KINGSTON - Guyana’s hinterland aerodromes are slated for major upgrades as the Ministry of Public Infrastructure (MPI) begins the process of establishing a remote monitoring operation known as the Aerodrome Management System (AMS).

This system, which will allow the monitoring of aerodromes across the country without physically being present at the airstrips, is expected to follow the Ministry’s latest project, the Hinterland Aerodrome Development Policy.

The project entails four areas; these are, the development of a policy to address hinterland aerodromes and airstrips; the development of an administrative framework; the addressing of maintenance issues; and the sustainability of the airstrips.

The project was recently embarked upon and will see MPI officials visiting hinterland communities to not only physically assess the airstrips but to also receive input from the residents on the best way forward.

Most recently, the team visited the villages of Kato and Paramakatoi in Region #8 (Potaro-Siparuni) on Tuesday April 12, 2016 and Wednesday April 13, 2016. The airstrips in these communities are just two of more than a dozen that are slated for upgrade across the four hinterland regions of 1, 7, 8, and 9.

The six member team comprised of Saheed Sulaman, Director (ag) of Air Transport Management; Patrick Thompson, Chief Transport Planning Officer; Ryan Singh, Transport Planning Officer/Engineer; Jamall Blair, Transport Planning Technician; James Lindo, Surveyor; and Alain Sirius, Surveying Technician.

During its first stop in Kato, the team met with the Regional Executive Officer (REO), Rafael Downes; Deputy Regional Executive Officer (DREO), Gavin Gounga; and Regional Democratic Council (RDC) Member, Courtney Hardy. The deputy toshao of Kato was also present. The team also spent time surveying and assessing the Kato airstrip.

During discussions, REO Downes highlighted a number of issues with the Kato airstrip, including the lack of lighting facilities, potholes, poor maintenance, and the lack of fencing. He further suggested the introduction of a regulatory body to ultimately improve the service provided to the residents in far-flung communities, noting that there are sometimes cancellations with no warning. These cancellations, he said, greatly set back the community which heavily relies on planes arriving thrice a week.

“What we need here in Guyana is a regulatory body that would visit air services…if we are going to move forward so taxpayers can benefit, we have to have a regulatory body. This is especially important if we are to develop tourism in the hinterland,” Downes stressed.

He also called for greater communication between the Ministry of Public Infrastructure and those officials and residents in hinterland communities.

Similarly in Paramakatoi, residents and village council officials expressed concern at the safety of the airstrips. They noted that while the Paramakatoi airstrip was one which served the largest village in sub-region #1, it did not have lights at night. The residents emphasised that this shortcoming was both a threat and a deterrence to pilots. They added that it was particularly difficult in situations of emergencies, such as transporting a sick patient out of the community.

“These pilots are taking a risk to save someone’s life; the least we can do is let them see where they are going,” a resident stressed.

Residents also raised concerns on the maintenance of the airstrip as well as its length. According to the deputy toshao of Paramakatoi, an extension of the runway was long overdue. He added that while the village was willing to work along with persons from Georgetown, the village council would prefer more control over the airstrip’s management.

“Georgetown should not be dictating to us who must do this or who must do that,” he emphasised.

Instead, he said, the protocols and policies of the airstrip should be shared with the village council to allow for some level of autonomy and improved management.

Meanwhile, the residents admitted that they have been lax in some areas of the management of the airstrip, especially in regards to the presence of people and animals. While the airstrip had initially been completely fenced off, residents have, over the years, cut these fences and placed gates instead to create access to either side of the airstrip. Animals have also been able to enter the airstrip through these openings.

The residents explained that while they understood the prohibition of animals and people on the airstrip, the recent drought has made it difficult to access water on one side of Paramakatoi. Therefore, they said, they cross the airstrip each day to receive water from the other side.

The village council indicated its intention to address this issue. Sulaman in turn urged the residents to adhere to regulations as much as possible and warned them that the presence of obstacles on the airstrip could prove to be a deterrence to pilots landing in Paramakatoi.

 “An airstrip is an asset to a community; it serves as the economic livelihood of that community so, if air operators decide that they’re not coming here, you will ultimately suffer,” he emphasised.

Furthermore, Sulaman stressed that as part of the new pilot project, the Ministry will be focusing primarily on the maintenance and sustainability of the aerodromes.

In the coming weeks, the team will be visiting other hinterland airstrips for fact finding missions which will ultimately lead to the establishment of the AMS. According to Thompson, who has more than a decade of experience with the Ministry, the current system is complicated, with the use of traditional methods slowing down work.

“We want to collect data of the aerodromes we’re visiting and make a note of their deficiencies so, going forward, when we talk about upgrading the aerodromes, we’ll know exactly what needs to be done,” Thompson said.

Besides Kato and Paramakatoi, the other airstrips that will be assessed are: Baramita; Port Kaituma; Kamarang; Kaikan; Ekereku Bottom; Eterinbang; Bartica; Fairview; Surama; Karanambo; Annai; Lethem; Aishalton; and Mahdia.