New plane due to come into service this month
The newest addition to the Cayman Airways fleet, a 34-seat Saab prop plane, made its inaugural flight to the Brac Friday with two Caymanians at the controls in the pilot and co-pilot seats.
It’s not quite ready for prime time as the pilots and the airline still have to finish training on the plane, but the crew members now have their first official flight to the Brac under their belts.
Airline officials say the new Saab will be phased into active service through the end of November.
The Saab 340B+ will replace the aging Embraer E120 as the dedicated plane serving the Brac from Grand Cayman. The late-1990s plane has been on the ground at Owen Roberts International Airport since it arrived in August as the airline has worked to get its pilots and crew licensed as certified to start flying the new plane.
Government ministers and CAL officials joined Brackers on Friday morning to greet the long-awaited Saab. Offering the prayer before a ceremony alongside the tarmac at the Brac airport, the Speaker of the House and Sister Islands MLA Juliana O’Connor-Connolly said of the plane, “For us that live on the Brac, it is a lifeline.”
The plane made a flyby at the airport before looping around and coming in for a landing, the Cayman Islands flag freshly painted on the tail an easy sight to spot for the schoolchildren and others gathered to welcome the upgraded aircraft.
It pulled onto the tarmac under a water cannon salute from the airport fire department, christening the plane on its first arrival to what will be its official home base.
Cayman Airways CEO Fabian Whorms, speaking on the podium in front of the plane, acknowledged the delays, “I know it seems like it’s taken a while to get the aircraft into service.” He said the work to ready the plane and its crew is six weeks behind, “not the three months like the newspapers would have it.”
“These two aircraft are night and day,” Mr. Whorms said, comparing the new Saab to the current 30-seat Embraer. The seats are wider, there is more room in the overhead bins and for cargo, and it has a noise and vibration control system, he said.
Mr. Whorms said the airline plans to buy a second Saab to boost service and have a backup for when the new plane needs maintenance. Once the CAL employees are certified for the Saab, he said, they will not have to go through the lengthy regulatory process again, so bringing a second plane of the same model will be a much faster process.
“It makes sense to have a backup,” he said. In the interim he noted the airline will work out a deal to have a small Twin Otter available when needed through Turks and Caicos-based InterCaribbean Airways.
The ceremony, Mr. Whorms said, almost did not happen Friday and the final checks went down to the wire, confirming only hours before that the pilots had the green light to fly the Saab over to its permanent home base.
The Saab was not the only CAL flight delayed that day. Government and airline officials, along with members of the press and other passengers going to the Brac, were left waiting in the airport after Cayman Airlines had to cancel the flight because the Embraer was grounded at the last minute.
Once the dignitaries arrived, the mood was jovial as Premier Alden McLaughlin, Tourism Minister and Brac MLA Moses Kirkconnell and Mr. Whorms took turns at the podium joking about the down-to-the-wire green light for the day’s celebration to go ahead.
Mr. Kirkconnell said arrivals at the airport had increased by 20 percent with the added capacity and upgraded airport. The new plane, more flights and upgraded airport, the minister said, “is the starting point” for economic growth in the Sister Islands, bringing more tourists and filling beds in the islands’ resorts.
The new plane was built in the 1990s, Mr. Whorms said, and was in service with Delta and Northwest in the United States, along with a couple of years with Vincent Aviation in Australia, before Cayman Airways leased the plane. According to U.S. flight data, the plane made its first flight June 17, 1997.
Mr. Whorms said the plane is designed for 90,000 flights, and so far it has recorded about a third of that. He said the plane should have another 25 years of service ahead of it.