TOURISM Minister Dominique Fedee says he feels vindicated for the stance his government took in denying Virgin Atlantic Airways EC$20 million in subsidies it had requested to remain flying into Saint Lucia.
His exoneration comes amid reports from the Tourism Ministry that British Airways will add two new weekly flights to Saint Lucia from London just at the time Virgin Atlantic Airways will be pulling out.
Fedee’s vindication may be sweeter than he is currently letting on due to the whipping he got from many who opposed government’s move to deny the requested subsidy from Virgin Atlantic.
The furor over Virgin Atlantic’s withdrawal from Saint Lucia after 21 years begun when the airline announced its decision to cease operations in the country by June 7 of this year. That announcement prompted responses from both the government and the opposition with the latter stating that this was “nothing to be happy about.”
Opposition leader Philip J Pierre in July of last year said that “Virgin not coming to Saint Lucia is sad.”
“It is a sad day and it is a day the government of Saint Lucia should explain to the public why suddenly that is happening,” Pierre said.
He was not the only opposition member to criticize government’s refusal to acquiesce to Virgin Atlantic’s proposal. Alva Baptiste, who was the Labour Party’s first deputy leader at the time said that the government should have established a framework for a more structured dialogue with all stakeholders in order to comprehend Virgin’s potential loss and related ramifications, and that government should have proffered appropriate solutions.
Government however, received support for its decision from the Saint Lucia Tourism Authority, which in a press release in July of last year noted that the public and private sector had arrived at a consensus that the demands from Virgin Atlantic were too onerous on Saint Lucia.
“I feel absolutely vindicated for the decision earlier not to pay the subsidy to Virgin Atlantic and I think this is a step in the right direction. These flights (British Airways flights) came with no minimum return guarantee and they really came because of the confidence British Airways and other stakeholders continue to have in the Saint Lucia destination,” Fedee said, yesterday at an early morning press briefing.
The two new flights from British Airways bring to nine the total number of British Airways flight into Saint Lucia. The flights will come into Saint Lucia on Wednesdays and Saturdays each with about 362 seats filling the void Virgin Atlantic will create when it pulls out, a factor noted by Dominique.
“We could not have paid the US$2.5 million (per year for three years) to an airline which has been coming to the destination for 21 years. What we would have done from time to time is that if you are coming in and it’s a new route and it has been tried and you are a new carrier, then we would think of giving you certain incentives, but after 21 years with no major disruptions in the marketplace, the aviation business or industry then I think that you got to make a business decision and we certainly did. We hold no hard feelings but we welcome this news by British Airways,” Fedee said.
Virgin Atlantic Airways at the time said that its proposed changes meant that it will increase flights from London Gatwick to Antigua, boosting services from three per week to four per week, from June 8, 2020. Further, its Havana service will also move from London Gatwick to Heathrow and will remain the UK’s only direct scheduled flight to Havana. The service will move onto the A330-300, increasing Upper Class capacity by 63 per cent and will open up more hub connections from across the UK.
“Unfortunately, this means we will cease flying to Saint Lucia for the foreseeable future. It’s never easy to withdraw from a destination and it’s not a decision we’ve taken lightly. We’d like to thank our customers and teams in St Lucia for their loyalty and dedication over the last 21 years and are sad to say goodbye to this fantastic island,” noted a statement from the airline last year.
The statement noted that flights will continue to operate between Gatwick and Saint Lucia as planned, until June 8, 2020.
“We will continue to serve hotels in St Lucia through connecting flights via our partner airlines. Customer bookings for Virgin Atlantic flights departing up to and including June 7, 2020 will not be impacted. Flights to Grenada and Tobago will now connect through Antigua,” noted the airline in a statement.