Long airport lines irk passengers

Outgoing weekend flights cause terminal congestion

Owen Roberts International Airport

People are shown waiting in lines at the Owen Roberts International Airport last year. Photo: File

It would appear enough people have complained long and loud enough about airport congestion to get action.

Cayman Airways’ Acting CEO Fabian Whorms agrees with those complaining about the long weekend lines that leave residents fuming and visitors disgruntled.

The problem stems from a lack of staffing and the bulk of flights that use the airport between 11am and 4pm, especially on Saturdays.

‘We are evaluating which of our flights can be timed differently while still allowing visitors the benefit of good connections to and from other airlines,’ he said.

Deputy Chief Immigration Officer with responsibility for Border Control and Enforcement Bruce Smith said the Government is looking to remedy the congestion problem, but he can’t promise that things will get better any time soon.

‘I won’t make any promises that waiting will not continue with the upcoming season…I believe it would be safe to say that persons will continue to experience periods of long lines.’

CEO of the Cayman Islands Airports Authority Jeremy Jackson said his staff is working with Immigration, security, the Ministry and Department of Tourism as well as airline representatives to address concerns and seek a resolution.

Those who lodged formal complaints whinged about waiting in line for one and a half hours to get from the airline check-in desk to the gate.

The congestion seems to come at the security and immigration lines.

On Saturdays, between 11.35am and 3.35pm there are around 11 international flights and one Cayman Brac flight departing.

‘We are optimistic that together with tourism stakeholders, significant improvements will be made to the passenger experience at the airport in time for the upcoming busy season,’ said Mr. Whorms.

‘The Airport Operators Committee, chaired by Mr. Marcus Cumber of Island Air, has given an undertaking that airlines will again be asked to review their flight schedules in an effort to prevent the obvious impact they are having on airport operations which is seriously inhibited by the physical limitations of the terminal building and its capacity to accommodate the significant numbers of passengers that ultimately have to be processed for these flights,’ Caren Thompson-Palacio, communications and marketing manager with the Authority, said.

Mr. Smith said the reduction in operating expenses plus the hiring freeze on Government departments has caused vacant Immigration officer posts.

Mr. Smith said he made representation to the airport users in February, letting them know staff cuts were coming.

‘It is much easier for departments who only have one function but we have the dual function (arrivals and exits) and three or four Immigration officers was what we told them that we would have to reduce our numbers down to . . .,’ Mr. Smith said.

The figure for vacant posts for Immigration officers at border control is 20 – for ports, airports, the general aviation terminal and headquarters.

Requests have been made to have additional Immigration officers.

‘I must comment here that I am well pleased with my border control staff,’ said Mr. Smith.

Mr. Jackson said that when the CIAA learned that Immigration would reduce the number of officers at the airport, it addressed the issue of passenger comfort and dissatisfaction that would inevitably occur.

‘This concern was also highlighted to Immigration by the Department of Tourism and airline representatives. Immigration officials advised that they would be exploring alternate methods to enhance efficiency and reduce passenger wait times,’ he said.

He said the Authority will continue to have dialogue with Immigration to help identify and implement measures to prevent the congestion between the security check in and Immigration.

Mr. Smith said that being at the end of the departure process puts Immigration in the line of fire where complaints are concerned.

‘If a person only has 10 minutes left after clearing outgoing security, that 10 minutes then is taken up clearing Immigration,’ he said.

Mr. Smith emphasised that passengers need to give themselves enough time for the departure process.

‘The hotels need to play a role in this. The hotels need to do a lot of PR to their guests saying that there’s a process that’s universal where you need to be at the airport two to three hours before departure. The tourist boards need to communicate this as well. This could probably be educated in our in-flight magazines and tourist brochures,’ he said.

Terminal Facilities

‘The Authority recognises that the current terminal facilities are severely congested and uncomfortable and does not facilitate a good experience for passengers or for airport personnel, many of whom also work under cramped and inefficient conditions.

‘A significant overhaul of the facility is essential in order to facilitate the modernisation of the terminal which will greatly enhance operational safety, security and efficiency,’ Ms Thompson-Palacio said.

When the terminal building opened in 1984 it was capable of handling up to 500,000 passengers per year. Passenger load is now in excess of 900,000.

Airport’s Future

At a recent post-cabinet press briefing, Leader of Government Business McKeeva Bush said he was hoping to set up an extra committee that will deal specifically with whether a new, bigger airport should be built.

‘We will sit down with the Airports Authority to discuss that, but as I said a long time ago, the Government has to balance this.

‘Can we build a new airport where we are and continue to have the approach that we have, which we know is not the right one now, as George Town expands? Can we build that airport for $80 odd million or $100 million that will only last 10 or 13 years? We know that we have been told by ECLAC [European Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean]; that the airport should be moved for safety and for national strategy.’