Port Authority Wants Rate Increase, Disability Advocates Want Jet Bridge

Airstairs are the bane of disability rights advocates, who want to get rid of “humiliating” lifts used to load wheelchair users onto jets. (Photo by Mat Probasco)

Virgin Islands Port Authority officials want to charge airlines $100 more to lift passengers onto planes if they are unable to use stairs. While passengers likely won’t notice the fee increase, disability rights leaders have long decried the territory’s reliance lifts as a workaround to airstairs.

Archie Jennings, director of advocacy at the Frederiksted-based Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands, said Wednesday that his organization had long petitioned the Port Authority to use jet bridges rather than the lifts.

“We’ve been asking for that since 2000,” Jennings said. “It’s been a long, hard battle asking each administration to move on it.”

Jet bridges are part of remodel plans for both the Cyril E. King and Henry E. Rohlsen airports, according to the Port Authority, but won’t be in place until at least 2026.

Angus Drigo, the center’s executive director, said three more years is too long when alternatives exist and could be put in place until the jet bridges are available.

“It’s a long ways away. It’s already a burden because you have to wait on the aircraft for them to get the lifts up to you. It’s inconvenient anyway,” Drigo said.

On St. Croix, Drigo said, a low-slope articulating ramp allows wheelchairs to navigate on and off via a series of switchbacks.

“I was pleased to see that but it was only being done on the front of the aircraft, not in the back. So if you have a disability and a seat in the back, you still have a problem,” he said. “I mean, those things are just very obvious for anybody who wants to pay attention. But it’s totally a travesty to be that way, putting you on a lift. That seems humiliating to me and degrading.”

Drigo said there is no shortage of people with disabilities wanting to visit the Virgin Islands. Likewise, local people with disabilities want to be mobile as well. It would be nearly impossible for someone in an electric wheelchair to fly between St. Croix and St. Thomas without first going to Miami or possibly Puerto Rico, he said.

The center has distributed a pamphlet listing airline and airport phone numbers, Drigo said.

Aside from the passenger lift rate increase requested, the Port Authority also wants to double parking fees in some cases.

The first 15 minutes would remain free for airport pick up and drop off, but from 16 minutes to an hour would increase from $2 to $4. Stays up to two hours and three hours would increase by $2, and up to 4 hours would increase from $8 to $12. Five-hour stays would go up from $10 to $15. More than five hours would be the same as a daily rate, which would double to $20, as would a lost ticket fee.

A public meeting on the fee increase proposal is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 23 at 6 p.m. in the VIPA Administrative Building at 8074 Lindbergh Bay, St. Thomas — and will be video-conferenced to the VIPA conference room on the second floor of the Rohlsen airport.