It was a short flight for Southwest Airlines and a giant introduction to the Cayman Islands.
Owen Roberts International Airport welcomed a milestone Sunday, when the inaugural Southwest flight arrived from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The American carrier is the first new airline to begin service to Cayman since JetBlue in 2012, and it will be offering daily flights year-round from Fort Lauderdale.
Rosa Harris, director of tourism at the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, said the new airline service represents a “very long journey” that took years to reach completion. Now, said Ms. Harris, Cayman can start lining up even more clients for when the Owen Roberts expansion is completed in 2018.
“Our pursuit of airlines never stops,” she said. “More capacity will certainly help with customer service and the overall visitor experience. … Bigger airport, more people, more business is a great formula.”
The inaugural flight, which took just 91 minutes from takeoff to landing, was met with a bit of pomp and circumstance. After coming to a stop, the aircraft was doused with a celebratory spray from a fire truck’s water cannon, and a parade of dignitaries were the first to deplane after taxiing.
Anika Conolly, Miss Cayman Islands, was one of the first off the plane; she stood at the top of the jetway and greeted each of the passengers. A man in a pirate costume and a Batabano carnival dancer exited, followed by a parade of Southwest Airlines executives.
The pilot proudly hung an American flag and a Cayman flag out of the cockpit windows before deplaning, and the Southwest delegation exchanged gifts with representatives of the Cayman government.
“On behalf of the 55,000 employees of Southwest Airlines, I just wanted to say we’re incredibly excited to be in the Cayman Islands,” said Mark Shaw, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for Southwest. “We have looked forward to this for many, many years, and now that we’re here, it’s hard to believe. The Cayman Islands are our 10th country that we’re serving as we continue to expand. We serve around 100 million customers annually in the U.S., but I feel like the 140 or so that flew in here today are probably the luckiest. We’re very happy to be here.”
All but six of the 143 seats on the first flight were sold.
Mr. Shaw said Cayman will provide a fitting bookend for Cuba, which welcomed Southwest flights in December. Steven Swan, the airline’s director of international business management, said the newest market will be a boon for both parties.
“This is one of the most requested destinations we have that’s within range,” he said of Grand Cayman. “We’re very happy that we’re able to add this to the route map and offer service here to our customers back in the United States. And also, help people here actually go up to the U.S. and do some shopping.”
Stran Bodden, chief officer of the Cayman Islands Ministry of Tourism, said the timing of the Owen Roberts airport expansion meshes perfectly with more hotel rooms becoming available in Cayman.
“We have more and more rooms coming on stream,” he said. “We had the Kimpton [opening] last year in November; that was a real special day if everyone remembers. … We have the Margaritaville [resort] open now. We have more rooms that are being discussed every day, so it’s going to fit into a business model for Cayman and tourism that is just going to grow and grow and grow.”