Kindly allow me the opportunity to shed some light into recent conversations about Sint Maarten obtaining FAA Category 1.
According to the article in The Daily Herald, SXM is looking into implementing what Curacao is allegedly planning to do to solve their Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA) staffing issues. This plan entails adding yet another fee on already high taxes and fees that are levied at both airports. Needless to say, this will affect the travelers and the cost of airfares to and from SXM and Curacao.
For those persons unfamiliar with FAA categories, in aviation, there are several "Freedoms of the Air". One of those freedoms gives an aircraft registered in country "A" the right to fly to and land in country "B". When we went from Cat 1 to Cat 2, we lost the right for aircraft registered in the former Netherlands Antilles (CUR and SXM) to fly to and land on U.S. soil. This is the reason Winair needs to "wet-lease" (renting an aircraft plus its crew) French registered ATR's if they want to fly to Puerto Rico for instance.
Obtaining FAA Cat 1 certification will only be possible when qualified and certified Civil Aviation specialists are hired on both Curacao and SXM. The SXM and Curacao governments underestimated the importance of having a strong Civil Aviation Authority prior to 101010. The CAA lost the top Safety & Airworthiness Inspector, Mr. Isenia, and Director of Civil Aviation, Mr. Francisco in the earthquake of January 10, 2010, that hit Haiti. Their passing exposed the low staffing levels of the CAA and a subsequent audit is a reason we have been Cat 2 for the past 10+ years. In the audit, it was determined that the former Netherlands Antilles CAA was short roughly 13-14 staff members. SXM was in the infancy stage of establishing its CAA with a staff of 4-6 persons.
The most important point of discussion to retain FAA Cat 1 is staffing. There is currently a shortage of skilled CAA staff worldwide and because of that, salaries that are offered by Curacao and SXM CAA's can't compete with the world market. The only way to get the skilled and professional staff on board, in my opinion, would be to recruit interested persons and send them away to study for the specific CAA functions we require on SXM. This would require the candidates to sign a contract to commit to a minimum of 5 years of service following their training. This process will not happen overnight. The journey to obtaining Cat 1 status will be long and arduous, and the people of SXM deserve to know that, instead of being misinformed.
Many governments in the world do not understand civil aviation's role of being the oversight for safety in aviation. They are the checks and balances for Air Traffic Services, Airport Operations, Security, Airworthiness of Aircraft, and much more. A lot of governments do not invest the necessary funding in their Civil Aviation Authority and we can clearly see what our result ended up being, going from Cat 1 to Cat 2. A budget for the CAA should have been front and center from day 1, due to the CAA's role in providing oversight for the main port of entry on SXM, not forgetting the airspace assigned to us. This is a department that provides safety oversight as the Return on Investment (ROI) and not necessarily financial ROI.
In closing, let's give the people of SXM a true picture of where we are with regards to FAA Cat 1, and let's avoid using smoke and mirrors to distract people from the true status and possibilities.
Duncan J. A. van Heyningen,
ATC Specialist and Aviation Professional.
Editors note: It will be good to know if the Government of St. Maarten especially Study Financing and the Minister of ECYS ever given scholarships with Civil Aviation in mind, especially a much-needed auditor.