EDITORIAL – Another visit to the airport (and to our keyboard)

In publishing, as in travel, it sometimes makes sense to book a round trip. Last weekend’s smooth arrivals process at Owen Roberts International Airport calls for a “return trip” editorial on the issue of airport delays.

Nearly a week ago, the Compass called on airport officials to identify and, if possible, eliminate the cause of an unacceptable breakdown that forced passengers to endure sometimes hours-long waits on the tarmac before being processed through immigration and customs. Last Saturday, despite a similarly busy arrival schedule, disembarking passengers were swiftly ushered through those queues.

Frankly, we applaud what airport officials did – but we’re still somewhat perplexed about how they did it. It reminded us somewhat of a David Copperfield disappearing act: One weekend long lines, the next short lines. How do magicians, or airport officials, do that?

Our concerns about the long lines at the airport arrivals hall fall into three categories, two of them temporal and not overly concerning:

One, operational issues: The airport, because of lack of planning or simply because officials underestimated the volume of arrivals on Jan. 27, did not adequately staff its immigration checkpoints. If so, this would be easily remediable – simply increase staff levels to handle peak loads, and this may be exactly what happened this past weekend. Problem solved. But there is a “but.” Acting Immigration Chief Officer Bruce Smith told the Compass that during the “problem weekend,” immigration had staffed 11 of its 12 booths. We’re puzzled.

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Two, ongoing construction issues: Let’s be fair, the arrivals hall has just opened and as Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell has pointed out, it is still very much a construction zone. The terminal won’t be completed until December and, until then, a modicum of patience is called for. We agree, but only if the ongoing construction will, in fact, result in the expedited processing of passengers.

Three, structural issues: This category is the most problematic of all. If the arrivals hall has been designed to accommodate efficiently only relatively small numbers of arriving passengers, then a rethink (while the proverbial cement is still wet) is in order. For example, are additional “immigration booths” envisioned or, if they are not, can they be added to the design?

Our greatest concern is whether our new terminal will be able to accommodate efficiently and, yes, pleasantly, the future crowds we expect to attract to our island. Remember, we are in the midst of a building boom in Grand Cayman, with huge hotel projects, such as the new Grand Hyatt, a luxury Dart resort and others, on the way. Increased airlift is essential, and that likely will mean lengthening of our runway to accommodate long-range aircraft from Europe and beyond.

Consequently, our question remains: Will our renovated airport be able to accommodate this foreseeable increase in passenger volume?

Finally, since officials declined (for cost reasons) to include covered jetways in their renovation plans, this would be a good time to address the limited number of boarding ramps (as opposed to stairways) for arriving or departing passengers at Owen Roberts.

We understand there are four boarding ramps in place, all owned by Cayman Airways, which purchased them for $50,000 each. While Cayman Airways will “share” their ramps (if they are available) with other airlines, too often they are not, and passengers must continue to make their way up or down the shaky stairways.

Fortunately, there is an easy fix: Buy a few more ramps.

Above all, we encourage Minister Kirkconnell and Albert Anderson, head of the Cayman Islands Airport Authority, to be open and accessible to the media and, by proxy, the Caymanian people on airport issues as they arise. While we are not big fans of press conferences, one might be advisable now to address a number of the issues that are now being raised.

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