For 165 of the 168 hours in a week, the Owen Roberts International Airport is more than adequate to accommodate Grand Cayman’s incoming and outgoing flights. But for three hours every week – specifically, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday – a regularly scheduled spike in air traffic creates the equivalent of Los Angeles highway gridlock.
Rather than the easy-breezy “rest of the week,” it is the conditions within those three hours of congestion that form the standard by which the performance of our public officials, and the still-under-renovation airport, will be judged.
When we point to long lines and processing times, officials point to the ongoing construction at the airport. As the saying goes, “Please pardon our dust.” Certainly. But our primary concern is what happens when the dust settles and the final ribbon is cut. Will the new Owen Roberts airport prove to be the “right airport” for Grand Cayman – not just for today, but for the next 15-25 years?
The issues of overcrowding at the airport are not life-threatening, but they certainly are tourism-threatening. The airport is the all-hallowed “first impression” that stay-over visitors have of our country, as well as being the last one. What do we want our tourists to remember (and relate to friends, family members and Facebook followers): breathtaking sunsets on Seven Mile Beach, polychromatic vistas of underwater coral, exquisite meals at local restaurants … or interminable queues, boredom, fatigue and frustration?
Cautioning that “growing pains” at Owen Roberts will continue to be a challenge through the end of the year, Deputy Premier and Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell gives his assurance that the final result will be worth the wait. We certainly hope so. Like most observers, we’re taken with the beautiful design of the emerging complex. Our concern, however, is not aesthetics but ultimate functionality.
As today’s front page investigation into airport congestion suggests, there is little indication that Saturday’s midday plane crunch will dissipate on its own, particularly not if Cayman’s economic, population and tourism sector numbers continue on the anticipated growth trajectory.
A confluence of factors, nearly all of which are beyond Cayman’s control or influence, conspire to create the weekly three-hour air traffic jam at Owen Roberts. The short explanation is that the 11 a.m.-2 p.m. arrival window allows aircraft to load up with passengers at a “hub” airport (with many passengers beginning their journeys early in the morning at a smaller airport), unload and reload in Grand Cayman, and make it back to the hub airport in time for evening flights.
For the past 50 years, local officials have been reluctant to turn down a request from an airline to begin flying to Cayman. The policy has been, “Come one, come all! Any time is fine!”
However, the recurring situation on Saturdays may force officials to rethink that strategy. Cayman Islands Airports Authority CEO Albert Anderson said he expects that, in the future, the airport may have to ask airlines to reconfigure schedules so more flights fall outside those peak hours.
But wait … What about the airport expansion?
Doubts still linger in our minds about whether the airport expansion may prove to be not expansive enough. The first “yellow flag” raised was the decision not to include jetways in the project, with the justification that they would add $20 million to the $55 million project, and thus were too expensive.
Readers may recall that in 2012, the Canadian Commercial Corporation proposed a much larger airport project, including an extended runway (also not part of the ongoing Owen Roberts expansion), carrying a price tag of US$200 million – about three times as much as the current project.
In order to enable the expected growth of Grand Cayman’s population and economy, having a world-class airport suited to our country’s present and future needs is absolutely essential – whether it costs $55 million, $200 million or even more.