Rider’s tax imposed on domestic flights

A new fee called a rider’s tax was unexpectedly imposed on domestic flights since Saturday. The tax ostensibly will be used for the expansion of the Belize City municipal airstrip, a project estimated to cost in the range of thirteen million dollars. Whether the tax is permanent, has not been determined, but what we can say tonight is that funding for the project which was first announced at the end of November to be in the form of a loan, has still not been secured. So at this stage, there is a new tax for a loan that is yet to be sourced. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

The Municipal Airstrip in Belize City has served as the hub for domestic travel across the country since coming into service a few decades ago. Over the weekend customers of both Tropic and Maya airlines saw an increase of five dollars in the cost of tickets per destination. It’s a tax that will be used to defray the expenses of renovating decrepit airstrips including this one; however, local airline companies are already crying foul. The problem is that while they knew of an impending hike in prices they were unaware of the date it would come into effect. That date was January fifteenth; a day after a notice was formally issued by the Belize Airports Authority.

Kenworth Tillett, general manager for the Belize Airports Authority, says the decision was taken because of the rundown conditions of landing strips, hangars and other related facilities.

Kenworth Tillett

Kenworth Tillett, General Manager, Belize Airports Authority

“Basically the Belize Airports Authority has been, has embarked on a system-wide improvement in terms of the aerodromes in Belize and while we have no external funding or subvention that is constant or steady we have been to various agencies trying to locate funding to do this. We have been fortunate in that we have partnered with COCESSNA on a variety of other projects namely Ranchito in Corozal, Dangriga and now San Pedro but the Belize City Municipal and a number of other airstrips need to be improved. And it is not just a matter of cosmetics, it’s a matter of safety so we’re seeking a loan to basically, starting with [the] Municipal [Airstrip], double the size of the Municipal and improve the runway and the conditions for the flying public.”

According to Mike Singh, former CEO in the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation, a feasibility study had been conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank prior to undertaking the project. The expansion, he said, ties in with the existing tourism master plan as it regards the influx of overnight visitors.

Mike Singh, Former C.E.O., Ministry of Civil Aviation (File: November 29th, 2010)

Mike Singh

“The ministry, the aviation portion of the ministry has conducted a complete strategic plan for revitalization of all our municipal airports for expansion as a means for sorting and distributing tourists throughout Belize. And, as a part of that plan which was, the plan itself was funded by the IDB and was delivered to us earlier this year, and we have already started implementing some of the items in that plan. The major ones will be the complete rebuilding of the municipal airport [uhm] which were now in the final stages of finalizing the financing on that project which will be about a thirteen million dollar investment in a complete restructuring. We have acquired land from St. Johns College which will allow us to extend the runway to thirty-five hundred feet to build a taxiway, to redo the entire parking area, to build a new terminal building, an office building for the BAA and to essentially turn that airport into the hub that it should be for domestic that it should be for travel in Belize.”

Of the various projects that have taken place in Ranchito and Dangriga, Belize City will be the third. The Municipal Airstrip is arguably the busiest airfield in the country next to San Pedro but its renovation at this point in time seems to be a case of placing the cart before the horse.

Kenworth Tillett

“Ranchito and Dangriga were in terrible condition I mean when I say terrible condition they were almost catastrophic so they had to be done on an emergency basis. While this is also really in not that good a shape, you know, it could wait in terms of, you know, it’s improvements during that period of time but now it’s become, it’s the same thing. It’s like you’re always trying to catch up.”

The project is set to begin around the end of April and will go through until mid-2012. For its part Tropic Air had also made interim changes to its office at the airstrip prior to the implementation of the rider fee.

Kenworth Tillett

“Tropic Air out of necessity their building was in some decrepit condition and they needed to make immediate change but both of the major airlines have been improving on the various airstrips and in fact Tropic Air also has on the table to build themselves a brand new terminal. What you see here today is merely cosmetic and for their comfort but the whole improvement also includes a brand new terminal for Tropic and as you can see Maya has made the investment in terms of their terminal.”

Both airlines complain of having to incur the five dollar increase for customers, particularly tourists, who have purchased hotel packages which include the cost of travel prior to the rider fee. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

A release from the Belize Airports Authority this afternoon makes the point that the “small fee has become necessary as the Authority seeks to secure loans to expand several airports in the country, most urgently, the Belize Municipal Airport.” B.A.A. also says that it manages and maintains all public aerodromes in Belize with no subvention or funding from any external source.