Top stories of 2015: Airport expansion in the works

The expansion at Owen Roberts International Airport, years in the making, got well under way in 2015. Government officials broke ground on the $55-million project in September. 

The project will expand the airport terminal from 77,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet, with new arrival and departure halls and a new baggage and bag screening area. The expansion, which airport officials hope will be completed in 2018, will preserve the familiar A-frame design and add enough capacity to keep pace with the increasing air arrivals. 

Premier Alden McLaughlin, speaking at the Sept. 10 ground-breaking, said air arrivals increased more than 10 percent in 2014 and he expects that number to continue to increase as new hotels open in the Cayman Islands. “Modern infrastructure is important to business,” he said. 

The existing airport was originally designed to carry about 500,000 people per year, Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said at the ground-breaking. But nowadays, he noted, the airport handles about twice that number of passengers on an annual basis. 

Steve Harrill, an architect on the project with U.S. firm RS&H, said that a million passengers a year is about the peak capacity for the existing airport. The new building, he said, will be able to comfortably handle 2.7 million passengers annually, and has enough room to meet the demands of 20-year estimates in passenger growth. 

Mr. Kirkconnell said improving the airport is important to continue attracting more visitors, which is one way to keep growing Cayman’s economy. 

“When people are satisfied and have a good experience, they come back,” he said. “For growth to be sustainable, it has to go hand in hand with infrastructure improvements.” 

Once completed, the new airport will triple the size of the public areas in the terminals. The arrival area will have a new air-conditioned space and a second conveyor belt for baggage. The expansion will also include more space for retail and food vendors. 

The expansion, based on the architect’s renderings, will be under a large curved roof, with the current A-frames figuring prominently in the design below. Designers with RS&H liken the new building to a green sea turtle. 

RS&H’s Christina Ghets, speaking to reporters in the spring, said the design is meant to “reflect the distinct character of the Cayman Islands.” The turtle-shell shaped roof, which she called “a very elegant shape,” is combined with the three A-frames to represent the three islands. 

The first phase, a $3.6 million project led by local construction company Arch & Godfrey, is the smallest part of the larger project. Crews are working on the first six-month contract to build a new facility for outbound bags, offices and some other operations that happen behind the scenes while passengers wait for their flights. 

Cayman Islands Airports Authority CEO Albert Anderson said at the ground-breaking that he expects the first phase to be done in March, and then bigger renovations to the main airport will begin. 

The second phase will include a new departure lounge, check-in area and expanding the building around the existing structure. 

Mr. Anderson said things could get a little confusing for passengers during the construction as they have to navigate through construction zones sealed off with temporary walls. He asked for understanding, saying the expansion will be “the catalyst for moving our airport from good to great.” 

One point of contention in the design process was the decision not to include jetways, also known as boarding bridges, which allow passengers to go directly from the plane to the terminal without walking out on the tarmac. 

Speaking in the spring, Mr. Anderson said, “Jetways are something we would like to do, but we simply cannot make them work within the budget we have.” 

“The estimated cost is CI$20.5 million for the jetways and the infrastructure that supports them, including elevators, escalators and the like,” he said. “This amounts to approximately 40 percent of our overall budget and they do not address the main issue we have, which is terminal congestion. They are also very costly to maintain.” 

Funding for the airport expansion comes from a $13 fee paid by each passenger passing through the airport, collected by the airline when someone buys a ticket. 

Governor Helen Kilpatrick, center, Premier Alden McLaughlin, fourth from left, and members of government and the private sector
Governor Helen Kilpatrick, center, Premier Alden McLaughlin, fourth from left, and members of government and the private sector involved in the airport expansion break ground at Owen Roberts International Airport on Sept. 10. – PHOTO: CHARLES DUNCAN