07 April 2008

Come Fly With Me

The island of St. Barthelemy lies 10 miles southeast of the westernmost edge of the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten. In between is a nasty strip of water called the St. Barthelemy Channel, which features steep and confused waves on all but the flattest days. Several public ferries make the trip 5 or 6 times a day. That journey lasts, by the clock, somewhere between 45 minutes and 90 minutes, depending on which ferry one takes, and its point of departure from St. Martin. I provide the clock measurement as a frame of reference only. For the passengers, the trip can be endless. Sea sickness is the norm, vomit bags standard equipment, and the trip can be torture. (Not torture, of course, by the Bush administration's definition, because it does not involve pain one associates with major organ failure. But let's put it this way; I would willingly, indeed happily, consign Dick Cheney to ride the ferry for an indeterminate period,-- a modern Man Without A Country.)

The alternative, of course, is airplane travel. St. Barths has a renowned airstrip. It is renowned for its absurd location (at the approach end of the strip is a sizable mountain, and the run-off is equally unforgiving - - at the far end of the strip is 20 feet of beach and then the sea. I am informed that a plane gets its wheels wet every now and then, though that has not happened while I was on the island. Not all visitors love the roller-coaster descent, but certainly everybody comments on it. Only specially certified pilots may attempt a landing here. In the 50+ years of operation, there has been one aircrash on the island, an unexplained fall from the sky about a mile short of the runway. There has never been a comprehensive explanation of why the plane fell.

There are three airlines that serve the SXM-SBH route. All three have planes that depart from the big jetport on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, which makes transfer possible without passengers having to go to another airport. Sounds good so far, right? Not so fast. We now come to the Third World aspect of Caribbean air travel.

Last week, we went to the airport to meet Pinks' sister who was to board a 3:15 Winair flight out of SXM. I love going to airport in my bathing suit and flip-flops, watching exhausted North Americans, white-faced, (sometimes tinged with traces of green for the not-so-hardy fliers) and seeing them instantly relax when embraced by the warm sun as they descend that rickety ladder out of their small aluminum cigar tubes.

But as Pinks and I sat around in the lounge waiting for Karen to arrive, we noticed not one Winair plane had landed in more than an hour. Several Air Caraibes and St. Barths Commuter flights, but no Winair planes. Late arrivals are de rigueur here, but no arrivals at all? A check with the Winair desk was in order.

When I asked my usual question at the Winair counter, I expected I would hear the usual response: "We have no idea when the next plane is coming in or who is on it." But instead I got the startling message, "No planes. None. Winair can not fly into St. Barths today because the St. Barths airport fire engine is broken."

I found the St. Barths Winair airport manager coming out of his office. Nice guy, usually pleasant, big smile, always helpful. He was so angry he could barely speak. The simple story was right out of "Stop the Carnival": Our airport has a fire engine. It is an airport fire engine, designed to suppress aircraft fires with chemicals, foam, whatever. The machine was broken. It needs a part. The fire engine was made in France, and the part will have to come from France. Estimated time of delivery? One week, not counting the time it takes to fly in the mechanic from Guadeloupe to install it.

Winair, headquartered in the Dutch airport on St. Maarten, is a Dutch company, and Dutch regulations forbid landing in any airport lacking a properly equipped fire engine. Period. The other two airlines here are French, and French regulations were not so rigid. So St. Barth Commuter and Air Caraibes were flying and Winair was not. So much for European Union.

Options for the passengers stranded in SXM? There is no way the smaller Air Caraibes and St. Barth Commuter airlines could pick up the slack. For the Winair passengers stuck in St. Maarten, it became a game of survival. The available charter aircraft were all taken. The ferries were running, but a storm had kicked up 14 foot waves in the channel, and it was a particularly undesirable option.

To make their decisions, the Winair-SXM strandees were in desperate need of good intelligence. What they got was a combination of George Tenet's CIA and Fox News: "All misleading, all the time." While Rodrigue, the Winair head of St. Barths operations assured me that the Winair personnel in St. Maarten would hire buses and transport all the stranded passengers to the next ferry, the Winair personnel in St. Maarten were operating from a different playbook.

There have been times in my career when I have been asked to teach a class or give a lecture to high school or college students, or lawyers from Japan, or China, -- people who are unfamiliar with the detailed aspects of U.S. securities law. A major principle of that regulatory scheme involves the concept of truthful disclosure. I explain that our law requires more than just being sure what you say is true. You must not only tell the truth, but in addition, you must incorporate such language as to make your truthful statement not misleading. Examples always help to explain the concept. For my next such lecture I could well use what the St. Maarten Winair gate agents told their stranded customers: It is an absolutely true statement and and at the same time a wickedly misleading one:

"We need a part for the St. Barths fire engine. As soon as it is installed, flights will resume."

No mention was made that process would likely take up to a week. Nice, huh?

So some passengers hung around waiting for the fire engine to be fixed. Others, like Karen, having been to the Carib before, went with what was working--the ferries.

All ferries arrive in St. Barths at the same dock in our small harbor. But in St. Martin/St.Maarten, there are two departure points, each 40 minutes from the airport, and each 40 minutes from each other. In typical island fashion, the ferry operators had switched terminals for some of their Tuesday departures. They announced this by posting a notice at the ferry dock in St. Barths. Nice touch. Of course, nobody advised the St. Maarten airport taxi drivers of the changes, and as a result, the passengers who opted for the ferries were delivered to the wrong terminal, whereupon the the taxis then raced across the island to catch the next ferry from the other departure point. It was a game of taxicab pinball. The passengers were green even before they got on the ferry.

Was this an effort to control access to Paradise and make it all the more exclusive? Sort of pulling up the ladder? I doubt it. A fair question, but I think this was just typical island mismanagement. St. Maarten is still trying to cope with 20th century methods and technology. It will be 50 years before they get to the 21st century. For the exhausted North Americans who spent a day, sometimes two, fighting to get as far as St. Maarten, this was yet one more bad roll of the dice in the Caribbean Planes, Trains, Taxis, and Boats board game.

By some combination of pluck and luck, Karen, after criss-crossing St. Martin by taxi, did get aboard the last ferry to depart St. Martin that evening. While she was out of communication with us, from our front deck we spied the boat plowing across Corossol Bay in the dark, drove down to the harbor, and watched Karen alight onto the quay. She was in better shape than many, i.e., her complexion was more like that of a lemon than a lime. Fortunately, she was totally restored ten minutes later when we were able to relax on the front deck of our house: Tanqueray is a great healer.

I was in the airport late the following day for another chore, and saw Winair planes landing. Huh? It seems somebody had found another fire engine! Yup. I saw it. Looked like a museum piece, or a papier mache creation, but there it was, faded red paint and all. I did not see the horses that are needed pull it, but I figured the Chamber of Commerce has stashed them somewhere off site.

My guess is they found a spare fire engine in the big airport in SXM and ferried it over here. I suspect that this fire engine probably doesn't work either, but nobody is looking at it too carefully until the other one is repaired. Meanwhile, Winair was busy flying in all the passengers who had been unwilling overnight guests at the St. Maarten Airport Motel. Those people deserve a medal.

Btw, so far as I have been able to learn, never, in the 50 year history of this airport, has there ever been an opportunity to use the fire engine, other than the several-times-a-day trips down the runway looking for parts that occasionally drop off airplanes as they take off or land.

So what is the lesson here? There can be only one: Relax, It's the Carib. Come on down.

A bientot.

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