“Growing pains” is the buzzword around the Owen Roberts International Airport right now.
Even amid intense construction on a new terminal that will triple capacity, passengers have begun to question if Cayman’s multi-million dollar airport upgrade goes far enough.
On a sweltering March afternoon that saw 53 planes arrive on a single Saturday, three aircraft were forced to divert to Jamaica to refuel and several more were grounded on the tarmac in Florida because the airport was too busy for them to land.
Frustrated visitors shared now-familiar images of lines snaking around both sides of the terminal. The work, currently under way, should make for a more comfortable experience for arriving and departing tourists, says Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell.
But he acknowledges the current phase of construction, focused largely on the terminal, will not directly ease congestion in the skies.
For a minister basking in the glow of another record-breaking tourism season, these are good problems. But problems, all the same.
Ground zero of the congestion issue is a three-hour choke point between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a Saturday.
Last weekend, 20 planes landed during that window. That is more than the total number of incoming flights on a regular weekday.
A jump in demand from private planes, up 5 percent in the last year according to Island Air, which handles all non-commercial aircraft, has contributed to the aerial traffic jams.
Airports Authority CEO Albert Anderson has implemented a “five-minute longitudinal separation” for aircraft approaching the Cayman Islands.
He said that ensured a 40-mile distance between arriving aircraft that allows sufficient time to clear runway space before the next plane arrives.
So far, that flow management system, in place at peak hours on weekends, has been sufficient to ensure no repeat of the chaos in early March.
Mr. Anderson said his staff is looking into other tactics to better manage the situation. But he accepts the time is coming where Cayman will have to restrict the number of planes arriving on a Saturday lunchtime.
“We are close to capacity in the peak hour,” he said.
Though airport and tourism officials expect the enhancements to the terminal to create a smoother flow of passengers that will increase efficiency on the airside, few of the current upgrades directly address airside infrastructure.
Later developments, outlined in a 20-year master plan for the islands airports, include lengthening the runway and adding a new taxiway.
Even with those improvements, the midday hour on Saturday is always likely to be “rush hour” in the skies around Cayman.
Telling airlines to pick a different time is not as simple as it seems.
There’s a good reason airlines target the 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. window, and it is not something that is likely to change.
Most airlines operate a “hub-and-spoke” system, a simple but relatively inflexible timetabling arrangement that ensures when a plane takes off for the Cayman Islands in high season, it is full.
Delta Air Lines uses Atlanta, Georgia, as its hub. A flight map of the routes into Atlanta shows a series of short-haul commuter flights from surrounding cities feeding into that hub like spokes in a wheel.
Those flights are timed to arrive en-masse between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. to fill planes lining up on the tarmac to take them to further flung destinations, including Cayman.
The same thing happens on a similar time schedule across the eastern United States and Canada, meaning planes from Charlotte, New York, Dallas, Miami, Tampa and Toronto converge on Cayman during the same time period.
It is a finely tuned system that maximizes the profitability of the routes, the number of passengers on the planes and the use of the aircraft itself. It is also designed around passenger convenience, allowing a tourist in Memphis, for example, to set a 6 a.m. alarm, make a 9 a.m. flight to Atlanta and be in the Cayman Islands by 2 p.m. on a Saturday – the most popular day of the week for vacation travel.
The margins are small because the financial imperative for the airline is to get the plane back to the hub and back in business for the evening schedule.
The system largely works in Cayman’s favor, multiplying access to the island beyond the gateway airport.
“We only have direct service from so many airports. Hundreds of other cities are serviced within that. It is not out of the question to have 60 flights connecting into a hub. That’s how they ensure the plane is full,” Minister Kirkconnell said.
That mutually beneficial arrangement is beginning to be impacted by the law of diminishing returns.
Tourism chiefs highlight that chaotic 53-flight Saturday as an aberration – a perfect storm caused by an unprecedented influx of private planes, the busiest spring break in Cayman’s history and the knock-on impact of delays caused by construction in the terminal.
But they recognize there is now little room to maneuver in the Saturday timetable.
“We have never had this problem before,” Mr. Kirkconnell said.
“We have always been extremely happy if an airline called up and said we have to add a flight. The airports authority is now working with the airlines to look at how they manage the slots and the time of arrivals, because we are coming to a point where no matter how we change the time around, we are maxed.”
Rising tourism numbers
Minister Kirkconnell believes attracting half-a-million incoming tourists annually, adding another 20 percent to the record set in 2017, is a realistic target that will not stretch the new terminal or the island beyond their carrying capacity.
He said, “When the airport is complete, you will see that it is well sized to handle a lot more than 500,000 passengers a year.”
Short of building a second runway, not considered practical at the current site, additional flights will largely have to come from outside the peak Saturday hours.
One way to do that, according to the tourism minister, is for the Cayman Islands to be so successful in its marketing efforts that it no longer relies on the hub-and-spoke system.
Cayman Airways already operates “point to point” from most destinations, meaning it is less dependent on timing its schedule to cater to commuter planes. Mr. Kirkconnell believes some markets, particularly New York, are popular enough that other airlines may be able to follow suit.
Tourism officials are also looking to expand its horizons beyond the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
Cayman Airways’s new generation of jets gives the airline capacity to fly direct from much further afield and the national airline could be used to open up new routes from the West Coast.
Fabian Whorms, CEO of the national airline, told the Cayman Compass the new fleet means, “we will have the ability to conduct direct flights to almost anywhere in North America, all of Central America and much of South America.”
The timing of those flights could create an opportunity for a new hub much later in the day, bringing more tourists to the Cayman Islands without adding to the congestion.
None of that directly deals with the factor that authorities say was responsible for the spring break logjam – private planes.
Marcus Cumber’s Island Air handles everything from air ambulance and corporate jets to incoming prop planes and military aircraft. He believes Island Air’s current policy of restricting private aircraft arrivals and departures to 10 per hour should be sufficient once other issues at the commercial airport are resolved.
“We are already controlling the flow of general aviation aircraft,” he said.
“We have been doing this for over three years. We actually tell charter companies or handling companies to move an hour earlier or later depending how busy we are during the time requested.”
Beyond this arrangement, according to the Cayman Islands Airports Authority’s Mr. Anderson, there is limited scope to manage private aircraft.
The sole scheduling requirement to land in Grand Cayman is that a flight plan is filed up to an hour before take-off.
Mr. Anderson has previously indicated the CIAA could look to increase fees during peak times as an incentive to private aircraft to operate outside of the busiest times. He said discussions were still ongoing over the best way to manage this situation.
As a destination, Mr. Kirkconnell says the Cayman Islands wants to encourage wealthy private jet owners to visit and spend their money in the territory.
Once the new terminal is complete, he believes the knock-on benefits will be enough to ensure the problem goes away and, even on the busiest days, there is no need to turn away business.
In the longer term, infrastructure improvements, including new aircraft parking slots and eventually a new taxiway, are expected to enable more efficient processing of planes as they move between the apron, where planes are parked, and the runway.
Governing the redevelopment of the airport’s infrastructure is an outline business case and 20-year master plan produced by PwC along with technical consultants WSP Canada Inc. in 2014.
The $55-million terminal overhaul is just one part of a recommended $120-million investment in all three Cayman Islands airports over the next two decades.
That report, which indicated the developments should be funded out of Airports Authority revenues, advised that some upgrades, like passenger-boarding bridges, were too expensive and should only be contemplated if arrival numbers and revenues increase beyond expectations.
It also ruled out extending the runway to accommodate long-haul flights without a concrete commitment from an airline, such as British Airways, to fly direct to Cayman.
The report set out a timetable of priorities, with the heavily congested terminal building at the top.
Mr. Anderson said the Airports Authority, which is working to a December 2018 deadline to complete the terminal renovations, has also kicked off upgrades airside, including an expansion to the apron and the addition of two new parking spots for large “Code C” jets.
The master plan also includes the addition of a parallel taxiway, though no specific time line has been set for that.
Mr. Kirkconnell said the 2014 report was produced at a time when government was recovering from a financial crisis with severe restrictions placed on public borrowing.
“We worked out a budget on cash flow and looked at the most critical need at that time, which was to drive tourism forward and ensure visitors have a good experience coming in and out. That’s what the initial investment was meant to do. That’s what we could afford.”
He said a brighter economic position coupled with higher-than-expected arrival figures had created an opportunity to speed up the time line on the airside improvements.