March 17, 2003 – Senators arriving from St. Thomas soon will have only to walk across the street to the Legislature Building on St. Croix, thanks to a decision on Monday by the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee.
The committee on Monday approved a Coastal Zone Management permit that will allow Seaborne Airlines to provide seaplane service between Charlotte Amalie and the Frederiksted pier. The action does not require the full Legislature's approval, senators said.
Seaborne representatives appeared before the committee on Monday morning to provide details on the plan and to lobby for approval of the CZM permit.
"There is possibly a very lucrative market in Frederiksted," Maurice Kurg, management adviser and former chief executive officer at Seaborne, said. The high volume of government employees traveling between the islands makes the new service feasible, he said.
A ticketing office will be opened in an old Tourism Department building adjacent to the Ann Abramson Pier, he said, and Seaborne will install a 25-foot long floating dock where passengers will emplane and deplane, similar to the one used in Christiansted.
Sen. Roosevelt David said he was "very concerned" that the company will not be required to pay fees for using 1,000 square feet of submerged land beneath the floating dock.
The V.I. Code states that the fees are not assessed for land used for public purposes, which Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett, a lawyer, interpreted to include Seaborne. Constance Krieger, legislative chief counsel, disagreed with that interpretation, but she termed the discrepancy a technicality and left the fee decision up to DPNR.
David asked whether the company would be able to lower its fares in Frederiksted because it won't have to pay those fees.
Kurg replied that Seaborne would likely offer incentives to bolster ridership at Frederiksted for the first few months, but the venture "couldn't go ahead on discounted rates."
He noted that Seaborne would still pay to lease the site and would be responsible for per-head passenger fees assessed by the Port Authority.
"I wouldn't want anybody to think our company is profitable," Kurg said. "We are struggling at this point."
The impact of rising aviation fuel prices — which have more than doubled over the last three years — has been compounded by a "trickle-down" effect of the problems facing the major airlines since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Kurg said, and these factors continue to hurt Seaborne. "We have survived by the skin of our teeth, and we're still trying to recover," he said.
With Hovensa on St. Croix, "we get a bit of a break" on fuel costs, he said, "but the relative increase has been the same."
The new dock will have little if any effect on marine life under the pier and could likely serve as a nursery area for fish, Plaskett said. Kurg said the company will not take on fuel at the facility, and only two to four small holes will be drilled in the ocean floor to anchor the platform.
Seaborne, Kurg said, could have the Frederiksted operation up and running in 90 to 120 days. That could be welcome news for V.I. commuters, as American Airlines announced on Monday that American Eagle as of May 1 will no longer fly between St. Thomas and St. Croix, in part because of a recent 25 percent hike in Port Authority airport landing and passenger fees. (See "American Eagle axing St. Thomas-St. Croix links".)
It is unclear whether Seaborne can absorb all the traffic now handled by American Eagle. The company flies three seaplanes daily, Kurg said, and adds a fourth on busy days. A fifth plane is undergoing repairs, he said, and the company may add another later in the year.
"We'll take up any slack we can," Kurg said. "The only thing that keeps us from operating 10 airplanes instead of five is cash."
Of Seaborne's 97 employees, 84 percent are locals, Kurg testified. The new dock will employ five more people.
The permit was approved unanimously. Committee members present were the chair, Sen. Louis Hill, and Sens. David, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Carlton Dowe, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Ronald Russell. Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was excused.

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