Airport tackles overcrowding

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The recent overcrowding at the Owen Roberts International Airport has been caused by equipment failure, tight scheduling of flights to U.S. hubs and the airport’s passenger capacity, airport officials report. 

Andrew McLaughlin, acting CEO of the Cayman Islands Airports Authority, told the Caymanian Compass on Saturday, as lines snaked out of the terminal and onto the pavement outside, that some of the passenger backlog the airport had been experiencing in recent months was due, in part, to flights leaving Cayman for major U.S. airports around the same time, to make connecting flights at those hubs, as well as a broken X-ray machine. 

“One of the X-ray machines is down and parts have to come all the way from Germany, which takes time,” Mr. McLaughlin said.  

He added that tight scheduling of flights in order to meet schedules at U.S. hubs where passengers connect with flights to their final destinations meant “airlines here are trying to leave in the similar amount of time.” 

Flight delays were also exacerbating the overcrowding problem, he said. 

Just last week, Mr. McLaughlin said, the airport had a major delay when one plane had an issue in the cockpit.  

“That flight … would have left with 150 people. Those people were stuck in the departure [area] before they could get their plane,” he said. 

To try to deal with the overcrowding on weekends and other busy days, the Cayman Islands Airports Authority erected tents so departing passengers could have shade while they waited outside and are encouraging only passengers who are departing within 90 minutes to enter the departure lounge. 

On Saturday, hundreds of passengers departing the Cayman Islands formed long lines in front of check-in counters, spilling out onto the sidewalk, and snaking to the security screening checkpoint to gain access to the departure lounge.  

Standing in line for 40 minutes outside the airport entrance, traveler David Reece said he had been to Cayman several times but had never experienced anything like these lines.  

Jack Fornadley, traveling with his family to Pennsylvania, said it was very “nice to sit in the sun and listen to a band. We came to get the sun.” He and his family were sitting in an area with additional seating and a tent cover on the second floor, awaiting their flight. 

While he did not seem overly bothered about the wait and the overcrowding, he said having a spokesperson out front to tell travelers what they need to know might be helpful. 

Michelle Camazzola, traveling to Toronto with husband Dan and children Matteo and Callum, said, “We have traveled to other islands and it can’t be any worse than the Turks and Caicos airport. Even though the lines are long here, it is OK and it works for us. Compared to a lot of other Caribbean islands, it is much better.”  

Inside, the departure hall was packed to capacity and an additional tent with seating for up to 150 erected on the air-side, outside the departure hall, was also filled with travelers waiting on their final boarding call. 

Passenger Tim Galbraith, traveling in a party of 40 on a dive excursion, said, “It’s no big deal. We arrived three hours ago and joined the line before arriving here in the departure lounge.”  

Asked about his Cayman experience, Mr. Galbraith said, “The diving was phenomenal. I will definitely be back, despite the long lines. The hospitality is wonderful and the people very friendly.” 

The Airports Authority’s security staff are on overtime to ensure that security remains tight at the airport during times of overcrowding. 

“We have trained security staff on overtime to make sure that, in the case of any emergency, we can provide the same response as any other day. We practice to evacuate this whole building in less than five minutes. The Fire Service is also hand-in-hand in this emergency service,” Mr. McLaughlin said. 

Crowds may continue until June 

He anticipates that passengers may continue to see a crowded airport on busy days up until June. 

“It is going to be seasonal too. We did a good job with air service development. Some of the airlines that usually take a break project heavy crowds up until June. So from now until June, we are just going to keep guests happy while they wait,” he said. 

Staggering flight departure times so that several flights do not leave around the same time is not an option, Mr. McLaughlin said, as Cayman has no control over connection schedules at the U.S. hubs and all the authority here can do is try and accommodate those schedules. 

A redevelopment of the airport that includes expanding the size of the departure area would help deal with the crowds, but that is unlikely to happen this year, he said. 

“We are doing what they call emergency projects to increase their ability to handle these crowds, but the real redevelopment of the airport is over a year [away]. The board of directors have given the OK to extend the departure lounge to accommodate the temporary holding tent outside the departure lounge,” Mr. McLaughlin added. 

The arrivals area is also experiencing overcrowding. On Saturday, close to 200 passengers filled the immigration hall and an exterior roofed area outside the hall. 

As airport security allowed a certain number of people in at a given time, airport staff passed out water to travelers as steel pan music welcomed them to the Cayman Islands. 

Mr. McLaughlin said the passengers seemed to be enjoying themselves. “The kids and adults were even lying out on the grass, sunning,” he said. 

Tara Bodden, senior customs officer at the airport, said the process was been handled well. “We try to do the job as best as we can,” she said. “We provide professionalism and we train the officers to get the public out as quick as possible. Some people will complain because they do not know what is happening in front of them.” 

The growing popularity of the Cayman Islands as a vacation destination for stay-over visitors is one of the reasons the airport is packed on certain days during high season – which is not necessarily a bad thing, Mr. McLaughlin said. 

“We have more business now than this little terminal designed 25 years ago can handle,” he said. “I am sure that a lot of islands would like to have this problem …. Now, how do we handle it? With these new measures while we expand is going to determine how many of these passengers will be coming back.” 

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Travelers wait in the airport departure lounge for their flights. – PHOTO: JEWEL LEVY

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Photo: Jewel Levy

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Passengers form long lines in front of the airport entrance as they wait to go through airport security and enter the departures area. – Photo: Jewel Levy

1 COMMENT

  1. Nice looking crowd of people, and it seems as if the CIAA has things under control. When such things like this takes place, it is wonderful to have a local band playing to entertain people. In fact, one should be there all the time to entertain arriving passengers, just to give them a touch of island vibes. The most important thing is to assure the safety of all passengers, and make sure that everyone will want to return because of our hospitality. Trust me when I say, you have to travel elsewhere to other Western and Eastern Caribbean Island destinations to really appreciate the Cayman Islands. Welcome to Cayman and enjoy your stay.

  2. I definitely hate long lines and waits anywhere, but as nice a place as Grand Cayman is, I’ll always be back. The lines will improve and we’ll all be happy again. I can remember back in the early 80’s when it was all open air coming and going…no A/C. I like the band and tent idea. I can’t wait to get back again! Save me a spot on the beach.

  3. This is ridiculous. I’ve been bringing my family to Grand Cayman for 20 years. The crowding and lines on both arrival and departure were horrible this year. Something other than tents needs to happen or people will stop coming. The comment about people enjoying themselves is laughable and indicates a complete lack of understanding of the problem. We come to Cayman for the sun, but not to share it with hundreds of other people packed in areas with no services. Mr. McLaughlin, wake up and do your job!

  4. Soooooooooooo where is the airport expansion. This airport is pitiful. Passing out water and listening to a steel band play wont bring repeat passengers back. The departure hall is more like a holding tank. One place to purchase food, packed to the rafters with passengers, extremely limited toilet facilities. It can’t handle a normal travel day, let alone a day when an xray machine is not functioning because of arrival of German parts. Who was the genius to take the bid for German machines in the Cayman Islands. The cruise passenger numbers are way down. Now, let’s see if you can foul up stay over percentages as well

  5. This gross overcrowding is NOT new, it’s been going on for years and like the dump, nothing has been done to the infrastructure.
    The X ray machine was out of action when I left on Jan 22nd and had been for the previous week, so it’s now nearly 4 weeks!This means that half the passengers have to undergo a full hand search of all their carry on bags as I did, which causes considerable delay.Why can’t spare parts be kept in situ to avoid this debacle.
    There is one small food outlet to cater for hundreds. These facilities are unchanged from many years ago when passenger traffic was a fraction of what it is now.
    It’s no good having the Dept of Tourism boast of increased air arrivals when the airport can’t cope.
    Departure tax was increased many years ago specifically to raise funds for expansion of the airport- what has happened to all this money?.

  6. Roger I am agreeing with much of what you have said; however I do hope that everyone who is concerned in this fiasco is also reading peoples comments and suggestions.
    It is very frustrating when things has to get done, and people drag foot and say there is no money to spend.
    I wish those who can make things happen will stop just watching things happen. Anyone who wants to bite off my head for my next comments go ahead. But one thing I liked about McKeva Bush he was not afraid to spend money even if he spent too much. Remember, today is almost over, and tomorrow is promised to no man.

  7. You never get a second chance to make a first impression – the airport is our tourist flagship.

    Everything is looked at in isolation – there seems to be a lack of imagination and no holistic strategy.

    It seems obvious that there is not enough real estate available there.
    Build a new airport, in line with current international standards, in the middle of the island – direct flights from europe then become possible. Modern, Eco Friendly, Solar Powered, with modern ‘Jetway’ boarding bridges to the planes (A/C v.s. noon sun and 90 degree heat…). Plan in some room for future expansion and if you need 3 X-Ray machines install 5 to allow for planned maintenance and breakdowns. Ditto for customs and immigration kiosks.

    Link it to Georgetown with a modern Elevated Railway which could expand up seven mile beach and even to WB.
    Do you really want to get off a long haul flight and experience rush hour traffic…

    Old airport then becomes prime development real estate and georgetown experiences a renaissance.

    If cruise ship dock is needed add it on the rail route rather than in GT – some passengers will go to the capital, others the beach, camana bay, botanical park and other attractions.

    A link to the East End would enhance the Med Tourism experience as well as stimulating growth. A mass transit system would warm up the property market over the island – an hour long commute on a 22 mile island is absurd.

  8. There is an easy solution to part of the problem.

    We took my wife’s family to the airport for their Cayman Airways flight to New York on Saturday and the airport was mobbed.
    We left the following day, Sunday, and it was pretty quiet.

    So first of all, travelers would be smart to avoid Saturdays if possible.

    When I left Tampa a few days later I was pleasantly surprised to find my ticket was stamped TSA PRE-APPROVED and I was allowed to keep my laptop in my hand baggage, no need to remove liquids etc.

    Why can’t we do the same?

    There are many frequent travelers who are resident in the Cayman Islands. Why not give them trusted passenger status? People who have lived here for a number of years really don’t need to be treated like potential terrorists every time they fly.

  9. Andy, I like the idea of building a new centrally located airport but I’m not too keen about the railway. I’m concerned about how it would look, but I think that’s a mutt point anyway because we can’t can afford either. We may be able to get someone to finance a new airport because of the income potential, but I don’t see a need yet for a Railway when Buses could deal with the commute perhaps invest into electric or solar powered buses.

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