and which were in the range of the CRJ700.
In his letter last week, Henry said it was with that in mind that he "led the development charge of the airport against much on-the-ground political opposition and less than fulsome support from the wider visitor (tourism) stakeholders and investors, except for Golden Eye and the board of the Airports Authority".
He said that the plan, which led to discussions with private jet owners and American Airlines, was meant to be part of this thrust.
"If the Jamaica Labour Party was still the Government, this would have been a centrepiece of our development plans for three parishes, and a part of the Multi-Modal Transport Plan using open skies and low-cost economy airlines as a base. Indeed, it must be evident that the whole Caribbean needs such a hub," said Henry.
(See full text of Henry's letter on Page 13 of the Daily Observer)
The Ian Fleming Airport was opened in January 2011 amidst much fanfare and controversy. After the sign at the entrance to the former Boscobel Aerodrome was defaced at least twice, residents of the small community said they were not happy with the new name and that the vandalism was a sign of protest.
However, then Prime Minister Bruce Golding explained that the name was chosen because Fleming, through his James Bond novels, gave Jamaica an image much larger than it would otherwise have had.
"We also considered that the market to which we are appealing is a market to which the name Ian Fleming would have some resonance," Golding added.