In the eye of the storm

In September 2017, hurricane Irma – the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded – tore through the Caribbean. It devastated the island of St Maarten, wiping out all communication links at Princess Juliana airport, the region's air traffic hub.

The Caribbean island of St Maarten is 33 square miles in size, and home to 70,000 people. The island is divided between Dutch and French sovereignty, and is a regional hub for business and tourism. And on 7th September 2017, it was struck by hurricane Irma, the strongest Atlantic storm ever recorded.

The island was completely devastated: power and water were cut, communications were wiped out and buildings – including the hospital and every single one of the island's schools – stripped of their roofs. Over half of the island's houses were left uninhabitable. By the time the hurricane passed, nine people had lost their lives and scores were injured. Eyewitnesses spoke of scenes that were 'like a nuclear bomb had gone off'.

St Maarten's Princess Juliana airport is world famous: its runway sits close to a beach, where sunbathers can feel the thrust of planes taking off and landing just a few feet over their heads. It's also one of the most important airports in the Eastern Caribbean: as well as handling flights to and from St Maarten, it also handles approach control for five other Caribbean airports. And like the rest of St Maarten, it was crippled by the hurricane: aeroplanes were strewn across the runway, the terminal building was badly damaged, and the air traffic control systems completely wiped out.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, islanders, government agencies and relief workers began the enormous task of restoring vital supplies, clearing the debris, and beginning to rebuild. Months, if not years, of work lies ahead. Most who saw the devastation had the same thought: how can we hel

For Thales, there was a very direct way to assist. In September 2017 Princess Juliana airport contacted the experts of Air Traffic Management (ATM) at Thales   and asked if they would be able to supply a temporary air traffic management system. For several weeks, the air traffic controllers had been doing an incredible job of keeping the airport running with just a basic radio system, but in order to fully reopen for commercial flights, a more comprehensive system was needed.

Thales were, of course, more than happy to help. But there was a challenge: ATMs are bulky and complex, and to deliver and install even a temporary system would take several weeks. A different solution was needed. So Thales pulled an emergency team together and after three days of brainstorming, they had an answer: a bespoke ATM that would give Princess Juliana core flight data processing, connect it to the international flight network and was small enough to pack into a few suitcases and deliver immediately.

End of October, three Thales experts in navigation automation were on the ground in St Maarten, installing the temporary system and training Princess Juliana's air traffic controllers on how to use it, enabling the airport to be operational.

One year after hurricane Irma struck the islands, Thales is going through the final phase of installation of the permanent and modern Air Traffic Management system. This will be instrumental in bringing back more airline traffic across the region's five other airports, as St Maarten and its neighboring islands recover from the damage caused by the hurricanes and once again start welcoming holidaymakers.

Thales is proud to have played a part in helping the residents of St Maarten as they get back on their feet after the devastation of hurricane Irma.