Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves (left) speaking to first Chairman of the Board of Argyle International Airport Inc. Garth E M Saunders.
Features
July 1, 2022
A Reflection by Outgoing Chairman of the Board of the Argyle International Airport Garth E M Saunders

This April, 2022 marked the 6th anniversary of the incorporation of the AIA Inc (Argyle International Airport) and my acceptance of the offer to become incorporator and first Chairman of the Board of AIA Inc. I now recall with some amusement, the sudden and surprising invitation from Prime Minister (PM) Gonsalves and my immediate acceptance, followed by some understandable trepidation days after as I contemplated the enormity of the assignment.

FROM LEFT: Hadley Bourne, the first operations manager and who eventually became the first operational CEO, and Garth Saunders.

Upon reflection, the invitation from the PM ought not to have been a surprise because it had been preceded by three (3) years on Cabinet’s Airport Development Advisory Committee between 2003 and 2006 and a further ten (10) years as a director/civil engineering advisor to the IADC Board during the construction of the airport. I viewed my assignment therefore as one of connecting the dots between the construction, operational and management phases.

My first real contact with PM Gonsalves came one Sunday morning in the late 1990s while exiting the Catholic church. He came up to me and offered commendations and encouragement regarding my published articles on airport development. At that time, armed with and fuelled by research and analysis, I had embarked on somewhat of a crusade aimed at convincing then Prime Minister Mitchell to abandon plans for extending the E T Joshua runway.

Then, in late 2002, my focus turned to the newly installed Prime Minister to whom I hesitatingly wrote offering unsolicited advice. Following a few months of uncharacteristic silence, I surprisingly received a letter inviting me to serve on the newly created Cabinet International Airport Advisory Committee.

Today, after over twenty years of involvement in airport development, I can now say with some satisfaction, “the rest is history”.

I remain honoured to have served our country in those capacities and especially so, as Chairman of the AIA startup company, taking it in April 2006 from a mere four employees to its current staffing complement of over 300. This included late evening and weekend efforts leading staff recruitment and establishing an organizational structure and internal systems and controls, all without external management consultants.

When I accepted the position of Chairman of AIA, I also understood that this transition and preparatory period would not be without its challenges, but I never expected one so early in the life of the AIA. One month into his employment contract as the designated Chief Executive Officer (CEO), experienced airport professional, Robert Mattingly resigned his position in June of 2016 to return to the USA, leaving the startup AIA without a CEO and employees and at a most critical period, with the opening of the airport scheduled for December 2016.

Thankfully, it was not in my nature to panic and I regarded my word to our shareholder, PM Gonsalves as my bond, when I accepted responsibility to lead the startup AIA. Without hesitation and filled with the visceral excitement and anticipation of opening our first international airport, I volunteered to double up as Chairman and de facto CEO of the AIA for the entire transition period of five (5) months, as we hurtled towards opening day.

I also recall the stress of this preparatory period being made worse by the consistent negativism and opposition from certain quarters and the resulting hesitation by would be investors. It was at this point that I appreciated the leadership efforts of Rudy Matthias at the IADC (International Airport Development Company), who had to endure similar and sharper criticism as he astutely and successfully led the delivery of this iconic and essential project from the IADC to the AIA.

We nevertheless persevered in spite of the criticisms and were able to successfully meet the opening date set by our Government, mainly through the essential contributions from the following professionals; Winston Wright armed with his knowledge of above and below the wing handling services; Hadley Bourne, our first operations manager and who eventually became our first operational CEO; Rochelle Forde our hard-working legal counsel; and important administrative contributions from current human resources manager, Mavern Thomas and former finance manager, Natasha Devonish.

Looking back on the past six years, I now recognize that my commitment and sometimes direct involvement in the operations and management of the AIA, even as Chair of the Board, was in a large part in response to and fuelled by the optimism, energy and visionary leadership of the Prime Minister. I now await the point in time when the airport can be justifiably renamed in recognition of the vision, resilience and inspirational leadership of Ralph Gonsalves.

As I demit office at the AIA, I must highlight some of the current challenges experienced with the operation and management of this airport, including equipment and building maintenance challenges in our harsh saline environment. There must be greater acceptance by all, that meeting this challenge will demand that regular and consistent attention be given to equipment maintenance, replacement and redundancy. In this regard, there must also be acceptance that there will be consequential cost implications even as we seek to promote and maintain the financial viability of the AIA.

On a more positive note, I am however very pleased to report significant recent achievements in the area of human resources, specifically in the recently acquired training in ground handling, equipment maintenance, and cargo handling and also the impending final review and acceptance of the first collective agreement with the Public Service Union.

On behalf of our present Board of directors and our youthful management, I express pride and satisfaction with our increasing capacity to handle the growing number of international airlines and landings, and even more especially proud of our pre-pandemic financial growth up to March, 2020, when we were on track to break even by the end of that year, with a projected $21 million in aeronautical revenue only.

The next big item on the agenda for the Board and management would be the important strategic planning sessions that are expected to not only involve staff at all levels but also all of the important stakeholders of the airport. Additionally, over the next two months the airport will enter into a new and exciting phase as it welcomes a new Chief Executive Officer, a new Chief Accountant and a new Chairman of the Board.

Finally, I must thank fellow directors past and present who not only gave and continue to render simportant service to our country but who supported me as Chairman, recognizing that leadership and authority are inextricably tied to responsibility and accountability. I am also confident that new leadership at AIA, armed with new ideas, competence and energy, will continue the pre-pandemic growth trajectory of the AIA and eventually take SVG even higher.