Airport director LaBega: “Asphalt was really valuable”

POSTED: 07/29/13 6:18 PM

Rutte Labega

Airport managing director Regina Labega welcomes the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the airport during his recent visit. Photo Today /  Leo Brown

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – The asphalt milling that was taken from the airport was “really valuable,” says airport Managing Director Regina LaBega. She added, however, that it had been donated to the  ministry of Vromi by the airport. The dispute over who had the right to remove the milled asphalt is an “internal matter. Beyond that it’s government,” the director said.

The airport had used some of the milling to resurface certain parts of the airport, like the fuel storage areas for example. After that, the director said “let’s donate the rest to government.” LaBega then contacted the airport’s attorney to see how to proceed “and to make sure Vromi was responsible. It was handed over to Vromi,” she clarified. Permission to enter the airport grounds and remove the asphalt was “based on who Vromi says.”

The recent news of former immigration commissioner Marcel Loor’s arrest in Paris for allegedly trying to smuggle over a kilo of cocaine into the country was brought up. The director wanted to make it clear that immigration and customs is handled autonomously by the ministry of justice. The airport management itself has no jurisdiction on such matters. “But stuff like that happens all over the world,” she commented on smuggling.

She explained that there are “sporadic checks for outbound passengers.” The main controls are when a person arrives, so that smugglers are caught and arrested at the destination they arrived at, as happened to Loor in France. Specially trained dogs are sometimes used on “departing passengers on a spot basis,” the director highlighted. She said that the French government also has a presence at the airport due to the Franco-Dutch treaty.

The same applies for the private jets at the runway. “They have their own security system, but they go through the same process,” LaBega continued. There’s a separate, smaller area of controls for the passengers on private jets which is also handled by the immigration department. “We have a good working relationship with immigration and customs, but they are autonomous and determine their policies.”

Another burning issue recently has been the revamping and remodeling of the retail areas at the airport. “Some concessionaires haven’t paid rent in four years,” LaBega noted. “It wasn’t fair to those who paid or left.” These concessionaires were “given 1 year to get up to date.” That was the last year of their 7 year contract with the airport, one in which the option to renew was always at the airport’s discretion.

The director said the remodeled retail spaces will add up to 100 new employees because, while there are  fewer stores, they will be bigger than what was there before.  The airport did not sublet its concession areas to a Mexican intermediary, as some have speculated, but will remain the landlord and is still responsible for the management of its retail spaces. In fact, leases are still signed directly with airport management, just as they were done in the past. The director also said that “85%” of the businesses opening up in the retail areas are local or locally based. The remodeled area is expected to open sometime in late November, around the US Thanksgiving holidays.

InterVistas is a Dutch consulting firm the airport hired to help increase the airport’s revenue stream. “We have to keep St. Maarten’s airport competitive,” LaBega continued. “Aeronautical revenue was lower than other comparative airports.” The director said that Antigua recently built a state of the art airport and is looking to tap into St. Maarten’s market share. “Antigua is competing with us neck and neck,” she added.

The difference between Antigua and St. Maarten, however, is that Antigua is a sovereign independent nation that can receive foreign aid from any country in the world. They received a massive donation to build their new airport from Taiwan, the director said. As a constituent member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, St. Maarten’s international legal status is different.

In December the Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) will be celebrating its 70th anniversary. From the 1st to the 7th of the month, there will be a host of activities and events planned to commemorate the milestone. PJIA was also the first Caribbean airport to win the International Transport Award given by the Global Trade Leaders Club.

Currently St. Maarten is number 1 in general aviation in the Caribbean, and second only to Puerto Rico in commercial flights.

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