By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Minister of Tourism has estimated "way in excess of $200 million" is required to upgrade the 28 Out Island airports, as fire safety woes grounded Bimini's tourism economy.
Dionisio D'Aguilar told Tribune Business that Silver Airways was currently refusing to fly into Bimini because the airport's fire engine is currently inoperable, and it deems the available equipment insufficient for the size of planes it operates.
The Minister said he hoped to resolve the situation by early this week through shipping a fire truck to the island from Treasure Cay, adding that the problems had no impact on Resorts World Bimini's recent decision to temporarily lay-off more than 150 staff.
Mr D'Aguilar said he had requested preparation of a Cabinet 'minute paper' on the age and condition of fire trucks at all Bahamian airports, after a similar break down saw US airlines temporarily suspend all flights to Exuma last week.
He added that the Minnis administration hoped to upgrade the fire truck fleet through the Inter-American Development Bank's (IDB) $35 million Airport Infrastructure project, funding for which should be accessed within the next 30 days.
The fire truck woes plaguing Exuma and Bimini are a microcosm of the multi-million dollar repairs and upgrades required at numerous Family Island airports to bring them into line with the standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and other global watchdogs.
A 2014 report by consultant group, Stantec, had estimated that $187 million would be required to upgrade all 28 Family Island airports identified as potential international gateways, but Mr D'Aguilar said this sum had substantially increased.
Acknowledging there would be no Family Island development without airlift to support tourism, the Minister said the Government was seeking as much private sector participation as possible - through public-private partnerships (PPPs) - to mitigate the Public Treasury's exposure.
Mr D'Aguilar said he had been informed that Exuma International Airport's fire truck had been repaired, and returned to operation, at 1pm on Thursday, ending the three-four day interruption to US flights to the island.
"We have another one out in Bimini right now," he disclosed to Tribune Business. "We have some fire-fighting capacity down there, but Silver Airways is refusing to fly into Bimini because it is not sufficient [for the planes they operate].
"It has to be at a certain level to allow them to fly into that airport. We're sending a fire truck to Bimini from Treasure Cay. They've [Exuma and Bimini] kind of both happened at the same time."
Mr D'Aguilar said Bimini's fire truck woes had knocked out Silver Airways' service to the island for four-five days, but he expressed hope that the problem would be "resolved in the early part of next [this] week".
While the problems in Bimini and Exuma occurred at one of the slowest points in the tourism season, the Minister confessed to concerns over the condition of airport fire-fighting equipment generally with Thanksgiving - the start of the winter tourism season - just weeks away.
"You're basically on your pins and needles, hoping and praying nothing goes wrong," Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business. "I've requested a Minute Paper on all fire trucks in the system; how old they are, what condition they are in.
"We're hoping to access that IDB project funding in the next 30 days, and in there is is money to upgrade our fire engines. This is a very critical component, and no commercial airline will fly into an airport unless you have a certain size fire engine to deal with the size of aircraft coming in."
While it was "problem solved for now" in Exuma, Mr D'Aguilar added: "Our entire inventory of fire trucks is very much up in the air, and I think we've adopted the approach that when things break down we'll fix it. That's a band aid. It's much less costly to prevent than react."
With many of the Bahamas' airport fire trucks between 20-25 years-old, sourcing replacement parts was both difficult and expensive, with break downs occurring more frequently.
"We need to have a plan of preventative maintenance, and then, when a truck gets to 20-25 years old, you buy a new one," the Minister added, conceding that areas such as aviation fire safety had previously been under-funded.
"It demonstrates that you can have an airport, you can have a runway and you can have a terminal, but if you don't have a fire truck you don't have an airport."
The fire safety issue is part of a larger $53.8 million project to upgrade the Bahamas' Family Island airports, with some $18.8 million in funding set to come from the Government.
While the Stantec report pegged the total cost at $187 million, a more recent study by ALG Transportation Infrastructure and Logistics reduced this by 43 per cent to $106 million.
The reduction came from the fact that the new San Salvador airport terminal was already under construction at a cost of $13.5 million.
And ALG said a further $37 million in construction costs would be saved via its proposal to relocate the North Eleuthera airport terminal rather than build a new runway, while that building - and the new terminal planned for Exuma - would be less grandiose, saving some $5.5 million and $8.5 million, respectively.
Mr D'Aguilar, though, told Tribune Business that both reports likely under-estimated the true costs. "The amount of work that needs to be done to the airports of the country is financially enormous," he admitted.
"It was around $160 million, but that was in 2014... I think it's way in excess of $200 million. There's no way the state can effect all these repairs without help from the private sector.
"The report by Stantec says we need to embrace a number of PPPs at our airports. There's going to be as much private sector participation as we can get to mitigate the amount the state has to come up with, and the state is particularly financially challenged."
The Minnis administration now has to execute on a project for which the financing was obtained by the former Christie administration.
Mr D'Aguilar said the priority remained the six airports identified as 'Tier 1' - Marsh Harbour, Exuma, North Eleuthera, Bimini, Treasure Cay and San Salvador - with Exuma and North Eleuthera next in line.
"You can't go to a Family Island destination without airlift," he told Tribune Business. "It's very, very important, especially for our hotels, to get the airports going. It's a critical component of development of the Family Islands."