Plans to begin expanding the runway at the Owen Roberts International Airport to allow long-haul flights into Grand Cayman are being pushed forward.
The runway extension had been left out of the original $55 million airport expansion plan.
Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said Wednesday that the growth in arrival figures and the pace of hotel development had provided the “trigger event” that convinced the government to put it back on the table.
A request for proposals will go out next month for work on an engineering study to figure out how the extension can be done and how much it will cost.
Previous studies, including a master plan for the development of all three airports produced in 2014, suggested the necessary extension would require either re-routing Crewe Road or building into the North Sound.
Government now says an extension to 7,700 feet can be achieved within the current site by “going to the fence.”
Mr. Kirkconnell said that additional 700 feet would open up potential new gateways in South and Central America, as well as on the West Coast of the United States.
He said it would also enable a Boeing 777-300 series, the plane that British Airways will operate on the London-Cayman route through the Bahamas, to fly direct to Owen Roberts International with an “80 percent payload” – that is, a full load of passengers with cargo restrictions.
He acknowledged that further extensions, across the road and into the cricket pitch may ultimately be necessary to secure direct flights from the U.K. and other far-flung destinations. He described the planned extension as an incremental step that would increase the number of gateway cities that the Cayman Islands could serve.
He suggested Cayman Airways could be used to open up new routes in the Americas region.
“This is an incremental step that makes a lot of sense to us right now because we can action it right now,” he said.
“There will be certain cities that can come here as you add 200 feet, 400 feet, 600 feet, as you add 1,000 feet.”
Citing the Kimpton Hotel, the Margaritaville development and Dart’s plans for another hotel on Seven Mile Beach, the minister said there was scope for more growth in tourism.
“With the Kimpton coming online, they are very interested in the pockets of wealth on the west coast. This extension gives us the ability to get flights in from LA, Calgary, Seattle.”
He said it also enabled flights from Sao Paolo, if the Department of Tourism chose to focus its strategy on South America.
Rosa Harris, director of the Department of Tourism, said a national tourism plan was in the works that would help identify which areas to target and how much growth the island could manage.
She said targeting new gateways through long-haul flights needs to be considered alongside planning for new infrastructure, hotel rooms, business and staff development for the industry.
Extending the runway even within the confines of the current airport site is not without complications.
Stran Bodden, the chief officer in the Ministry of Tourism, said the development would require filling in ponds that currently act as a drainage basin.
He said the cost and implications for stormwater management at the airport would not be clear until the engineering study and other technical work had been done.
The airports master plan, produced in 2014 as part of the business case for the airports development, looked at two scenarios for expanding the runway, estimating a cost of between $20 million and $40 million. However those options involved either re-routing the road for an extension to 8,000 feet or an incursion into the North Sound for an extension to 9,200 feet.
Mr. Bodden said newer model planes did not necessarily need the additional length and the extension to 7,700 feet would be sufficient to open up at least some new routes.