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Commentary: Oil, gold and airport expansion across the Guyanas

Thursday, 19 July 2012 12:00 Written by  font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size

By Ray Chickrie

Oil discovery, gold rush and airport expansion across the Guyanas are making headlines these days. The Guyanas are poised for an economic boom due to the discovery of oil along the maritime boundaries between Suriname and French Guiana, and major expansion of the gold and other mineral sectors across the Guyanas.

Considering the future, the Guyanas will need to modernize their airports. Thus, the announcement that Suriname and Guyana will expand their airports makes sense. Guyana indeed needs a modern airport, and has contracted a Chinese company, CHEC, to modernize the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) at a cost of $150 million.

In additional to a recent $28 million upgrade, another $70 million will be spent to modernize Suriname’s Johan Pengel International Airport (JAP). According to Transportation Minister, Pinas, the project, which was prepared during the previous administration, is insufficient to actually turn the airport into an international hub. “It is still too small for our purposes,” says Timothy Mendonça, policy adviser of the Airport Management Authority, who added, “The plans cost much, but will yield much as well.”

Suriname wants to attract airlines with passengers from the Caribbean, South America and even Africa. The US$70 million will be used to construct a second runway on which planes can taxi thus alleviating the dependency on one runway, which will allow the airport to accommodate more flights per day. This is also in line with international safety regulations. The departure and arrival lounges are currently apart from each other, but plans are to connect them by 2014 with air bridges, so passengers need not walk in the rain or sun anymore, Mendonça says. Lights will be placed on the departure side of the runway, and the platform will be expanded to accommodate more planes. The fire department barracks will be moved to a more central location. Plans are to have the air bridges installed in 2014, before Suriname hosts the next Union of South American Countries (UNASUR) heads-of-state meeting, while the additional work will be finished by 2015.

The Guyana airport modernization plans calls for a new terminal and an extension of the current runway to over 10,500 feet to accommodate aircraft such as the Boeing 747. The runway at CJIA is 7,448 feet, and is the shortest in South America. Hence, this extension is justifiable. But the public in Guyana demand to see what they are paying for and there is not yet a design out there for what Guyana will get for $150 million. Further, the spending of US$150 million to upgrade CJIA should give Guyana an airport more appealing than that of Trinidad’s Piraco and Suriname’s JAP. Hence, Guyana should be looking to take away some traffic from Piraco, where only eight airlines now service Trinidad and Tobago.

However, Suriname is a step ahead in the game. Paramaribo signed an open skies agreement with the United States last month. Surinam Airways (SLM) now flies to Guyana and is looking to lease two Boeing 767-300 when the lease on their current Airbus 340 expires. This will then allow SLM to commence service to Toronto and New York, and will relieve the company of solely depending on one trans-Atlantic aircraft. Interestingly, France has recently invited Surinam Airways to return to Cayenne after they revoked SLM’s licence to allow for Air Caraïbes’ monopoly over the skies of Cayenne.

The discovery of large quantities of oil in French Guiana has brought many US companies and business people to Cayenne. But there are no direct flights from the US to French Guiana. This prevents easy travel, back and forth between the US and Cayenne. At the same time, Air Caraïbes is facing financial troubles. SLM is keen to return to Cayenne, but is in no rush.

Predicating an oil boom in French Guiana, SLM prefer an air agreement with Paris before it returns to Cayenne, and President Bouterse is adamant in making Paramaribo a hub in the region. His administration announced the additional $70 million upgrade of JAP a few days ago. He also announced that a major energy venture with India, Trinidad and Tobago or the United States is in process and is central to Suriname executing some major economic projects to the tune of over $4 billion in the next ten years. Also, the bridge project between Suriname and Guyana is being actively pursued by Bouterse.

Guyana will benefit from Suriname and French Guiana’s economic boom and major investments in infrastructure will pay great dividends in the near future.
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