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Printed in The Daily Herald, Wed 1-Dec-2004

Good high season for airlift flights to St. Maarten

AIRPORT--Arrindell Aviation Services (AAS), handler of airlines such as KLM, Air France, US Airways and Delta, is anticipating a good high season, said Managing Director Frank Arrindell, who also announced an increase in the number of private jets. "Bookings are fantastic," he said. He warned of the limitations of the airport facility.

Air France has resumed its seven days per week schedule for the high season as of this week, while Royal Dutch Airlines KLM has increased flights to three per week. According to Arrindell, the strong euro will have a positive influence on the European market flying on these two airlines.

US Airways will be executing a third flight to Philadelphia on Saturdays, as of mid-December. US Airways currently flies twice a day to Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina. Delta is executing three weekly flights to and from Atlanta.

The increased flights, however, show that the current facilities at Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) are "totally inadequate," said Arrindell. Aside from the "long lines," especially at Immigration, the size of the departure hall is a problem in peak hours.

But, Arrindell added, "We will have to work with it for another two years until the new terminal building is ready." By being "creative," AAS is trying to work with the available space, explained Manager Vicky Iltes-Dubourcq. "We recently broke our counters down, cut them up and turned four counters into seven," she said. Luggage belts between the counters have been removed to create additional space.

Arrindell now has three counters for KLM and four for Air France. US Airways, which has its own check-in counters, went from three to five counters. Iltes-Dubourcq and Arrindell mentioned that the airport was "very cooperative" in realising additional counter space.

The lack of space in general at the airport also makes doing business with private jets and maintaining a high standard of service "very challenging," said Iltes-Dubourcq. AAS is expecting an increase in corporate traffic compared to last year, which will put an additional strain on the handling agent's operations because of limitations at the airport, said Arrindell.

Luggage of VIPs and clients that come in on these private jets is now placed on the main belt and has to be picked off by AAS personnel. There are also limitations where it comes getting corporate traffic passengers through Customs swiftly, said Arrindell.

"It is a challenge to convince the airport that VIP and other important guests expect different service. They get that kind of service anywhere else in the world," said Arrindell, adding that he is "afraid" that "damage" will be done to this "growing business" if no solutions are found shortly.

One of the reasons owners of private jets like to come to St. Maarten is because it is considered safe. The island is also relatively close by, with a "lot" of airlift available.

A few years ago AAS used to handle some 20 jets in one month. Now that number has gone up to 60 to 70 per day. Top months for private jets are December through March. Timeshare planes, such as Net Jets, whereby people can own a part of the plane and rent it by the hour, are also becoming increasingly popular. The presence of the megayacht marinas on the island also plays a big role in the increase in the number of private jets.

According to Arrindell, there is a need for a five-star top resort. "Now many high-end customers land here and go on to St. Barths and Anguilla. We need to keep them here," he said.

AAS itself has grown "a lot," said Arrindell. "I started 15 years ago with five employees. Now we have a staff of 53." He mentioned the company's newest addition: Roy Mingo, who came over from American Airlines in the US on October 1.

"This takes us to another level," he said, mentioning that American Airlines' former CEO Bob Crandall had spoken at Mingo's recent farewell party in New York.

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