With travel brought to a halt during the current crisis, the main airport for the Cayman Islands is using the downtime to bring forward a major infrastructure upgrade, reports Tom Allett
I ’m sure most of us think of the Cayman Islands as being among some of the most beautiful places on the planet. It’s tempting to let your mind dwell on idyllic scenes of silver sands and turquoise seas and forget what is needed to strike that essential balance between maintaining a coveted lifestyle against the demands of a lucrative tourist industry. It’s deemed necessary to add more traffic capacity, while avoiding overcrowding. Three Islands form this British overseas territory in the western Caribbean which, naturally, relies on air transport to feed its commercial interests. The largest is Grand Cayman and its main international gateway is Owen Roberts International Airport (IATA: GCM) which, along with Charles Kirkconnell International Airport (CYB) is managed by the Cayman Islands Airports Authority (CIAA).
Last year, GCM handled 502,739 passengers (+8.6%) and although the COVID-19 crisis will certainly have an impact upon the 2020 numbers, the airport operator must still try to make the best of the surreal circumstances we have all experienced. GCM had already launched its Airfield Upgrade Project (AUP) to reshape the facility’s ability to meet its projected needs. The work began in early November 2019 and was split into six sub-projects. These comprise the rehabilitation of the existing runway surface to increase its strength and durability, a runway extension, a new parallel taxiway, filling the natural ponds within the airfield perimeter, establishing an airfield perimeter road and expanding the aircraft parking ramp to the east. The apron expansion work was the first of the sub-projects to begin late last year, followed by the runway rehabilitation, additional taxiway and extension in February.
As the airport only has one runway, adding a parallel taxiway significantly reduces the time aircraft spend taxiing on the runway, providing maximum efficiency during peak periods. The airport described its introduction as “a huge operational leap in aircraft movement efficiency and safety”.
However, as part of efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus, the island’s government announced a ban on international flights from March 22. It was still in place as these words were typed in early May.
"Adding a parallel taxiway significantly reduces the time aircraf spend taxiing on the runway… a huge operational leap in efficiency and safety"
With the airport largely shut down, on April 29, the CIAA announced it had brought forward much of the scheduled AUP work. Referring to the new timetable, CIAA CEO, Albert Anderson, commented: “We are very pleased with the progress we have made in bringing big improvements to service, operations and safety standards at our airports and remain committed to enhancing the services and amenities we provide to our travelling public.
“As a result of the government’s temporary suspension of international flights to and from Owen Roberts Airport, some aspects of the AUP works are moving ahead of schedule due to the increased availability of the airfield to perform the works.”
Strengthening the runway requires three layers of new asphalt. The second layer was completed in mid-April. The third and final layer, which will include paved runway shoulders, was expected to take approximately three weeks and should have been completed by the time this is read. The airport’s senior project manager, Roy Williams, explained: “Runway 08-26 was strengthened by profile milling 25mm of existing pavement then adding 180mm of hot mix asphalt in two 65mm lifts and one 50mm lift. We’re using a rut-resistant, polymer-modified, hot mix asphalt and, [when complete] the runway will be grooved to provide skid resistance.” In all, around 54,130tons (55,000tonnes) of hot asphalt mix will be used during the strengthening operation. Aggregates for the asphalt mix are being sourced from Atlantic Canada, while the polymer modified liquid asphalt is being imported from Florida. The base aggregate materials for the runway extension and apron expansion have come from local limestone quarries.
The runway is being extended by 870ft (265m) giving a new full length of 7,875ft (2,400m). Work on the extension and blast deflector installation is ongoing and set for completion by late June 2020, while the new taxiway is currently under construction and expected to be in service by mid-July. The finished runway and taxiway work will have consumed 10,826 tons (11,000 tonnes) of hot mix asphalt with a crushed aggregate base course of 752,220cu ft (21,300m³).
Reno-based Blast Deflectors will be responsible for providing jet blast protection. The equipment will consist of two separate sections, one designed to protect roadway traffic from take-off thrust at the end of the newly extended runway, while the other with deal with taxi breakaway thrust as aircraft begin to move off from the taxiway stubs. There are no plans yet to introduce fixed electric ground power at the new stands.
The apron expansion works continue but could reach a temporary halt if current travel restrictions continue, as this would prevent a specialist UK-based concrete crew from being able to reach the Cayman Islands. The original scheme was to extend the apron sufficiently to add four more code C aircraft stands to the existing eight. This extra space would also provide enough room to park two code E aircraft.
"As a result of the temporary suspension of international flights, some aspects of the works are moving ahead of schedule"
Albert Anderson, CIAA
Another part of the improvement plan included filling nine ponds within the airport perimeter – most of these were located at the end of the runway and because they attracted a great deal of birdlife they presented a potential safety hazard to aircraft. Work to fill those near the west end of the runway is already complete and the remaining two were due to be finished soon after. The perimeter road should also have been made ready by the end of May.
Reno-based Blast Deflectors will be responsible for providing jet blast protection. The equipment will consist of two separate sections, one designed to protect roadway traffic from take-off thrust at the end of the newly extended runway, while the other will deal with taxi breakaway thrust as aircraft begin to move off from the taxiway stubs BDI
The airport authority said that the only specific environmental measures required concerned localised erosion control and pond water management. It noted that most environmental considerations were taken into account before the AUP work began and consultation involved the local department of the environment, the local water authority and the mosquito research unit.
Mr Anderson summed up the situation by saying: “During these challenging times, we are more proud than ever of our dedicated teams working behind the scenes to provide our customers with professional, innovative airport services and facilities in a safe, efficient manner, and we look forward to being able to share this airfield transformation with the community as we all work together to bring normalcy back to our daily lives.”
Despite being able to hasten the progress of the Airfield Upgrade Project it is still set for completion by mid-September 2020 as it is not known when the apron expansion work will be finished. The entire project is being funded via passenger facility charges.