Airport Fix-Up Dilemma

The crash of that Caribbean Airlines flight in Guyana last week triggered a raging debate about everything from the airport’s ability to quickly respond to an emergency, the need to extend one of the region’s shortest international runways and now a rush to remove squatter and other houses located just yards from where the Boeing 737-800 aircraft finally stopped.

Flight 523 with 163 passengers and crew from New York’s JFK Airport and Trinidad landed too far down the 7,400-foot runway around 1.35 am on Saturday, July 30, crashed through a chain link perimeter fence and ended up on a dirt road off the main runway at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport. Miraculously, no one died and most of the three dozen injuries are so far not life threatening.

Most of the other major Caribbean runways, St. Lucia included, have at least 1,500 more feet that the one in Guyana and could accommodate overloaded larger planes like B-747s and A-340 aircraft. Barbados’ Grantley Adams was even a favored destination of the supersonic Concorde until the fleet was retired in recent years.

Since the plane disappeared from view, stinging criticism about the lack of fully equipped ambulances, adequate mobile field lights to illuminate the crash area, the need for standby rescue crews and at least 2,500 feet more of runway space has occupied the minds of Guyanese authorities as the incident has forced them into a major review of things aviation.

A multi-agency team was scheduled to sit down sometime this week to determine what to do with about 300 homes, many of them brand new, that now sit a short distance away from the northern end of the runway where the plane came to rest.

Authorities estimate that there are more than 1,000 people living in that particular area but it is unclear whether they will be chased away and homes bulldozed, or offered an alternative subdivision to erect new homes, leaving adequate space for airport and runway expansion.

Chief airport executive Ramesh Ghir says that officials are certain people in those homes might have smelled the fuel from the aircraft engines because it had stopped so close to their edifices. Some have long been given notices to move but still new erections spring up. Ghir says those lands belong to the Airport Authority.

“Not only is it a security risk but it is also a safety risk and as evident in this crash here, had the aircraft gone a little more to the left it might have ended up in the houses. So there’s a safety risk for them that live in that area,” he said at the weekend.

Meanwhile, one pretty embarrassing episode from the crash has to do with an allegation from passenger Geeta Ramsingh of Philadelphia that a taxi driver who rushed to the crash site charged her $20 for the three-minute ride to the airport terminal, even as she was bleeding, hysterical and in a state of trauma.

Ghir now says that the driver has lost the right to peddle fares as an authorized airport taxi operator pending the outcome of an investigation into an incident that really showed up the response system or lack thereof to the aerodrome’s first major international emergency since the Americans built in during World War Two to transport soldiers to the North African front.

“We have already suspended one taxi driver but we have not been able to really conduct any detailed investigation. We’re trying to gather evidence and as we listen to passengers, we are taking that information.”

As the new week began, engineers were cutting away the engines and the larger parts like wings to store them in nearby hangars as investigations continue.

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