Premier McKeeva Bush has said the Cayman Islands Airports Authority is moving ahead with plans to triple the size of Owen Roberts International Airport in an effort to help bolster the sagging national economy.
Terminal refurbishments, a runway extension and increased taxiway capacity have long been sought after as necessary improvement projects for the Cayman Islands’ flagship international airport. But the recent economic downturn — including three consecutive years of shrinking gross domestic product in the Cayman Islands — has led government to reevaluate its public sector spending projects, especially those with significant cost.
However, while offering opening remarks Monday at the Airports Conference of the Americas at Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort, Mr. Bush — though short on specifics — said expansion plans that have been on the books since 2007 as part of a master development plan for Owen Roberts are set to begin shortly at the aging, government-run facility in Grand Cayman.
“For the Cayman Islands, this conference is undoubtedly timed just right, and lessons learned here will be put to good use at our airports, notably here on Grand Cayman,” Mr. Bush said. “That is because the Owen Roberts facility is shortly embarking on a long-awaited and planned expansion that will triple the size of the current structure.
“Refurbishment of the airport has been ongoing in a piecemeal fashion in order to tackle the most urgently required minor changes,” the premier said. “But I’m pleased to say that CIAA is finally poised to embark on the bulk of planned changes, which have been in the pipeline since 2007.”
While some work has been completed in recent years, including new roads to help ease traffic flow around the airport, additional upgrades have been placed on the back burner as government funding has proved increasingly scarce.
Details regarding the largest and most expensive expansion priorities at Owen Roberts — namely renovations to the passenger terminal, extending the runway to allow for larger, fully-loaded aircraft and increasing taxiway capacity to suit additional plane traffic — have not been released.
No date has been announced for work to begin. Nor have details been released concerning cost projections, financing arrangements or the selection of construction contractors.
Jeremy Jackson, chief executive officer of the Cayman Islands Airports Authority, the statutory authority that owns and operates both Owen Roberts and Gerrard-Smith International Airport on Sister Island Cayman Brac, acknowledged Monday that negotiations are continuing in an effort to facilitate the necessary components to bring about expansion, but pertinent details still need to be addressed. Mr. Jackson said nothing has been finalised.
“The CIAA is not able to comment further on the airport redevelopment project at this time,” Mr. Jackson said. “However, there will be an official statement in this regard in the near future.”
Before the economic downturn, the CIAA commissioned a consultant group to issue a growth plan for Owen Roberts to help ensure the 330-acre facility that serves as the primary gateway between the Cayman Islands and the global economy meets the changing demand from international business travellers and tourists. A series of plans featuring short-, mid- and long-term development goals were published in 2007 with an estimated price tag totalling roughly CI$158 million.
By far the most expensive undertaking involves the various phases of updating the two-story, roughly 85,000 square feet passenger terminal, which also houses the departure check-in stations, security checkpoints, airline offices, luggage processing, and immigration and customs operations. But equally important are the logistical flight-side actions suggested in the master plan, including lengthening the 7,000-foot runway, relocating and developing new hangar facilities, increasing taxiway space and improving the capacity for general aviation.
But at a time when economic activity continues its downward trend — the national economy contracted a further 4 per cent last year after falling 7 per cent in 2009, according to Economic and Statistics Office figures — securing financing for projects that have traditionally fallen under government auspices is proving increasingly difficult. The CIAA is projected to earn a slight profit this year, according to government’s current budget analysis, but while that may be enough to finance smaller, mostly cosmetic renovations, large-scale undertakings such as those suggested in the master plan appear out of reach unless another source of funding materialises.
Nevertheless, Mr. Bush touted airport development on Monday as vital to the future economy of the Cayman Islands. After all, tourism — including the coveted overnight stay sector — was one of the bright spots in the recent Economic and Statistics Office report as the local industry grew more than 5 per cent last year, including a 6 per cent jump in air arrivals.
To foster a healthy level of economic growth, increasing capacity at Owen Roberts through refurbishments and renovations will be one of the necessary infrastructure upgrades to help meet future demand, the premier said.
“They will allow newer and bigger jets to fly into Grand Cayman, spurring air passenger growth from the current 950,000 annually to a projected 1.25 million a year,” Mr. Bush said. “The changes will also improve passenger amenities, enhance baggage handling capabilities and increase the welcoming atmosphere for passengers.”