Gordon “Butch” Stewart did not live to see his dream realised, but the first major world airline will touch down in seven months' time at Ian Fleming International Airport in St Mary, named after the famous author of the fictional James Bond spy thrillers popular with moviegoers.
American Airlines (AA) set the local tourism industry abuzz with its announcement Thursday of what Butch's successor, his son Adam Stewart, described as “an incredible achievement” — that the airline will begin twice-weekly flights between Miami and Ocho Rios, St Ann, commencing November 5, 2022.
Previously known as Boscobel Aerodrome, situated in the quaint town of Oracabessa, St Mary, Ian Fleming International Airport is 15 kilometres from the scenic north coast resort town of Ocho Rios, affectionately called Ochi.
Tourism leaders and AA officials, like Butch Stewart, the late chairman of Sandals Resorts International (SRI), believe the new gateway will potentially open up the north and east of Jamaica to tourism and general economic development.
Unable to mask his glee, Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett said: “This is a very valuable addition to the aviation needs of Jamaica, with non-stop service between the United States and our country's third international airport.
“It is a great start and will encourage other airlines to fly into the Oracabessa/Ocho Rios area. It will also be a huge plus to the region and also assist greatly in boosting tourism development potential for St Mary and Portland and connecting many members of our Diaspora closer to home,” added Bartlett.
American Airlines, whose 45th anniversary coincides with Jamaica's 60th anniversary of Independence, said it was “thrilled to launch our third destination in the island, Ocho Rios, becoming the first US airline that offers access to this Caribbean paradise”.
José A Freig, vice-president of international and premium guest services, said: “Flight 4007 will connect our customers with Ian Fleming International Airport, just minutes away from some of Jamaica's most beautiful natural treasures, like James Bond Beach and Dunn's River Falls.”
The visionary Butch Stewart, who built his Sandals Resorts into the Caribbean's only super brand, had made the case for developing the Ian Fleming airport into a port receiving international flights.
At the dawn of the new year, 2013, he had argued strenuously that the airport was one of the “low-hanging fruits” that 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”.
Stewart suggested at the time that the first investment project that 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.
He explained that people were encouraged to travel the simpler it is to do so, noting: “As it is now, most visitors and Jamaicans alike who are travelling to the Ocho Rios and north-eastern region, for example, had to enter or leave through the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, St James.
“Many people don't come at all because of the distance. Port Antonio has not realised its potential for development because of the inconvenience of travel.
“With commercial fights to Boscobel, Jamaica for the first time would have comprehensive airport facilities for arrival and departure for a large area for both citizens and guests alike. The drive from Boscobel to Port Antonio would be similar to the drive from MoBay to Ocho Rios.
“As a project, it is very feasible and well within our means. My 'guestimate' is that it would take a mere US$2 million or US$3 million investment to realise this enormous bonanza. This would be one of the finest returns on investment.
“If the Government does not have the will, it remains an excellent project for private investors. The benefits are immediate. Our stopover numbers would be driven up and the people of the area would see the development and jobs they have been clamouring for,” Stewart posited.
He pointed to his hotel in Exuma, one of the islands of The Bahamas, noting that when he first went there, there was no airlift.
“Now we have Delta and American Airlines flying in twice a day. Apart from making the place wealthy, we are providing a most wonderful service for the just under 6,000 people living there. They can now fly directly to Miami and on from there to other destinations in the US.
A decade after Stewart had shared his vision, American Airlines, with which he enjoyed close relations now continued by his son Adam, is about to fulfil the dream.
Adam Stewart, now the Sandals executive chairman, explained that although the runway was not extended as his dad had wanted, AA was able to get around it by the type of aircraft it would fly into Ian Fleming.
“American is using an Embraer-175 regional jet to offer direct service from Miami which is a hub for connecting flights coming from destinations all over,” he said. “Over time we expect it will build to daily from twice-weekly — Wednesdays and Saturdays,” he said.
The aircraft can seat between 76 and 88 passengers in business and economy class.
Ahead of the formal announcement, top tourism personalities and Government officials had huddled with AA representatives at Sandals Montego Bay resort in St James, seemingly to celebrate the travel breakthrough.
The airport remained an unrealised dream, often described as a white elephant, ever since it received its first international flight carrying American singer-songwriter and business tycoon Jimmy Buffet of Margaritaville fame.
On January 4, 2018, world-famous singer, songwriter and humanitarian Sting arrived at the airport in a private jet for his performance on the Shaggy and Friends charity concert the following day in St Andrew.
“The launch of American's third destination in Jamaica will complement the airline's robust Jamaican footprint, including service to Kingston (KIN) from Miami (MIA) and to Montego Bay (MBJ) from MIA, Philadelphia (PHL), Charlotte (CLT), Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), New York (JFK) and Chicago (ORD). Year-round service between MBJ and Austin (AUS) launches on June 4,” said AA's Freig.