Set to open by Jan. 5 — not in time for Boxing Day, but just in time for the start of Cayman’s busy tourist season — the pre-built structure will increase the area of the airport’s notoriously congested departure lounge by a blessed 3,600 square feet. The new extension will allow for the accommodation of 229 more passengers, create three new departure gates, and (the importance of which is not to be underestimated) add to the departure area’s bathroom inventory.
The current departure lounge has a maximum legal capacity of 556 people at any one time, a figure the new extension will increase by a significant 40 percent.
All in all, the solution, although it is a temporary one, is well worth the $300,000 investment by government — especially considered in the context of the government’s grand vision of redeveloping all three of Cayman’s airports, a major series of projects requiring the investment of some $90 million over the next 20 years.
Cayman Islands Airports Authority CEO Albert Anderson said, “While it is not the perfect solution, at this time, it is a great temporary solution until we can fulfill our longer term goal.”
We agree. The routine, but extreme, overcrowding of Owen Roberts, particularly on Saturdays, is one symptom of the larger problem: Grand Cayman needs a bigger, more modern airport. While the temporary extension won’t go to the root of the issue, it should alleviate the immediate pain and discomfort currently suffered by hordes of outbound passengers.
So-called “Band-aid solutions” aren’t necessarily bad, as long as they are cost-effective and recognized as temporary fixes. In this case, the Owen Roberts extension appears to meet both criteria.
In the meantime, the Airports Authority is still pursuing the major redevelopment of Owen Roberts, which is operating at double its intended capacity of 500,000 passengers per year. The last we heard, officials were well into the process of procuring and selecting contractors and were still on track to begin construction next summer. The expansion, which would include a new terminal building and extended runway, could take up to three years to complete.
The good news is the Owen Roberts expansion effort is being driven by steadily growing numbers of stay-over visitors to Grand Cayman, meaning the government’s policies are being guided by market forces — not the other way around.
The overall airport expansion is a project the government is rightly pursuing in earnest, although it must explain how it is going to finance the project while adhering to the constraints on borrowing contained within the Framework for Fiscal Responsibility.
In light of U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday of the resumption of diplomatic relations between America and Cuba, the obvious wild card now looming over any discussion of long-term Cayman tourism is our communist neighbor to the north and how the opening up of Cuba might impact, or overwhelm, Cayman as a Caribbean tourist destination. Time will tell if that wild card turns out to be a trump or a deuce.
For the time being, however, Cayman officials’ decision to expand temporarily the Owen Roberts departure area should be lauded as the correct one, and will certainly be greeted with welcome relief by Cayman’s travelers in the new year.