August 30 — A French government proclamation banning a St. Thomas-based airline from landing on French soil has more to do with economics than safety, the small airline's owner said Tuesday.
Citing unspecified safety concerns, the French government banned Air St. Thomas from landing on French soil Sunday, a move owner Paul Wikander said is aimed at keeping charter business in the French Caribbean, blocking small U.S.-based airlines out.
Wikander defended his safety record, saying he hadn't had a passenger fatality in his 35 years with the airline.
"We've never had any major things. They're all really minor incidents," he said. "This is a vendetta in my opinion."
For 34 years, Wikander's primary business was flying passengers to and from the French island of St. Bart's. But in March 2004, he was denied clearance to land there and has not been allowed to since.
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration records dating back to 1980 list several maintenance and pilot errors made by the airline, but none in St. Bart's in 2004.
The last St. Bart's incident was a December 1996 crash where a man ran onto the runway and was injured by the airplane.
Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman, said she was unable to issue a statement about the French blacklist.
"For 34 years I flew there," Wikander said. "I used to fly people in there at all hours. I used to fly bodies. I used to fly Christmas trees. If someone was sick, I'd come and get them. After all I've done for the people of St. Bart's, to be treated like this leaves a bitter taste in my mouth," he said.
Other U.S. Caribbean airline owners agreed with Wikander.
Matthew Mulvey, owner of San Juan, Puerto Rico-based Air Culebra, said reluctance by French Caribbean officials to approve landing permits to small U.S. airlines has nearly put him out of business.
"They sit on the application or they nitpick until you never get to land there," said Mulvey, who, like Wikander, primarily flew to and from St. Bart's.
Mike Foster, owner of St. Croix-based Coastal Air, said paperwork snafus have effectively barred him from landing on any of the French Caribbean islands.
"They started making it harder and harder to get authorization, then they stopped sending the authorization forms back at all," Foster said. "You meet one requirement and they set up another one, then they just pull the plug."
French Caribbean officials could not immediately be reached to comment.
Wikander said that without the St. Bart's business, he was unable to make ends meet. He is trying to sell the airline after his Sept. 1 retirement.
"So I'm on the blacklist, huh? Well, just in time for my retirement," he said.
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