Cayman Islands Shuts the Door on Private Aviation Tourism

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The Cayman Islands government has shut the door on private aviation tourism with cumbersome, expensive, and potentially unsafe mandates for private pilots. The Cayman Islands Airport Authority (CIAA) authorized these mandates at the same time airline tourists were being welcomed back by the Ministry of Tourism and Transport after a two-year lockdown. Does the right hand know what is the left is doing?

Mandate #1 sets up specific arrival “slot” times for all aircraft. Owen Roberts Airport is now the only airport in the entire Western Hemisphere that mandates slot times for private aircraft. Only three airports in the U.S. mandate slots for commercial airlines:  JFK, La Guardia and Washington National. The CIAA slot mandate is not supported by industry experts nor by the International Civil Aviation Organization (IATA).

Small private aircraft are incapable of meeting specific arrival times. Added cockpit complexity for pilots translates into added risks. After a long flight, private pilots that inevitably miss their slot times will be instructed to “hold” overwater for an unspecified time waiting for clearance to land while watching their fuel gauges move toward empty. This is a red flag and deal breaker for private pilots.

Mandate #2 requires all aircraft to pay for handling services that adds significant costs for private pilots, and which provide no services private pilots cannot easily do on their own. Private aircraft use the small General Aviation terminal and have “self-handled” for years because the arrival/departure procedures are easy and quick.

The new mandated fees will bring total costs for a small, single engine piston aircraft with four people on board, staying for three nights, to US$748 vs US$196 in the Bahamas. Flying to Cayman Brac? US$923 vs US$196 in the Bahamas. The Cayman Islands has now become the most expensive airport for small private planes in the entire Caribbean. The net result will be a dramatic reduction in private aviation tourism revenues for hotels, resorts, restaurants, and water sports providers. It will also reduce revenue for Cayman handlers as fuel sales decline.

The Bahamas receives 50,000 private flights a year and $400 million in tourism revenues from the 140,000 small private piston aircraft in the U.S. fleet. The Caymans Islands is the same distance from Florida as popular Bahamian destinations such as Stella Maris or Exuma. These new mandates needlessly deprive the Caymanian tourism economy of significant revenues. They are counterproductive, unsupported by industry experts, increase risk for all pilots and impede the Ministry of Tourism and Transport efforts to re-open the tourism market.

Individual private flights are now cancelling every week, flying instead to the Florida Keys, The Bahamas, or the Dominican Republic. Caribbean Flying Adventures, which has introduced 100’s of private aircraft to The Cayman Islands in recent years, just cancelled their annual Fly In of 15-20 small private planes to the Marriott Beach Resort in March because the pilots were concerned for safety reasons about the “slots” and were not willing to pay almost four times more in fees than the Bahamas.

“Speaking on behalf of the thousands of pilots that use our guide, we urge The Cayman Island government to reverse these counterproductive mandates. The Airport Authority staff, and board of directors need to explain why “slots” not deemed necessary or appropriate at any other airport in the Western Hemisphere are required at Owen Roberts airport. The board also needs to explain the rationale for compulsory handling fees, making Cayman airports the only destination in the Caribbean, other than Montego Bay, to mandate the use of a handler at significant extra expense to private pilots. Both mandates are ill advised, out of touch with the realities of private aviation, have nothing to do with “safety” and have already begun to reduce tourism revenues. How is this a plus for the Cayman Islands?”

Additional Details about the mandates.

Mandate# 1:  All aircraft arriving to Owen Roberts airport must apply for and receive a specified arrival time “slot” to land in Grand Cayman. No other airport in the entire Western Hemisphere demands “slots” for private aircraft. Only three airports the U.S. even mandate slots for commercial airlines: Washington, DC, with 50 arrivals an hour, JFK, and La Guardia in New York.

Expert analysis provided to the airport management identified a few 15-minute periods around the Christmas/New Year holiday and in mid-March when runway “capacity” could potentially be challenged. This same analysis clearly identified the main terminal as the “capacity” problem rather than the runway. And everyone knows that small private planes do not use the main terminal.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) designates airports at three “Levels” depending on traffic. Owen Roberts was recently designated as a Level Two airport: “A Level 2 airport is one where there is “potential” for congestion during some periods of the day, week, or season, which can be resolved by schedule adjustments mutually agreed between the airlines and facilitator.”

Owen Roberts airports has instead mandated, not mutually agreed, slots for commercial aircraft for every hour of every day of the year. This is unnecessary and the only Level Two airport in the Western Hemisphere to do so. Airport Management also mandated small, private aircraft to obtain arrival slots making Owen Roberts airport the only airport in the entire Western Hemisphere to do so. Not even JFK requires slots for small private aircraft. Small private aircraft are incapable of meeting a specific arrival time slot after a three-hour flight from Florida because of un-forecast winds or delays departing busy south Florida airports. These pilots are told that they must then fly in circles in a ”holding” pattern, over water, off the coat of Grand Cayman waiting for permission to land as they watch their fuel gauges continue to move toward empty.

Not to be overlooked, the airport already has procedures in place to avoid the potential for runway over capacity throughout the year. The landing fee is increase by 25% for aircraft arriving between 11 am 4 pm; a parking spot must be reserved for charters using the General Aviation terminal for the Christmas/New Year’s peak season and in mid-March through early April or the aircraft is required to re-position back to the States or Jamaica for parking. This is the most effective measure to avoid “capacity” issues. And it already exists.

Mandate #2 All aircraft are required to use a handler. For small planes, the additional cost is $175 or $350 if landing at Caymans and then paying again to land at Grand Cayman for fuel to return to the States. Total costs to arrive at Grand Cayman for small, four seat aircraft with four people, is now $748 vs $196 in the Bahamas: $923 for Cayman Brac.

The rationale by the Owen Roberts airport manager for the handling fee mandate was: “Without a handler Island Air or any other handler could refuse to touch your aircraft or help, and we would have a closed runway for a significant time.”

Handlers and aircraft maintenance shops would never refuse to assist. That is their business. This rationale is surprisingly out of touch with reality and totally without justification for a huge price increase that will discourage most pilots from coming to the Cayman Islands to spend their tourism dollars.

CaribbeanFlyingAdventures.com is the most up-to-date pilot’s Guide for the Bahamas and Caribbean. Owner Jim Parker been helping private pilots fly to the Islands for 20 years and has landed his own plan at 125 airports in the Caribbean. He has been a huge promoter of The Caymans Islands as a preferred destination for small, family-owned aircraft and is deeply disappointed that the Owen Roberts airport management, for reason unsupported by safety concerns or expert analysis, is so completely discouraging private pilots from bringing their tourism dollars to the Islands.

1 COMMENT

  1. I’ve landed at Owen Roberts several times–but not in the last 10 years. I’ve landed in every country that IS a country in the Carribean.

    Like so many of the islands, the beaches are beautiful–but the bureaucracy is unbearable.

    It’s interesting that they try to promote tourism ( visitcaymanislands.com ) but then do things like this to negate their own efforts. And they’ll wonder where the tourists went. (crazy)

    I’ll take my patronage to places that appreciate it–and avoid places that do things like this to discourage it.

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