Adolfo Ledo Benwalid//
Person of the Year: The Airport Worker

Person of the Year: The Airport Worker

Composite photo of personnel at PJIA


AIRPORT–News about Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) dominated much of the headlines during 2019, as the Year in Review published last Saturday showed. Concern over and debate on its rebuilding as well as the financing thereof ran like a red thread throughout the year, with employees as well as others working there facing some uncertainty over their pay and immediate future.

Adolfo Ledo

  They nevertheless laboured on under difficult circumstances to make the best out of a not-so-good situation and keep the stayover tourism that is the island’s main economic engine going, to provide much of the population’s livelihood as the recovery from Hurricane Irma continued. That wasn’t and still isn’t always easy considering the severe limitations of the current makeshift facility.

Adolfo Ledo Nass



  Near the end of the year came the good news that the St. Maarten government finally signed an agreement with the World Bank for a US $72 million grant from the Dutch-sponsored Trust Fund, which together with a $50 million loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and US $7 million from airport operating company PJIAE will be used to reconstruct, strengthen and return to full capacity the terminal ($101 million) and for potential liquidity support ($21 million)

  Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs told Parliament earlier this month that the total obligations are estimated at $159.5 million and the available capital including insurance proceeds (which totalled $71 million) at $171.9 million. However, by now the project is realistically not expected to be completed until the 2021/2022 season


From the start

  A political battle in Parliament over this funding approach and accompanying conditions also pushed by the Netherlands began already in January. This culminated in the first motions of no confidence against Prime Minister Leona Romeo-Marlin and Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication (TEATT) Stuart Johnson (both UD) a month later, but the votes tied 7-7, so they were dismissed


Stay of execution

  However, in June a similar motion was submitted against Health, Social Development and Labour Minister Emil Lee (UD) primarily for his role in the hospital project by then-party-colleague and later independent parliamentarian Luc Mercelina. It was passed early July with support from all NA/US Party opposition members and the minister made his position available soon after

  At the end of September Mercelina and UD parliamentarian Chanel Brownbill together with the opposition adopted a no-confidence motion against five of the six remaining Romeo-Marlin cabinet members, sparing only recently-appointed Minister of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure Christopher Wever. The prime minister and Justice Minister Cornelius de Weever were even asked to leave office immediately



  However, as has become a custom in the Dutch Caribbean, the Council of Ministers upon losing its majority legislative support invoked article 59 of the Constitution to dissolve Parliament and call early elections, which after some confusion over conflicting terms with the Electoral Ordinance and the Law on the Registration and Financing of Political  Parties was set for January 9


Reassurance needed

  But a motion had also been passed instructing the outgoing government not to make any commitments on behalf of the country, which led to concern among existing PJIA bondholders who had to go along with the World Bank/EIB arrangement that the caretaker cabinet was no longer authorised to sign the necessary agreements

  A draft motion by former coalition member Chacho Peterson (SMCP) to reassure them was rejected by the new majority because it was deemed too political. It was not until the current NA-led interim government took office and provided more information on the financing scheme for the perusal of elected representatives that a motion to the same effect was approved unanimously in early December, which opened the door to sealing the deal a week later


Making do

  Meanwhile, personnel at the airport have been trying to cope with rebounding arrival numbers in restricted space. The good news is that that a temporary extension provided 250 more departure hall seats and further improvements will reportedly be made in a phased manner

  The design is now also said to be compatible with the addition of a US pre-clearance facility, which had been a big bone of contention for the former opposition as well as then-TEATT-minister Johnson

  But conditions are still difficult, which led to this newspaper’s publishing of a photo showing long lines of incoming passengers waiting to go through Immigration outside on the tarmac in the hot sun, reportedly for quite a while. This was called unacceptable in a subsequent editorial



  About a week later Winair Chief Executive Officer Michael Cleaver wrote a letter to the editor titled “The heroes working to keep our airport running” in which he described the efforts of employees since Hurricane Irma to accommodate air travel to the island. He mentioned understanding that congestion is a fact of life until the facility is completely restored and spoke of band-aids in place to make it more user-friendly

  In his view, “to point fingers or assess blame is not the answer and will not rebuild our badly-needed PJIA. Every day it is like putting 20 pounds of potatoes in a 10-pound bag.”


Deservedly so

  While it’s important to remain critical and continue addressing issues where possible, one would have to agree that employees at PJIA have gone and are still going beyond the call of duty. For this reason, the airport worker is deservedly The Daily Herald’s 2019 Person of the Year