Airport expansion still on the cards

The long-planned expansion of Owen Roberts International Airport is back on the agenda following remarks by Premier McKeeva Bush.

At the Fidelity Cayman Business Outlook conference on 20 January, Mr. Bush had announced that there was interest, possibly from a Chinese investment group, in becoming involved in the renovation project as well as enhancements to Gerrard-Smith Airport on Cayman Brac.

The project had first been mooted in 2005 and was originally due to begin during 2009 but stalled due to the downturn of the world economy. It was scheduled to be complete by June 2010 and included a tripling of size to the terminal building.

Owen Roberts International serves around 950,000 passengers annually – both in and out of the airport – and the expanded facility was designed to facilitate and process 1.25 million passengers each year. This was based on an anticipated increase in passengers over the next 20 years and the design was intended to remain adaptable to growth or change beyond those two decades.

First part of the three-phase project was to include expansion of the ticket hall, a construction of a domestic service passenger area and new immigration and baggage reclaim areas. That would be achieved in part by extending the current main terminal east and west plus building a second floor. The second phase would include construction of boarding bridge connections and a meet and greet hall at the front of the building.

During the second phase, international departures and concession areas would be built. Finally, interior spaces would be renovated in phase three. All was intended to be built while the airport remained fully operational. The tarmac would also be expanded to accommodate three additional parking slots.

However, in November 2008 the tendering process was put on hold due to the need to negotiate financing arrangements. The government is seeking a public-private partnership with the investors ultimately returning on their investment through levies yet to be determined.

“The Airports Authority will embark on major redevelopment projects during the next three years to enhance airport services and facilities, as well as safety and security,” says Jeremy L. Jackson, chief executive officer of the Cayman Islands Airport Authority. “The CIAA’s Vision is to bring excellence to all levels of your airport experience and we remain committed to delivering a high level of customer service to all airport users.
“Significant strides have already been made to enhance the facilities at ORIA over the past few years and we are confident that the continuation of our expansion programme and customer service initiatives will ensure that the airport is ready to meet the future challenges of the aviation industry,” he said.

The CIAA has already carried out the construction of new staff, short and long term parking lots and roadways, which have enhanced the traffic flow at ORIA.

Efficiency tweaks
In the interim, there have been steps taken to tweak the airport’s efficiency in order to create more space for security screening, two souvenir stores were moved to new curbside locations from their original position next to security, which has eased a certain amount of pressure on queues during busy times.

An extension to the runway has long been discussed because at its current length of 7,018 feet it restricts the size of planes that can land and take off safely. This is seen by some in the tourist industry as affecting possibilities of long-haul carriers such as Virgin directly operating flights from Europe. Because there is no full-length taxiway, there is wear and tear to the runway and that also diminishes capacity because it takes longer to turn flights around.

However, amidst the economic downturn, British Airways chief executive officer Willie Walsh counseled that he felt Cayman was already adequately served by the 767 service via Nassau, regardless of runway length.
And while the company was always pleased to see investment in infrastructure, bigger planes would only come to Cayman should the market demand it. Presently, that was not the case, he noted.

Mr. Walsh went on to say that demand for affordable connectivity was paramount and widespread and that any infrastructural improvements would have to be handled with one eye on the balance sheet. “Airports need to invest wisely and ensure that investments in infrastructure do not lead to significant increases in costs, because those increases will just cause people to move away [from a destination],” he told reporters in 2010.

Mr. Walsh said that it was essential that there was an understanding of how capital investments would subsequently factor into airport charges.

The options for runway extension include expanding over the cricket pitch, which would have implication for the road system, or extending into the North Sound, which would require significant amounts of fill and may have environmental impacts in the area. The latter option was recommended in a 2004 Master Plan report (revised 2007), which was prepared for the Cayman Islands Airports Authority.

Many say extended the runway and improving the airport are vital to attracting businesses like Dr. Shetty’s anticipated hospital for medical tourism and the touted Cayman Enterprise City.

Tim Ridley, former Maples and Calder partner and former chairman of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority, is one of those. “The airport terminal now needs urgent upgrading and is looking increasingly tired and overcrowded at peak times,” says Ridley.

Huw Moses, managing partner of the law firm Appleby, also sees the airport as something that needs attention.“I would certainly encourage investment at the airport to create modern gates and terminal facilities,” he says. “First impressions count and whilst the number of clients visiting the island are few relatively to our overall client base, the airport facilities do currently not portray Cayman well.”

The extension of the airport’s runway to accommodate long-haul flights from Europe and elsewhere is seen as important to the success of Cayman Enterprise City. “Despite a variety of challenges, the Cayman Islands Airports Authority and other stakeholders are keenly focused on the long-term sustainability of the Islands’ airports and I believe that attracting new markets, especially Europe is key,” says Jason Blick, CEO of Cayman Enterprise City.