By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Minister of Tourism yesterday admitted that the short timeline given to meet enhanced US aviation security demands was "causing concern", with the greatest impact likely to be felt at Family Island airports.
Dionisio D'Aguilar told Tribune Business he did not want to think about the potential impact these measures will have on airline ticket prices and airport user fees, saying he was concentrating first on the "customer experience".
He confirmed that the Government was currently assessing whether the Bahamas' airports possess the necessary equipment and trained staff, and in sufficient quantities, to conduct the enhanced explosives screening and more rigorous security checks demanded by the US Department of Homeland Security.
The Department's guidelines, disclosed after the New York Times obtained an International Air Transport Association (IATA) memo, require all 280 airports that are the last points of departure for the US to possess equipment capable of detecting explosive residue on passengers' hands.
This must be in place within 21 days, with the tougher security checks initiated by fall 2017. The New York Times reported that airports which fail to implement the explosives-detecting equipment could be cut-off from direct flights to the US.
That represents a particular problem for the Bahamas, given its archipelago layout and the numerous Family Island airports, such as those in Abaco, Eleuthera, Exuma and San Salvador, which provide direct commercial airline connectivity to and from the US.
"That's where it's going to cause the greatest level of concern and the greatest expense," Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business of the new US aviation security demands, although he suggested the major Family Island airports possessed the necessary technology.
"It affects the Family Islands more. I'm not sure whether every Family Island airport, for which there are direct flights to the US, has the equipment in place....These are all additional costs that this new directive will impose on the Bahamian people."
The Bahamas, a tourist-dependent nation with around 80 per cent of visitors coming from the US, is always disproportionately affected by new aviation regulations coming out of Washington D. C., as these impact the ease and cost of access to this country.
Mr D'Aguilar pointed to airports such as Treasure Cay, which handles one international flight per day, as those that were likely to be impacted.
"We're going to have to think this through and execute as smoothly as we can," Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business. "I'm sure there are going to be some bumps in the road to begin with."
Asked about the potential increase in airline ticket prices, and airport user fees, that many international experts are predicting will result from these measures, the Minister replied: "We're not there yet.
"We're not thinking about that yet. We just want to ensure the customer experience is a pleasant one."
The new Minnis administration has already shown it is worried about 'access' and aviation-related costs for visitors to the Bahamas, fearing increases here will further undermine the Bahamas' price competitiveness.
It has demonstrated this over the Nassau Airport Development Company's (NAD) proposed increase to Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) user fees - a response to its debt downgrade.
Bahamian airlines that fly into the US, such as Bahamasair and Sky Bahamas, will also be impacted. The New York Times reported that they have just months to show they are carrying out enhanced security protocols, including the interviewing of passengers, and bring their security standards into line with those of US airlines. Otherwise heavy fines will result.
Mr D'Aguilar said the enhanced US security measures were a response to intelligence reports that Islamic jihadists are experimenting with bombs inside laptops, cell phones and other electronic devices. These products, together with passengers' hands and belt buckles, face being scrubbed for explosive residue.
The Bahamas may have a head-start in complying with US desires as a result of its pre-clearance facilities at LPIA and in Freeport. The Trump administration is expressing a desire, according to the New York Times, to expand these to other nations so that Department of Homeland Security personnel can scrutinise travellers to the US.
"We're assessing it now," Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business, including whether additional security measures need to be implemented at the Bahamas' airports. "We know what our equipment is on the ground right now, and we're seeing if it's sufficient to process passengers through LPIA.
"It's first to see whether we can process, and the period of time it takes, and when we've finished our assessment it may mean people have to go to the airport three hours ahead of their flight, rather than two hours.
"It is an inconvenience, but America finds it necessary to ensure the safety of flights and passengers going into the US."
Mr D'Aguilar said the Bahamas was "ready to do it now" from an equipment and technology perspective, but had to ensure there was "no inordinate wait" for passengers departing to the US, given this nation's desire to provide a good 'last impression' of this country for tourists.
He added that the short implementation timeframe would make it difficult for the Bahamas to hire more airport screening and security personnel, given that these persons all needed to be properly trained.