Airport renovations ready TCI for successful future

Turks and Caicos AirportThis rendering from the Turks and Caicos Islands Airport Authority depicts the features of the planned terminal improvements.

With travel and tourism consultants projecting that annual traffic through the Providenciales International Airport will top 1 million passengers within five years, the ongoing overhaul to this all-important gateway represents one of the nation’s most important investments.

Getting the airport right requires more than mere physical expansion. Yes, the new terminal will be larger (up from 52,462 square feet to 92,321 square feet), just like the $35 million 2011 infrastructure project made the primary runway longer. But beyond those raw numbers, the upgrades at Provo International tell a story of changing technologies, evolving global travel patterns, and a deepening national appreciation for the role air travel plays in the vitality of the Turks and Caicos.

Traffic from South America increased by 30% in 2012 over 2011.

With its economy based almost entirely on tourism, Provo’s airport is so essential to modern life on the island that “airlift capacity” remains a casual conversational term among locals. Provo’s development boom pushed its current airlift to nearly 400,000 passengers annually, but as the global recovery from the 2008 financial crisis accelerates, that number is expected to rise significantly.

“We are drowning in our success,” concedes John Smith, the CEO of the Turk and Caicos Islands Airport Authority. In addition to Provo, his organization manages facilities on Grand Turk, Salt Cay, North, Middle and South Caicos.

326,000 visitors flew into Provo International Airport in 2012

Simply allowing the terminal to sprawl, however, won’t exactly solve the problem – particularly when you analyze traffic at Provo International from the perspective of when aircraft arrive and depart. With 80 percent of flights arriving from North America, the vast majority of passengers cycle through the terminal during a roughly four-hour window.

So while the Airport Authority is expanding its facilities to meet those peak demands, the recent runway extension was aimed at accommodating direct flights from Europe and South America that arrive and depart outside the peak North American traffic window. At 9,200 feet, the new runway at Provo International now comfortably exceeds the requirements for fully loaded Boeing 777-300ER and B747 series.

So even as direct flights from far away make Provo more attractive to travellers, they also efficiently distribute more passengers across non-peak hours.

To make the airport experience as easy as possible, planning for the three-phase terminal upgrade began with improving processing efficiency in everything from customs to baggage handling. When completed in winter 2014, the new terminal will feature more security screening positions, ticketing, immigrations and customs counters, more departure gates, an additional baggage carousel, a 35 percent larger parking area, and a vastly improved design to the roadway that serves the facility. The Authority is also working to improve airport technology, an investment that they expect to pay dividends in time saved.

With those features in place, the TCIAA believes its world-class goal of 15-minute curb-to-gate processing times will be within reach.

“People who use the airport facilities know that it can become crowded at peak times,” said Gov. Ric Todd. ”That’s why (airport management) has been planning these crucial works as part of their overall master plan.”

International resort travellers are not freight, and what makes a process efficient might not make it pleasant. So the project’s emphasis on enhancing the quality of the airport experience is represented first in better standard amenities – a larger Sky Lounge, a food court with expanded retail, plus more and more modern comfort facilities. But it’s the Authority’s insistence that the new terminal reflects the aesthetic of the islands that should make it a visually striking introduction to the Turks and Caicos Islands.

“The concept behind the design is to create the feeling that you arrive at a resort, and you leave at a resort,” Smith said. The result is a uniquely Caribbean airport, with open-air check-ins, water features that passively reduce surrounding air temperatures by as much as six degrees, and architectural touches that communicate the personality of the Turks and Caicos. Plus, passengers will still make that signature walk across the tarmac.

Administrators estimate the cost of the project at $10 million, all of which has been financed through the Authority’s operating profits. Payoff on the debt has been projected for 2016-17, with future government revenues from the expanded airport expected to be two- to three-times larger than they are today.

Making those changes work takes coordination and foresight, and airport officials are working with government officials and resort managers to ensure that the industry adapts to accommodate the expected increases in visitors from outside North America. European vacationers, for instance, tend to stay longer, which means they need more on island activities. The numbers so far are encouraging, with a 30 percent increase in South American travelers over the previous year.

“We are embarking on a journey of fundamental change in the way we conduct business and welcome tourists to the Turks and Caicos Islands,” Smith said. “Our terminal expansion project will not only offer better facilities for passengers, but provide us with the room to grow over the next eight to ten years and possibly beyond.”

“We are embarking on a journey of fundamental change in the way we conduct business and welcome tourists to the Turks and Caicos Islands.”

John Smith, Turks and Caicos Islands Airport Authority CEO

Image: Turks and Caicos Islands Airport Authority