V.I. government officials will travel to Atlanta next Monday to try to persuade Delta Air Lines not to drop service to St. Croix.
Last week Delta, one of three major airlines that fly into St. Croix, announced that it was discontinuing its daily flight as of Dec. 1. Airline officials said passenger revenues do not justify the approximately $50,000 a month in expenses the airline pays to the V.I. Port Authority.
The announcement caught government and private sector officials by surprise. Senators and business leaders said that if efforts arent made to keep Delta, either by reducing Port Authority fees or by promising more tourism marketing, the blow to St. Croixs economy could be disastrous.
Exactly how hard a blow Deltas pullout would be, however, appears open to debate. Port Authority executive director Gordon Finch said Delta has provided an "invaluable" service to St. Croix, but he also pointed out that an average of only 31 people arrive on the island each day via the airline.
He said Deltas planes can carry up to 180 passengers, but most of those aboard disembark on St. Thomas. As the St. Thomas service will continue, Finch said, eliminating the St. Croix leg of the flight will make more seats available for St. Thomas.
"I understand that Delta is a business, and like any other business it must make a profit to survive," Finch said. "Delta officials have indicated that it is not economically feasible to continue its St. Croix service."."
Similarly, Tourism Commissioner-designate Michael Bornn said Wednesday, "When the plane is empty, putting the plane on the ground is a problem." What's needed, he said, is a "marketing structure" that will generate passenger demand to travel to St. Croix.
Finch said Delta pays the same landing fees as other signatory airlines, which are carriers that have guaranteed bonds to expand the St. Thomas airport. The landing fee for a Boeing 757-200 is $744. The overnight parking fee is $4,500 a month, and Delta pays $1,845 a month for its rent on St. Croix.
Finch said that for the last year, Deltas monthly bills on St. Croix averaged $51,400, which "does not even add up to the cost of electricity for the St. Croix and St. Thomas terminals."
Peter Ross, president of the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association, said the idea of reducing Port Authority fees in order to keep Delta could prove troublesome. Since Delta is a signatory airline on the airport bond, as are American Airlines and US Airways, reducing fees for one would probably mean reducing fees for all. The signatory airlines pay about 75 percent of what other carriers of similar size pay in airport fees.
"It would be a stop-gap measure," Ross said. "To waive fees for 30 people doesnt make sense. Our ability to negotiate with Delta is somewhat limited without doing damage to those bonds."
Further, Ross said, while Delta brings more than 18,000 people to St. Croix a year, about 7,000 of those are locals traveling between islands.
Delta began serving St. Croix in 1992 and plans to continue serving St. Thomas, where in recent years it has typically had one flight a day out of Atlanta year-round and a second flight out of New York in the high season.
Accompanying Finch to Deltas headquarters in Atlanta on Monday will be Lt. Gov. Gerard Luz James II and Tourism Commissioner-designate Michael Bornn.