Owen Roberts Int’l Completes Airfield Improvements During Pandemic

Owen Roberts Int’l Completes Airfield Improvements During Pandemic
Jodi Richards
Published in: 

March is usually a very busy month at Grand Cayman’s Owen Roberts International Airport (GCM), with tourists streaming in to enjoy beaches, coral reefs and other western Caribbean attractions. After years of tremendous growth in passenger traffic, officials were looking forward to a record-breaking March last year. And then COVID-19 effectively closed the entire island, including its airport.

At the time, GCM was just months into $45.7 million of airfield upgrades. Rather than shutter the project, airport officials consulted their project partners and made the bold decision to stay the course and make the most of the airfield downtime.

“It was a bit of a give and take,” notes Albert Anderson, chief executive officer of the Cayman Islands Airports Authority. “But overall, I think the decision to continue with the project was a good one. We were able to work pretty much unrestricted.”


Project: Airfield Upgrades

Location: Owen Roberts Int’l Airport (Grand Cayman)

Owned & Managed By: Cayman Islands Airports Authority

Cost: $45.7 million

Funding: Passenger Facility Charges

Key Component: Runway rehab & extension

Associated Elements: New airfield perimeter road; new parallel taxiway & taxiway turnaround; filling ponds on airfield; expanding aircraft parking ramp

Construction: Nov. 2019–Sept. 2020

Design Consultant: Stantec

Construction: Joint venture of Island Paving, Decco & IDL Projects

Surface Drainage System (Slot Drains): BG-Graspointner

Jet Blast Protection: Blast Deflectors Inc.

Sweeper Truck: TYMCO

Key Benefits: Accommodate traffic growth; enhance airfield safety & efficiency

The Cayman Islands Airports Authority owns and operates GCM and also manages Charles Kirkconnell International Airport on Cayman Brac. Located in George Town, GCM serves as the main point of entry and exit to all three Cayman Islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. It has a single runway, 08-26, and is the main base of Cayman Airways. GCM also has service from Air Canada, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and WestJet.

Between 2013 and 2018, passenger volume at GCM increased by 45%; and the busy island airport served more than 1.5 million passengers in 2019.

The $45.7 million airfield improvement program completed last fall was part of GCM’s 2013 master plan, with specific measures developed to keep pace with its growth. The first part of the plan expanded the terminal, which was originally designed to handle 500,000 annual passengers but was processing twice that amount. As the terminal expansion wrapped in 2017, GCM proceeded with airfield improvements to meet its continuing traffic growth.

As early as 2016, the airport had begun to experience airspace, terminal and ramp parking challenges because of increased operations, Anderson notes. And in 2018, GCM had already reached its forecasted passenger numbers for 2028, prompting officials to move ahead with the airfield project designed to improve efficiency and safety. In addition to rehabilitating and extending GCM’s sole runway, the comprehensive program included an apron extension, a new airfield perimeter road, new parallel taxiway and taxiway turnaround, filling ponds on the airfield and expanding the aircraft parking ramp.

Efficiency & Safety

The airfield improvement program was designed by Stantec and awarded to a joint venture of Island Paving, Decco and IDL Projects. Work began in early November 2019 with the apron expansion, followed by the relocation of pond wildlife in January 2020. The runway rehabilitation, parallel taxiway construction and runway extension kicked off in February 2020.

The 264-meter runway extension includes a 90-meter runway end safety area and additional pavement for takeoff and landing. “We took the opportunity to extend the runway as far as we could toward the fence,” notes Chief Airport Operations Officer Wayne DaCosta. The new parallel taxiway facilitates more efficient aircraft movements, and the apron expansion provides room to park four Code C or two Code E aircraft.

Crews milled 1 inch off of the existing runway pavement and overlaid the existing asphalt pavement with about 7 inches of new pavement containing three separate lifts. While the pavement itself needed to be refurbished because of its age, a change in aircraft serving GCM also prompted the upgrade. “We were having regular flights from British Airways with 777s, and the strength of the runway was not appropriate for large widebody aircraft used for long-haul flights,” explains DaCosta.

The runway was also grooved to increase friction coefficients and enhance safety for aircraft landing during heavy rains. Due to the island’s climate and heavy aircraft the runway accommodates, project designers specified a specialized pavement mix that includes a polymer to both strengthen the pavement and extend its life. Additionally, painted markings on the rehabilitated runway are enhanced with reflective glass beads to increase visibility.

The new parallel taxiway makes the landing and takeoff sequence much more efficient, and also allows for increased operations, reports DaCosta. For example, aircraft arriving from the west can now exit off the runway after landing, leaving the runway open for other aircraft. Previously, pilots had to backtrack and taxi about halfway down the runway to exit.

Because the runway extension puts aircraft much closer to a perimeter fence line, the airport erected a blast deflector to protect pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles using the nearby road. The structure mitigates jet blast from aircraft taking off by deflecting air upward and away from the road. Painted orange and white for easy identification, the panels are mounted on a lightweight steel frame and fastened to a monolithic concrete foundation.

The structure, designed and supplied by Blast Deflectors Inc., contains two different components: an end-of-runway blast deflector designed for high-breakaway and transient takeoff thrust from aircraft up to a Boeing 777, and a taxi-breakaway-rated blast deflector required to protect the nearby roadway from jet exhaust produced by aircraft using the new taxiway turnaround. The continuous end-of-runway deflector spans about 348 feet and adjoins the taxiway deflector, for a total of 1,146 feet of protection that extends from the north side of the runway and continues around the west perimeter fence line.

In light of Grand Cayman’s weather, the blast deflector is made of robust powder-coated galvanized steel and is designed to withstand jet blast and hurricane-level winds. Matt Anzai, sales manager for Blast Deflectors Inc., notes that the need to observe an obstacle limitation landing surface on GCM’s airfield added a design challenge. “Blast Deflectors worked closely with Stantec to determine the optimal jet blast deflector geometry that would protect the area from jet blast without exceeding height restrictions,” explains Anzai. “While the deflector has effectively remained clear of the runway safety areas and obstacle limitation surfaces, the design does incorporate elements of frangibility for maximum safety.”

Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Blast Deflectors Inc. was unable to have a field representative onsite to oversee the installation, as it typically would. Instead, the company relied on clear communication protocols and local partners. Anzai notes that the successful outcome at GCM is prompting the company to consider using the same remote techniques for future installations at other airports that require site support during COVID-19 travel restrictions. 

Pandemic Had Mixed Effects

Continuing the airfield improvements while Grand Cayman was locked down by COVID-19 not only allowed contractors to complete their work with little impact to operations, it also prevented the airport from incurring extra expenses to stop and restart the project. Such costs would have been significant, notes Anderson. 

“Traffic was cut by 95%, so there was a real opportunity to get work done during the day that would have only been able to have been done at night,” DaCosta adds.

Although commercial traffic was halted, the airport still had to coordinate construction activity with general aviation traffic, particularly medical evacuations. “Managing those flights along with the work being done almost continuous, that was a bit of a challenge,” DaCosta recalls.

In retrospect, he is grateful that the team took time before the project started to brainstorm about things that could go wrong and how to address them. While personnel could not foresee the challenges of a global pandemic, their pre-planning proved priceless throughout the project, he notes.

Because GCM is a single-runway airport, the project had to be carefully phased and planned to minimize impact to operations, says Leigh Bartlett, principal with Stantec’s Airports Group.

Originally, much of the work was slated to be completed overnight, to avoid interfering with daytime flights. But with the airfield effectively empty, crews were able to work during daylight hours. “We were able to work when the rest of the island was shut down,” Anderson says. “That was good in the sense that we didn’t have the air traffic to deal with.”

“The pandemic was a big curveball throughout the project,” Bartlett adds. “But we had the dedication of the staff to be flexible and help each other out and people willing to go the extra mile.”

That doesn’t mean the project was without challenges. Pandemic travel restrictions delayed the arrival of off-island construction supplies and work crews, and quarantines were required once they arrived. Additionally, Grand Cayman received an unusually heavy amount of rain during the second half of the project. “We had probably more rain last year than we had in the previous five years,” Anderson muses. Combined, the weather and pandemic delayed the project by about two-and-a-half months.

Fortunately, many of the project materials were delivered at the front end of the project, pre-COVID. “That was a lifesaver at the end of the day,” he reflects.

Bartlett agrees that preordering materials was crucial to the project’s ultimate success because it was difficult to get materials to the island once the pandemic began. COVID-19 also put the press on two of Stantec’s resident team members. When the government announced it was closing the border, they were given the choice of leaving immediately or staying on-island for the duration. “They showed great dedication and decided to stay on,” says Bartlett. One stayed for six months, the other for a full year. “Everyone did a good job of getting through and making the project a success,” Bartlett emphasizes.

As for the airport authority, it is already looking ahead. “We hope that we will eventually return to the levels of traffic that we were seeing in 2019,” Anderson says. “This project enables us to handle the traffic that we’re forecasting up to 2032.”


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