From the Ashes: Rebuilding Montserrat

Photo: Stefan Krasowski from New York, NY, USA (Montserrat Airport) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

1995 was a rough year for the islands of the Caribbean, as Hurricane Luis destroyed much of the northeast islands such as St. Maarten and the US Virigin Islands, damaging tourism and forever closing hotels like the Mullet Bay Hotel and La Belle Creole. However, nobody faced a more disasterous 1995 year than the island of Montserrat, who suffered the eruption of the Soufriere Hills. The eruptions from the mid-1990s continue to have a lasting impact on the island,  specifically the aviation community of Montserrat.


Progress Meets the Volcano

Prior to the eruption, Montserrat had one of the more rich aviation histories within the Caribbean islands. The island was the starting point for Leewards Island Air Transport (LIAT) in 1956 before the carrier moved to Trinidad and Tobago to align itself with a codeshare with BWIA. By the 1990s, the W.H. Bramble Airport was home to five carriers. The 5 airlines included LIAT, Winair, Montserrat Airways, Carib Aviation and seasonal service on American Airlines. The airport, located on the eastern side of the small Caribbean island, had taken advantage of being away from large portions of the population and built a terminal, control tower and 3,380 foot runway.

However, 1995 and the reemergence of the Soufriere Hills forced the airport to close as the volcano erupted, leaving the southern portion of the island unhabitable after the capital city of Plymouth was covered in several feet of mudflow and volcanic materials. The airport was unharmed as countries, mostly the United Kingdom, sent relief supplies and helped evacuate the island as 7,000 people were relocated to either the islands of Antigua and Barbuda or taken to the United Kingdom. The airport remained open through the mid 1990s as donations continued to pour in to relieve people affected by the volcano’s on and off activity. After two years of survival, the W.H. Bramble Airport was forced to evacuate on September 21, 1997 just a few minutes before the terminal, control tower and southern end of the runway were buried in lahar. The airport was deemed unrepairable, and Montserrat ultimately decided to wait until the volcano stopped before considering a new airport and terminal.

An Opportunity to Rebuild

The volcanic mayhem for Montserrat finally ended in 1999 and the island started to rebuild, taking priority on rebuilding people and important government structures while leaving transportation to simply boat or helicopter service to nearby islands. During this time, the government folded the country’s carrier Montserrat Airways as the airline had no fleet and no aircraft to operate with. As a result, the sole operator of flights to Montserrat was Carib Aviation with helicopter service to Antigua.

Plans for a new airport were presented in 2003 after the European Union and United Kingdom provided funds for the island to built a new airfield in the remaining “safe zone” of the island. After relocating a few families, construction started on a new $18.5 million airport for the island located in the center of the “safe zone”, well clear of the destructive path of the Soufriere Hills. Construction took nearly two years and on July 11, 2005, Montserrat was officially open to fixed wing aircraft again.

The new John A. Osborne Airport was drastically smaller than the old W.H. Bramble Airport, with the runway now only being 1,814 feet long and the terminal being half the size of the old terminal, but it reconnected Montserrat with the world. Of the five carriers that serviced the island before the eruption, two returned with Winair offering flights to St. Maarten and Antigua and Carib Aviation offering flights to Antigua. The three that didn’t return were Montserrat Airways, LIAT, who codeshared with Carib Aviation for flights to Montserrat, and American Airlines, who had been reeling from the effects of September 11, 2001. Montserrat’s carrier returned in 2006 with Trans Anguilla Airways creating a Montserrat branch called Air Montserrat and offering four daily flights to Antigua with a Britten Norman Islander aircraft.

Declining Route Map to Montserrat

Although the airport was able to maintain traffic numbers through the early 2000s, problems arose around 2006. Trans Anguilla Airways’ bold strategy for creating Air Montserrat backfired, and the carrier flew its last flight just one year after starting operations. Service to Montserrat was further impacted in 2008 when Carib Aviation was forced to close it doors due to a pilot shortage. Carib Aviation’s closure forced LIAT to also suspend operations at Montserrat with their fleet of Bombardier DHC-8s being too large for the single runway, leaving the route abandoned.

As a response to the loss in flights, the government of Montserrat decided to create another government-backed carrier, with FlyMontserrat starting operations with a single Britten Norman Islander in 2009. Operations were once again affected in 2009 and 2010 with the Soufriere Hills burying more of the southern end of island in lava and lahar, including the remaining northern end of the W.H. Bramble Airport.

While the eruption didn’t effect anyone physically, Montserrat was once again tossed into uncertainty and tourists chose to avoid the unstable island. This severely affect the aviation scene of the island as Winair and FlyMontserrat saw traffic numbers plummet. Winair pulled the plug on their St. Maarten and Antigua flights on December 31, 2010 leaving FlyMontserrat as the only scheduled commercial carrier on the island.

New Hope

The island has seen a small return of passenger traffic thanks to the quieting of the Soufriere Hills. FlyMontserrat has expanded to create a small base in Antigua, and now offer flights from Antigua to Nevis and Barbuda. The airline’s fleet has tripled, and demand is high for the airline as flights are consistently booked in the peak seasons. While FlyMontserrat has seen better success in Antigua, the airline still tries to pay attention to their home turf as much as possible, with the daily schedule service to Antigua being accompanied with charter flights to 16 different airports in the Caribbean. John A. Osborne Airport has also seen some more success with the arrival of ABM Air, who now offer scheduled service to Antigua and charter flights to Barbuda. While the future of Montserrat is about as uncertain as the volcano that started the whole problem, the island will continue to open their doors to travelers thanks to the creation of FlyMontserrat and the John A. Osborne Airport.

Ian McMurtry

Ian McMurtry

Ian has been an avgeek since 2004 when he started spotting US Airways Express planes at Johnstown Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Wichita and enjoys spotting planes in Kansas City and Wichita as well as those flying at high altitudes over his home. He is a pilot with more than 40 hours of experience behind a Cessna 172, Diamond DA-20, and Piper PA-28. He flies Southwest Airlines on most of his domestic flights and Icelandair when flying to Europe. Ian’s route map spans from Iceland and Alaska in the north to St. Maarten in the south. He is a student at Wichita State University, where he will study aerospace and mechanical engineering.
Ian McMurtry
  • FlyMontserrat is running a full schedule right now. Since the island also lost its ferry service since April, FM (and SVG Air also services the island) are the only way in or out. The prices they quote for charters to other islands reflect this, meaning they’re really not providing that service at present. Winair has submitted a proposal to reinstate the SXM flights which would be highly popular, but the government is being very slow in responding.