By Ian McMurtry
By Land or By Sea, the Lost Era of Paradise Island’s Airports
As the post-pandemic society craves for a vacation, one might notice that the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort will once again become that go-to international resort that Americans will turn to. As bookings already rise to over 90% occupancy, those flying to Paradise Island will default to the Lynden Pindling International Airport to get access to the island. However, in years previous, getting to the island resort was made much easier by the various iterations of the Paradise Island Airport.
Formed with the creation of the Atlantis, the Paradise Island Sea Base was quickly accessed by legendary Bahamian and Floridian carrier Chalk’s Ocean Airways, who flew to the sea base with Grumman Goose aircraft. Aircraft were instructed to land in Nassau Harbor and taxi onto land with a small concrete patch and hangar connecting the sea-operating aircraft with Paradise Beach Drive. Private seaplanes and helicopters had access to the pads, with enough room for limited aircraft storage for guests to the island. It was during this time that Chalk’s was bought by Merv Griffin’s Resorts International, who owned Paradise Island Resort and Casino, a resort on the opposite side of the island. Over time, Griffin’s would create massive plans for the tiny airport.
Under Merv’s leadership, a push in the last 1980s saw the construction of a new airfield for operations on the island. Resorts International would construct a 3,000-foot runway for land-based operations on the eastern side of the airport, conveniently positioning the airport closer to the Resorts International property but still remaining competitively close for Atlantis vacationers. The land-based airfield would take the name of the New Providence Airport and even have its own ICAO and IATA codes of PID and MYPI, respectively.
At the time, Chalk Ocean Airways’ project manager Bill Jones commented on the change, saying, “there is a demand for more seats and you can’t a seaplane on water at night.”
The launch of a new land airport in 1989 would come alongside the creation of a new airline to compliment the airfield. Using its own operating certificate and operated as a subsidiary of Chalk’s, Paradise Island Airlines would begin operations on March 24, 1989, to the namesake island.
Using a trio of De Havilland Dash 7s, the airline would prioritize flying to Florida, leaving Chalk’s to serve domestic routes to the airport. By this point, Chalk’s had upgraded its fleet of Grumman Goose to Grumman Mallards. The airline had been serving Paradise Island from North Bimini and Cat Cay with passenger totals reaching 127,000 flyers a year. Those numbers were expected to double with the introduction of the new airline and the ability to offer night flying. According to an article at the time, both carriers offer flat fares of roughly $125 round trip, approximately $271 today.
For the new airline, Paradise Island Airlines offering initial flights to Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, both on daily service. Further expansions in the latter years would see West Palm Beach and Orlando International added to try and expand the presence in the area. Codeshares and express operations would be made with US Air and Carnival Air Lines, both of which further attempted to increase Paradise Island’s reach.
Despite adding a De Havilland DHC-6 to the fleet, Paradise Island Airlines, the island itself and Chalk’s were troublesome for Resort International. By 1996, both airlines were spun off to American investors and the Paradise Island hotel property was flipped to Sun International as the company went through various issues including a Chapter 11 restructuring in 1994.
The airport and airlines continued to lumber through the mid-1990s with little success. The airlines were batted between investors ever two years with one even rebranding Chalk’s to Pan Am Air Bridge in an attempt to spark nostalgia with the American audience. The rebranded airline held steady on the flight schedule, maintaining operations of Chalk’s old Ft. Lauderdale-Miami (Seabase)-Bimini-New Providence flight.
Even as ownership changed, the story continued to slog on and spiral into an unescapable decline. Following just ten years of service, Paradise Island Airlines was terminated and the airport would close in favor of developing the property in private homes. Paradise Island Airlines ended operations before the end of 1999, leaving the now once again rebranded Chalk’s to take refuge back at the seabase it had used back in the 1970s and 1980s. Paradise Island’s fleet of DHC-7s would transfer to new homes at Gulfstream International Airlines and the operating certificate would be surrendered a few years later in 2003. While the DHC-7s were scrapped, the lone DHC-6 that the airline operated would find new homes and still operate today for Manta Air in the Maldives as 8Q-RAB.
In the years following the suspension of service, the airport would be broken down over time and redeveloped into an expansion for the Ocean Club Resort and Golf Course. Nothing remains of the old airfield, having since been replaced by vacation homes which are seen as prime real estate on the space-limited island.
Back at the seabase, Chalk’s would lumber on for five more years until the midflight breakup of Flight 101 off the coast of Miami would ground the airline in 2005. Chalk’s would attempt to get airborne again but a revoked certificate to operate and a financially failing carrier would combine to prevent the airline from gracing the skies again. Following the disappearance of the lone carrier, the island moved forward with disassembling the seabase but has yet to develop the old concrete pad into anything of economic value to the island.
The closure of the Paradise Island Seabase closed an over thirty-year history of aviation operations at the island. With options limited, air traffic since the end of the seabase has turned to the primary airport in Nassau, roughly 40 minutes from the resorts and homes that use to share space with the abandoned airfield. And while on-site nothing really leaves a trace of the old layouts, the ICAO and IATA airport codes still trace themselves back to New Providence Airport with no replacements being given the codes in the years afterward. But in the wake of losing Paradise Island’s airports, Nassau’s primary hub has continued to hold firm and grow, serving between 3.0 and 4.0 million passengers per year in the decade prior to COVID-19 and renovating the airport to allow for up to 5.0 million passengers a year if the demand is needed.