EDITORIAL – A longer ‘runway’ is needed to meet infrastructure needs

Just weeks before the grand opening of the new Owen Roberts International Airport terminal, airport authorities already are turning their attention to the next project: Lengthening the airport runway.

The Cayman Islands Airports Authority has posted a request for proposals on government’s central procurement website and hopes to have contractors secured by June. The project will extend the runway to nearly 8,000 feet and strengthen the pavement to accommodate larger planes and longer flights.

The news was met with some skepticism, as many in our community wondered whether the expansion is truly necessary. Their watchful reserve is understandable, especially coming in light of project delays and cost overruns during the current expansion – a project now estimated to cost $64 million or more.

The longer runway would support many direct flights to London and increase safety in wet conditions, but why throw another $20.5 million at the airport when stayover tourism already is booming on Grand Cayman? Why, especially when there has been no clear signal from airlines that a longer runway would necessarily lead to longer flights in the near term?

The real question is not whether a longer runway would be useful today, next month or even next year, but rather many years into the future.

Extending the runway as has been proposed maximizes the airport’s current real estate at a relatively modest cost. It is a reasonable middle path between maintaining the status quo and a significantly costlier alternative, which would require building into North Sound.

Predicting future infrastructure needs can be tricky. On one hand, planners must be careful not to be too grandiose in their predictions or too eager to overbuild costly projects that far outstrip future demand.

But it is equally dangerous to be too cautious, which can lead to infrastructure improvements that, while still costly, are overburdened and outdated almost from the moment they are put to use.

For the past three decades or more, Grand Cayman has been on a growth trajectory the likes of which few jurisdictions ever experience. Planners have been playing catch-up to create an infrastructure system that can keep up with our explosive growth.

The symptoms are all around us: From maddening daily traffic snarls to the hulking George Town landfill, from patchwork public transportation to a court and prison system bursting at the seams.

There is no question that to keep moving forward, Cayman’s planners must get out far, far ahead of these problems. Their plans must extend beyond what is currently adequate or imminently needed to anticipate future needs.

As a public, we, too, must shift our mindset from “getting by” to recognizing that Cayman’s infrastructure will require monumental investment, careful coordination and a vision that extends far beyond what is adequate or imminently needed.

Expanding the airport runway is one small piece of a critical bigger picture: Developing a clear, comprehensive and integrated infrastructure plan that will carry us far into the future.

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  1. While the Cayman Compass’ Editorial Board has every right to publish its opinions in support (or not) of any issue, in doing so as purveyors of responsible journalism, it has a obligation to base such opinions on fact. Its stated opinion that “a longer runway would.. allow safe landings in wet conditions” is erroneous and hence, very misleading.

    Any extension of ORIA’s runway to the west, as published, would include a displaced threshold. Such extension would be for take-offs only, as to utilize such extension for landings would be folly and quite dangerous. To enable a westerly extension for landings would require lowering the approach path over the fuel depot tanks, among other obstacles! I doubt the CAA will allow such a clearly unsafe practise.

    In any case, common-sense dictates that if the purpose of a runway extension is to encourage non-stop long haul flights (a myth in itself – market demand should be the real catalyst of justifying long-haul flights), it would apply to the take-off phase, as a longer runway has little bearing on flight performance when a flight comes to an end (i.e. the landing phase).

    Editor’s note: According to the 2032 Airport Master Plan, extending the ORIA runway “would provide additional margins of safety for wet runway conditions”. The editorial has been updated to clarify this point.

  2. The Compass’ response is noted and I’ve no intention to rebut or debate the experts who put together the 2032 Airport Master Plan, however, additional runway length alone does not guarantee additional landing safety during wet conditions. Proof of this is the Air France accident at Toronto Pearson in 2005.