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.”