EDITORIAL – An overview of overruns at Owen Roberts

No doubt readers are familiar with the saying, “a day late and a dollar short.” At Owen Roberts International Airport, make that a year late and more than $10 million long.

According to a review by the Cayman Islands auditor general, the airport renovation project was projected to cost some $64 million – $10.5 million more than the original budget. While a cost overrun of 20 percent “ain’t bad for government work,” the auditor’s report dates back to August … meaning the airport project will ultimately cost $64 million plus any overruns that occurred in the past five months, plus any additional overruns between now and the airport’s imminent opening (and most likely further budget adjustments after the ribbon-cutting takes place).

In other words, the project will be at least $10.5 million over budget, and perhaps significantly more.

Auditors attributed the cost overruns to the two usual suspects in any construction project – delays and changes. While it is disappointing to see the airport renovation exceed its budget, we will not take issue with any of the individual changes – including hurricane-impact windows, canopies to shelter passengers and baggage, landscaping improvements, etc. – which, if anything, should have been incorporated into the designs (and the budget) from Day One.

The airport’s $10 million-and-counting cost overrun hardly qualifies for entry into the Cayman government’s hall of fame for budget-busting extravaganzas. The exemplar in this arena is, of course, the Clifton Hunter High School, the final (official) bill for which was more than $110 million – an astounding $41.4 million over budget (or about 60 percent).

The turbulence at Owen Roberts barely registers compared to the fiscal calamities that unfold at airport projects around the world. For example, in Berlin, the construction of a new airport has been under way for more than a decade, with its 6.6 billion euro cost approaching four times the initial projections. Last year, a top executive for Germany’s national airline Lufthansa said the airport will probably never open.

Another case study is the Denver International Airport, which opened in 1995, 16 months behind schedule and at a final cost of US$5 billion, nearly double the initial construction estimate.

In this broader context, the Owen Roberts renovation could be considered somewhat on time and nearly on budget. Even amid the construction cones and plywood, we can see the new airport will be aesthetically pleasing and welcoming to arriving and departing passengers. In fact, we welcome this new landmark structure and applaud the scores of people who have brought it to fruition.

And yet, we do have apprehensions.

First (as we have written previously), the government’s vision for Grand Cayman’s new airport may not have been sufficiently grand. We are concerned that the nearly complete expansion project may not prove to be expansive enough to accommodate visitor traffic during peak times today, much less five or 10 years in the future.

And second, the omission of jetways may prove to be a serious, and unfortunately, irrevocable miscalculation. To retrofit the airport with jetways, we are told, is nearly structurally impossible and financially unfeasible.

Two experiences by Compass personnel illustrate both problems:

1) The departure hall recently was jammed beyond capacity when passengers on a number of departing flights could not board their aircraft because of a torrential rainstorm. The departure hall was “elbow-to-elbow standing room only” as the passengers who should have been on their planes merged with passengers entering the hall from security.

2) In a separate incident, passengers were herded toward their plane despite a downpour so heavy that they had to slog through near ankle-deep water with winds so high that they actually toppled carry-on luggage as passengers waited to ascend the stairs leading to the aircraft. The passengers could not have been more soaked if they had lingered for 10 or 15 minutes in their morning showers.

Nevertheless, the passengers remained in a good mood (remember actor/dancer Gene Kelly’s signature performance of “Singin’ in the Rain” in the musical of the same name?) After a marvelous vacation in the Cayman Islands, they weren’t about to let a little rainstorm dampen their spirits.

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  1. Your editorial, particularly in regard to cost overruns and completion date is a little premature. Let us await the final completion date and the final cost, when I feel certain your comments that the project will be “somewhat on time and nearly on budget will not conform to the reality.