Three planes were diverted to Jamaica and at least two others were held on the tarmac in Miami and Tampa on Saturday afternoon because Grand Cayman’s airport was too busy for them to land.
The congestion inside the terminal was reflected in the skies with multiple aircraft circling Owen Roberts International Airport awaiting permission to land.
Airport officials attributed the logjam to an unprecedented number of private planes arriving at peak time on Saturday.
According to Flight Aware, a flight tracking data company which uses information from air traffic control systems to monitor the movements of aircraft around the globe, 53 planes arrived in Grand Cayman Saturday, including 22 private planes. Of those, 22 planes arrived between midday and 3 p.m.
Two jets, including a Delta flight from Atlanta, and one private plane, were in a holding pattern for so long they had to divert to Montego Bay to refuel.
Meanwhile, Cayman Airways flights from Tampa and Miami were delayed at the departure airports for an hour after being given a “hold instruction” from air traffic control in Grand Cayman.
Albert Anderson, CEO of the Cayman Islands Airports Authority, said, “We had a lot of traffic in the air and we had to hold planes before they could land. There were a few that had to be diverted.
“It is unusual; the situation was that we had an influx of private aircraft and they took up a lot of the airspace.”
He said air traffic controllers handled the arriving aircraft on a “first-come, first-served” basis and there was no scope to reject private aircraft or give preferential treatment to scheduled jets.
“If they have a legitimate flight plan, we will land them,” he said.
There is no pre-approval process for flight plans for private aircraft and under guidelines set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, pilots are only required to submit such plans an hour before departure.
“If someone wants to come to your airport, you have to accept them,” Mr. Anderson said.
He said the Cayman Islands Airports Authority was exploring options, including negotiating with regular visitors who use private planes to divert them away from peak times. There was potentially scope to increase fees for private planes during peak times to persuade them to fly at less busy periods, he added. Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said the delays in the air were linked to the delays on the ground caused by the redevelopment of the terminal.
Departing passengers were stuck in long lines that snaked out of the terminal Saturday, while others were told to wait in a tented holding area before joining the lines. The CIAA had warned of increased wait times, with renovations now taking place inside the main check-in hall.
Mr. Kirkconnell said the knock-on effect of those hold-ups was that planes were spending more time on the tarmac, limiting capacity for the airport to accommodate arriving aircraft.
He said the renovations, combined with an influx of private jets and high passenger loads on scheduled planes, due in part to the hurricanes in the eastern Caribbean, added up to the “perfect storm.”
“If the efficiency had been where it will be once the terminal is complete, we would have been OK,” the minister said.
“The good thing is we have more people coming in than we can accommodate. We expected 6 percent growth for January and February and we have got 25 percent.”
Mr. Anderson said the airport’s staff was limited in the amount of planes it could process with just one runway.
There is no room at the current site and no plans for a new runway. But the airports master plan does include a new taxiway, which he said would allow aircraft to get on and off the runway quicker.
Fabian Whorms, CEO of Cayman Airways, said there had been delays of between 50 and 90 minutes on nine flights on Saturday attributed to congestion at the airport, delayed availability of the runway and the knock-on impact of delayed passengers arriving from other planes that were held up.