TBY talks to Rafael Echevarne, CEO of Sangster International Airport, on the Jamaican economy, maintaining high service standards, and collaborating with hotels and the tourism industry.

What role does Sangster International Airport play in the Jamaican economy?

Sangster International Airport is the main airport in Jamaica and the main gateway for tourists arriving into the country. Tourism is one of the key pillars of Jamaica's economy. We handle approximately 4 million passengers per year and the growth pattern in 2017 has been positive. We have grown beyond our expectations. We are working hard with tourism sector stakeholders to ensure that we tap into the right potential growth markets. The markets of interest include Latin America, where we are making inroads. We are mainly interested in Colombia, Peru, and Chile. There are currently no direct flights from Jamaica to Latin America, other than to Panama. We are in fact quite advanced on this and hope to have direct flights starting in 1Q2018. We have been mainly talking about the airport in relation to tourism; however, we are also working to support the development of exports, mainly agricultural exports. We also see more business people flying into Sangster International Airport because of all the things going on in Montego Bay. For this reason, we are working with businesses to look at developing the real estate opportunities we have at the airport.

What flights do you have to connect Jamaica with Europe and other main markets?

The second-largest group of passengers for us is the diaspora and these are Jamaicans living mainly in the US, Canada, and the UK. Around 70% of our passenger traffic comes from the US, followed by Canada at about 20%, and then Europe. In Europe, the main markets are the UK and Germany, though we do have flights to other parts of Europe, including Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Poland in the summer season. We also had flights to Spain and Portugal in 2017 for the first time in many years. The great thing is that all carriers are happy with this destination and plan to continue flying here and increase the number of flights. For the UK and Germany, we have scheduled flights year-round. For the US, we have flights with all the main carriers, such as American Airlines, Delta, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, and United.

How do you maintain such high service standards year after year?

We have won Best Airport in the Caribbean at the World Travel Awards for nine years in a row. Sangster International Airport is an airport that is greatly focused on tourism so we do our best to ensure that tourists' experiences at the airport are as great as they can be. Of course, we can always improve and we do. This is one of the keys; we are aware of the areas that need attention and we want to improve. We want to ensure that there are not only flights, but also that passengers have a great experience with us. This includes for example, reducing the queues at security and having mostly contact gates with jet bridges so passengers do not have to walk far. We have a large number of shops and restaurants with some of the best airport shopping in the Caribbean. We also have a great arrivals experience, including excellent lounges for passengers waiting for their hotel bus transfers. We try to cater to all our passengers needs.

What expansion works do you have ongoing at the airport?

Sangster International Airport has initiated a new phase of development in 2017, with a focus on investing in and improving our infrastructure. We expect that over the next 15 years, Sangster International Airport will see investments of over USD100 million. We will enlarge the terminal building, increase the facilities, and put in more gates to reduce congestion. We will renovate car parking facilities and improve the check-in area, as well as the commercial area to make it much more attractive and interesting. We are working with the immigration authorities to ensure that the passenger experience is pleasant when people enter the country, with the installation of new kiosks. We are investing in air conditioning and many other things to modernize the airport. And on top of this, we will also lengthen the runway at an additional cost of over USD60 million.

Is the infrastructure in Montego Bay adequate to give people the best tourism experience?

We try to do our best at the airport and it is great that hotels here are also investing and growing. There are more hotel rooms becoming available, both in terms of the expansion of existing hotels and the construction of new hotels. Tourists who come here seem to enjoy the experience. There is potential for more. I see many upsides to Jamaica. Our approach at Sangster International Airport is that we know there will be more hotel rooms coming and we have the passenger demand here; therefore, we have to grow our facilities. However, we want to work together with other entities to ensure that the entire experience is as great as it can be. We are working with hotels and playing our part to ensure that passengers who fly into Sangster International Airport can easily get on their hotel buses. We are also opening a bus station at the airport which will facilitate multimodal transport inter-connectivity. MBJ is also a home port for many cruise liners; therefore, people fly into Sangster International Airport and start their cruises from here. We have a number of flights from Europe bringing passengers in for this.

What other projects do you have planned for Sangster International Airport over the coming years?

We will bring in new technologies to facilitate the entire airport experience. One of the things we have planned is working together with hotels so that passengers can do their flight check-ins and label their luggage at their hotel rather than queuing at the airport to do this. We also want to make the airport part of the experience of being in Jamaica and not just an infrastructure that one goes through. We want the airport to provide entertainment and not just shopping, but also activities, culture, social media, and other experiences. To kickstart this, we are launching an initiative in November 2017 where we invite artisans from Jamaica to take part in a competition, both to publicize their work and to elevate the quality of the souvenirs being produced in Jamaica. My vision is for some of these artisans to actually work inside the airport making and selling their products. We are also playing Jamaican music in the arrival areas and bringing Jamaican artists in so that when passengers step off their aircraft they really feel like they are in Jamaica.