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An Air Caraibes ATR 72-500. (Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)])

Rebuilding The Princess Juliana Alternative: L’Espérance Airport

Quietly tucked on the French side of the dual-country island of Saint Martin, the L’Espérance Airport is far from the landmark that its cross-island neighbor Princess Juliana International Airport has become. While it can’t boast widebody aircraft flying mere feet above, the airport still plays a key to the French side of the island and much like its Dutch counterpart, is looking to make a comeback following the fallout of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The small French airfield is located one mile east of the city of Grand Case and provides travelers with easy access to the island’s northern resorts including the Grand Case Beach Club and Anse Marcel Beach Resort. Giving life to the airport is the lone 3,937-foot Runway 30/12 that takes advantage of the topography and has planes land from either the Baie de Grand Case side for Runway 12 or from the Orient Bay side for Runway 30, avoiding the elevated terrain on either side of the airport.

Located on a small peninsula with the nearby Lake Salines and towns of Grand Case and Hope Estate boarding the airport, the airport minimizes space as much as it can. The small airfield does not come with any taxiways running parallel to the runway, as most airports have to avoid using the runway as a taxiway; its two lone taxiways run perpendicular to the runway and provide immediate access to the ramp.

Due to its landlocked nature, more so than its Dutch counterpart, L’Espérance Airport was critical in the days following Hurricane Irma. The airport received minor damage but was functional within days of the storm passing, allowing emergency supplies to be flown to the island and anyone who wanted to leave the island a chance to board a commercial or relief flight.

In the years following Irma, the airport’s operator EDEIS finished a renovation project that was previously started before the storm hit. A modernization was provided to the aging terminal that would see the pastel-painted structure repainted and improved.

The airport would also construct a new hangar east of the airfield for line maintenance and overhaul the airport’s air traffic control tower and fire station. The firm also extended the concrete parking pad on the east end of the airfield to create additional space for general aviation.

The small size of the airport and lack of French border police means the airfield is limited on the types of aircraft that can utilize it and destinations available to passengers. The airport is currently served by Air Caraїbes and Air Antilles, which operate near mirror flights to Port-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe at around 9:30 a.m., 3:00 p.m., and 5:45 p.m.

Both airlines use the ATR 72 for the flights between the two French territories with Air Antilles using the ATR 72-600 and Air Caraїbes using its ATR 72-500s. Due to size restrictions, Air Caraїbes also has a presence at Princess Juliana International Airport for its widebody flights to Paris while Air Antilles only serves the French side of the island.

Besides the two airlines with service to Guadeloupe, L’Espérance Airport has service to the similarly French island of St. Barthélemy via the airline St. Barth Commuter. The airline operates four flights between the two airports using Cessna 208 Grand Caravans.

With the fallout of Hurricane Irma and the lack of airline service to the island, the airport at Grand Case saw passenger numbers for the 2018 season fall 13.8 percent from 222,294 to 192,285. EDEIS’ goal for the airport is to consistently achieve 200,000 passengers per year, which was being met until the last year.

The airport, however, expects that as the island recovers, so will the passenger count. Even with foot traffic of 192,285 people, L’Espérance is the 11th busiest airport in France’s overseas territories and the 46th busiest French airport overall.

In the short term, the airport is still working through the fallout that 2017 left on the island and the slowly rebuilding French side plays a factor in the flying public. The airfield’s plan of 200,000 passengers per year is still obtainable and allows itself to remain a factor in the island’s airline offerings, even if a majority of the tourists will continue to be drawn into using and spending time at the more photogenic Princess Juliana International Airport.

Ian McMurtry
Ian McMurtry
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