“This is a huge step forward,” said Kent McTaggart as he breezed past the immigration and customs lines at Owen Roberts International Airport and out into the warm Cayman evening Friday.
Mr. McTaggart and his family were among the first passengers to bypass the notoriously long wait lines at Grand Cayman’s airport after going through a new fast track customs and immigration process in Miami.
It took passengers less than five minutes from stepping off the plane in Cayman to hailing a cab outside the Arrivals Hall as the new system got off to a smooth start.
Dubbed “FastTrack Cayman” the pre-clearance program allows passengers on Cayman Airways flights from Miami to be vetted by Cayman border control officials in the U.S.
“This is a brand-new initiative, first in nation for both the U.S. and the Cayman Islands,” said Michael Ebanks, deputy chief officer for the Ministry of Immigration, who travelled to Miami, Friday to oversee day one of the new system.
Initially a pilot program involving CAL flights on Friday and Saturday afternoons, the fast track process could be expanded to include other airlines and other travel days.
Mr. Ebanks said it was an innovative way of easing the pressure on Cayman’s airport.
“We know the congestion is quite severe due to the ongoing renovations and this project is designed to help overcome some of those challenges.
“It only takes one or two planes to relieve that pressure point and make things easier for everyone coming through the airport, particularly on a Saturday afternoon.”
He said the vetting process was still the same, it just happens in Miami rather than in Cayman.
“We’re just making use of that time lag when you’ve cleared security and you’re waiting for your flight.”
Mike Balero, of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, said this was the first time customs and immigration officers from a foreign government had been authorized to process passengers on U.S. soil.
He said, “We’ve established a partnership where we look at ways of working together and right now we are supporting the Cayman government with this process.”
Mr. Balero added that U.S. agencies would also share expertise and resources with their Cayman counterparts.
On Friday, passengers were greeted by customs officers at the check-in desk in Miami, where they filled out customs declaration forms and went through an initial check.
Immigration officers were at the gate to process immigration cards and passengers were able to bypass the lines and go straight to baggage claim on their return to Cayman. Baggage checks, where required, still occur in Cayman and all duty fees are still paid in Cayman. The vast majority of passengers on Friday’s inaugural flight were processed at ORIA within a few minutes.
Tourism counselor David Wight, one of the first passengers to use the new system, said it could only be good for the tourism industry.
He said: “This will make travelling much less time consuming and more comfortable for everyone. For tourists, they will be able to get to the beach quicker instead of waiting in lines at the airport.”
Greg Chin, communications director for Miami Dade Aviation Department, said the fast track concept had come about through Cayman’s initiative. He said no other country had asked for a similar service but the U.S. would be open to discussing it if the Cayman pilot project proved successful.
Passengers using the system for the first time gave generally positive feedback on the experience.
Rose Gadsby, an off duty flight attendant on a shopping trip to Miami, said it was refreshing not to have to worry about lines at Grand Cayman. But she said she hoped the new system would be just as thorough in ensuring duties were paid and the proper security checks were done.
Mr. McTaggart said he was unaware the new system was launching until he got to Miami for his return flight Friday.
“It was fantastic,” he said. “It is like going back 30 years when it was like this all the time. Hopefully they can get other airlines on board and roll this out for every flight coming from the U.S.”