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Veil of secrecy surrounds Trinidad's new airport
The San Juan Star / August 27, 2001

By Larry Luxner

PORT OF SPAIN -- Trinidad and Tobago has upgraded Piarco International Airport in a costly effort to attract tourists and potential investors, but finding out even the most basic information about the project is proving to be a journalist's nightmare.

Since its inauguration in late May, some 10 months after it was originally scheduled, local newspapers have been reporting that between TT$1.2 billion and TT$1.5 billion (US$190-240 million) was spent to renovate and enlarge Piarco, whose entrance now sports a large atrium topped with a striking glass cupola.

"The new terminal is state-of-the-art," Transport Minister Jearlean John recently boasted to the press. "It matches anything I have seen in the world. I can say that proudly."

Yet dollar figures are impossible to confirm -- even in a country that prides itself on openness -- because of allegations of corruption surrounding the Piarco project and key government officials.

Neither the Airports Authority of Trinidad and Tobago nor BWIA International, the dominant airline serving Piarco, were particularly helpful during a recent press trip to Trinidad that BWIA itself had sponsored and organized.

Yet the government obviously wants to promote the fancy new airport as a key element in attracting tourists and their dollars.

In a paid advertorial published recently in The Washington Times, the chairman of the Airports Authority, Tyrone Gopee, describes Piarco as a "shopping center with a runway attached," adding that "there is a plan to incorporate e-shopping into the shops. Using the airport's website, future passengers will be able to select and purchase items before they arrive at the airport. With the purchase already made, it will only remain to collect items on the way to or from the plane, saving the time spent hunting for items and waiting in line to pay for them."

Yet Gopee himself was never available for an interview, with his secretary making excuses every time The STAR called, asking for specific information.

Likewise, the authority's general manager Jude Alibey and Alibey's replacement, Acting General Manager Joshey Mahabir, both refused to answer simple questions about the new airport, such as how big it is, how much it cost to build and how many airlines were flying in and out of Piarco, despite their verbal promises to return our detailed faxes and phone messages.

After some 30 phone calls to the airports authority, public-relations director Bridget Adams finally told us she was not authorized to give any information to the press -- leading one to wonder what exactly she's being paid to do.

What is known is that the new airport has 10 times the amount of passenger space as the old one, which was handling about 1.5 million passengers a year. Peak processing capacity will rise from 800 people an hour to 1,500. In addition, the airport has capacity for 10 duty-free shops of about 400 square meters each.

Jean Lachesnez, vice-president of duty-free giant Weitnauer Americas in Miami, says Weitnauer plans to be fully operational at Piarco by Sept. 1, with two shops covering a total of 600 square meters. Of that total, 400 square meters will be devoted to liquor, tobacco, electronics and confectionery items, and the other 200 square meters to perfumes and a Colombian Emeralds outlet.

Lachesnez says Weitnauer will have 40 employees at Piarco, all Trinidadian. Other shops will be operated by Stecher's and BWIA, which used to have the biggest store in the old Piarco airport. At present, BWIA -- which is 51% owned by the Trinidadian government -- generates 67% of all traffic flying into and out of Piarco. A local official said that members of the Bwee Club, the airline's frequent-flyer program, will receive a 10% discount on all purchases made at BWIA's duty-free shop.

Piarco ranks among the top five Caribbean airports in terms of duty-free sales, and generates the highest airspend per stayover sales. By 2005, some 2.2 million passengers will be using the airport annually, a figure that should exceed 3.0 million by 2010.

Despite Piarco's rebirth, says Lachesnez, "I don't think it'll mean any expansion in traffic right away. I don't think it's going to affect airport arrival figures for now."

Things could actually get worse due to a recent move by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. On July 5, the FAA added Trinidad to its list of countries "that do not comply with international safety oversight standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization."

Aviation Latin America & Caribbean,?a Miami-based monthly newsletter, says the FAA's downgrade "will have a detrimental impact on BWIA, which will not be able to add capacity to and from the United States while the country is in Category 2."

The newsletter adds that "some countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have been in Category 2 for six or seven years. It creates a competitive advantage for the U.S. carriers serving those countries which have no such limitation on capacity."

Not surprisingly, Airport Authority officials declined comment on the FAA ruling.

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