• Spongers, others slam ‘ridiculous’ Europe halt
• Losing clients and sales to multi-month block
• New scanner needed after ICAO audit failed
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Cargo scanning woes at Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) have blocked frustrated Bahamian exporters from sending thousands of dollars in native products to Europe since last year, Tribune Business can reveal.
Natural sponges, sea shells and Madeira Bark are just some of the goods enduring a multi-month halt to their European market access due to the need for a new outbound cargo scanner at LPIA’s Customs building, with Bahamian-owned firms and entrepreneurs disclosing they are losing clients, cash flow and sales to the point where some may have to stop sourcing fresh product.
This newspaper’s investigation uncovered that the European outbound cargo blockage has its roots in deficiencies in the cargo scanning processes at The Bahamas’ major aviation gateway, which were detected and flagged up in an International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) audit understood to have been conducted in mid-August 2021 when the Minnis administration was still in office.
This exposed the need for a new cargo scanner, but one has still not been purchased or installed. Instead, LPIA is employing what was described as a costly and time-consuming temporary solution that involves transporting outbound cargo to the airport’s “eastern end” and ‘Terminal A’, where it is placed through a smaller scanner that normally screens goods bring brought on to the airport - not those about to depart by plane.
This interim, stop-gap measure is said to have proven satisfactory to all airlines servicing Nassau bar one. That is British Airways (BA), which just happens to be the only airline previously providing direct access to the UK and Europe for Bahamian exporters. It wants to send its own inspection team to check LPIA’s temporary screening arrangements to satisfy itself that this meets its security and safety requirements.
Tribune Business was yesterday told that responsibility for financing and installing the new cargo scanner is shared between the Airport Authority and Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority, and that meetings to finally resolve the situation are scheduled for this week.
However, Paul Bevans, the Airport Authority’s chairman, told this newspaper he “wasn’t aware of” the cargo scanning woes when contacted yesterday. He patched Peter Rutherford, the Airport Authority’s acting general manager, into the call and, although the line temporarily went faint, the latter promised to look into the matter and get back to Tribune Business - something that did not happen before press time.
This newspaper was not informed of the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority’s involvement until late last night, and as a result was unable to reach that agency for comment. However, impacted exporters said they have been unable to obtain a clear explanation for why European air cargo inspections have been halted or gain a timeline for when the problems will be fixed.
Lynward Saunders, president of The Bahamas Commercial Spongers Association in Mangrove Cay, said: “I’ve been trying to find out for a couple of months. I spoke to the lady at British Airways and she said because of operational reasons it has not taken any cargo going out of the country. They told me some people are supposed to come in in another two weeks.
“She said they were notified it was starting up in another two weeks or so. I spoke to the lady last week, and she just said not yet. They never gave me a good reason; they said it’s operational reasons. That could be anything to me. And they never give you a clear date. Some of my clients called British Airways but couldn’t get an answer as to what is going on. They’re bringing cargo in but can’t carry it out.
“They say they will get back to me in a month, another two months. When I call back she says it was two weeks. Since they say operational reasons, I feel it has to really be there at the airport. From the beginning of the year I’ve not been able to get anything out; Europe and everywhere. At one point I had to go through the US to get anything out of here to serve some of my clients.”
Mr Saunders said servicing European clients via the US, whether by air or boat, inevitably increased costs and time for his and other sponge exporters’ clients and made The Bahamas uncompetitive with global rivals. When asked what difficulties had resulted, he replied: “Getting the product to your client in a reasonable time. That’s very important.
“When you have your client waiting, when you have to give them an additional cost on your product by routing it through a different avenue, they don’t like that too much. It affects us; it affects our costs.” Mr Saunders added that “really quite a bit of money” was being tied-up and lost due to the European air cargo halt.
“My clients, because they have a time period on their cargo getting to them, also have a time period for getting it to their customers,” he explained. “One of my clients lost a contract from a customer because of the delay. If you sign a contract with a company saying you will deliver in a particular time and amount, and you cannot live up to that, these guys have to search for other contracts because their business has to go on.
“It’s a chain link thing. If one link is broken, the rest starts to crumble. They’re reluctant to order from us because they are not sure they will get their product. They have to resort to another area. One of my clients had to go to another area to buy.
“They don’t want us to go through the US to source product. One time I had to put product on a boat to a client. It took almost two months to get out. It’s something that I hope they get to the bottom of, and very soon. I’m telling you, it’s frustrating to us and our clients and we never really get a good answer. It’s not only the sponging industry; it’s other products.”
Besides potentially threatening the livelihoods of entrepreneurs and their employees, the export cargo scanning issue could also undermine efforts to revive the Bahamian sponging industry and develop new foreign exchange sources for The Bahamas.
Another exporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Tribune Business: “First they said it was British Airways, and now I’m learning it’s not British Airways. There’s some sort of inspection they [the airport] didn’t pass and they’re now waiting to get another inspection. BA wants to come back and do an inspection of their own.
“The bottom line is we haven’t been able to export for over six months now to Europe. To be honest with you, I have a lot of product. I don’t even know how much because of the lengthy waiting for this to clear up. It’s a cash flow issue. You’re buying and can’t sell. It slows down the buying. You cannot buy and not be able to ship. I haven’t been able to ship since last year. I stopped around early October or November.”
The exporter said they had been unable to obtain much information on the European export halt until recently, adding that the details provided so far had been “very sketchy”. They added that it was “very expensive” to ship via the US, and said: “Essentially it’s going to get to the point where we have to stop buying because we cannot keep stockpiling it all without cash coming in.
“I’m sure everyone else is in the same position I’m in because if we don’t get these products moved we’ve all invested money that we can’t get back until people have product in their hand or on the bill of lading. Eight to ten months’ wait is ridiculous.”
One well-placed source, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that ICAO’s audit uncovered deficiencies with LPIA’s cargo scanning processes but argued that these were remedied within a month. “That’s not true. That’s not the case,” they said, when asked if this was causing the European export delay.
“That happened for a very short period of time. The scanning procedures were not up to-date. They were not current with best practices. That was dealt with by the retraining of personnel and the acquisition of additional equipment, but the matter was resolved very quickly.”
However, Ricardo Rolle, Nassau Flight Services’ (NFS) general manager, yesterday confirmed that the wait for the new scanner combined with British Airways’ desire to do its own inspection of the interim solution was what had halted European air cargo exports.
Suggesting that the Government-owned ground handling provider, which serves BA, was often unfairly viewed as “the villain” when such problems occurred, he emphasised the situation has nothing to do with NFS. “There was an inspection and there was no scanner at the cargo facility,” Mr Rolle said of the ICAO audit.
“An alternative method was put in place to take the goods down the road to the eastern end of the airport [and use the smaller scanner there]. Unfortunately, BA has to come down and inspect. That has yet to take place. I communicated with them. Apparently the person they need to come down was travelling on another business trip.
“I’m supposed to be speaking to someone tomorrow to come down and look at the alternative mechanism we’re using. BA is the only one that does the export to Europe, and it’s just BA that wants to come down and look at the alternative mechanism. The other airlines are already paying the extra dollar to take it [air cargo] down the street,” Mr Rolle continued.
“As soon as BA comes down and approves it, the sponges can start exporting. They can bring their sponges down and we’ll store them until they get approval to go on the plane. I do apologise and feel for the local spongers, and understand their sponges need to get to Europe. We’re here to serve and work with them.”
The Nassau Flight Services chief added that the “quick fix” was to purchase the necessary cargo scanner, and he voiced hope that meetings to finally resolve the situation will take place this week with the relevant government agencies - the Airport Authority and Civil Aviation - needing to be in agreement.
“The biggest problem is that we need a scanner, and we’ve offered to purchase one, but we all need to agree,” Mr Rolle said. He added that the ICAO audit also found other weaknesses such as security at the cargo area’s exit door, and said: “If there’s something that failed they give you a certain amount of time to fix it.
“The scanner is there to prevent contraband being shipped out of the country. Before it was just going out, and then it was realised we had to bring it to standard. We had to stop, fix it and get going. Civil Aviation had given us those 90 days to respond. That has since gone into 180 days and 360 days.”
Vernice Walkine, the Nassau Airport Development Company’s (NAD) president and chief executive, said that while the LPIA operator was not responsible for cargo scanning all stakeholders had been involved in the “planning meeting” that came up with the temporary solution until the permanent fix is put in place.