It’s official: Night landings on Dominica now are a reality, following the inaugural Winair flight from St. Lucia and the Liat Dash-8 flight from Antigua into Melville Hall Airport on Sept. 20.
For the small island of Dominica, wedged between Guadeloupe and Martinique in the eastern Caribbean, night landings are a very big deal that could change the landscape of this mountainous island, home to a boiling lake, an endangered parrot species and spectacular dive sites.
Until now, the airport on the island’s east coast shut down each night as dusk approached. The advent of flight arrivals as late as 10 p.m., a commonplace occurrence on many Caribbean islands, signals big benefits for the destination known as the Nature Island.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerritt heralded the event at an official ceremony after the two flights had touched down, saying that the improvement in air access "should reap positive spinoffs for Dominica’s business and the economy in general and for our travel and tourism sectors specifically."
For now, only small aircraft are allowed to land until 10 p.m. The airport is expected to receive clearance for larger aircraft within the next six months, according to the Dominica Air and Sea Port Authority.
What it means in the short run is that Dominica now offers same-day access for travelers from Europe and many U.S. gateways. Many travelers who arrived in the Caribbean in mid-afternoon had to overnight in Antigua, St. Maarten, Barbados or San Juan before connecting to a flight to Dominica the following day.
Dominica has held off on night landings for a number of reasons: Initially there was not enough electricity to power the airport after dark; night navigation instruments had to be installed for landings; and air traffic controllers had to be trained.
The move to night landings has not been stress-free.
Discussions surrounding the project, which include airport expansions and upgrades, originally commenced in 2003. Night landings were slated to begin last year, but stalled.
Rayburn Blackmoore, aviation minister, said that not having an airport capable of handling night landings had impeded the country’s development for "far too long."
"Now is the time to embrace this opportunity to demonstrate that we as Dominicans have what it takes to move this country forward," Blackmoore said.
Colin Piper, director of tourism, said that he hopes Liat, Winair and American Eagle will include Dominica in their flight schedules for the winter season, now that night landings are offered.
"This has the potential to significantly increase our numbers. Our visitor numbers are up 7.6% this year, and I see them climbing higher with this new incentive," Piper said.
Funding for the $120 million airport project came from the European Union and Venezuela under a program called Air Access Improvement.
The funding was used for certification requirements to bring the airport up to international safety standards for night landings that included new navigational equipment, additional training for controllers, runway lengthening, the installation of lights, and a new terminal building and customs/immigration hall.