Flurry of Airports

Keeping time with regional growth, Latin America renovates its airports and builds new ones

Guarulhos International Airport, Sao Paulo, Brazil Photo: Newscom

Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Bogotá, Panama City and Brasilia are all renovating their airports. Lima and Montevideo have already done so. Guatemala City and Asuncion are preparing to start work on theirs. And the wave of airport renovations isn’t limited to capital cities; it has spilled into provincial cities too.

The trend is part of the virtuous circle generated by economic bonanza, an uptick in tourism and the need to improve infrastructure and logistics to accommodate the region’s growing trade and business.

Last year, to get the ball rolling, Brazil opened bidding for the construction of a new airport in Natal, on the northeastern tip of Brazil. The winner was the Argentine-Brazilian consortium Inframerica, which is made up of Corporacion America S.A. of Argentina and Infravix Empreendimentos, S.A., a company owned by Grupo Engevix de Brasil. This project represents the first airport terminal  management awarded to a private enterprise in Brazil, and calls for hefty investment of $410 million. The new international airport will be built 11 kilometers from the old one. The consortium is working feverishly so that its official opening might coincide with soccer’s 2014 World Cup.

Click image to view at full size

Click image to view at full size

This year, the same two-nation consortium won a 25-year concession to enlarge, maintain and operate the Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek Airport in Brasilia. It will build two new terminals there, with a total investment (works and future management) of US$1.4 billion.

“Brasilia and Natal together account for 20 million passengers per year, about the same number as the entire airport system of Argentina,” said to Latin Trade Ezequiel Barrenechea,managing director for Latin American and the Caribbean for Corporacion America, the world’s largest private airport administrator and a partner in both projects. He expects in the next few months the Brazilian government likely will offer private concessions for several other airports, including one of the two airports in Rio de Janeiro, one in Belo Horizonte, plus another in the northeast, which could be Recife or Fortaleza.

In addition, Brazil has already approved the remodeling of its Guarulhos and Viracopos airports in Sao Paulo, and is expected to follow suit at Congonhas, the city’s domestic terminal.

Peru, for its part, launched an ambitious airport renewal plan just as the economic boom began to take shape several years ago. The first was Lima’s, where the renovation still wins international plaudits. The British airport auditor Skytrax Research lauded it as the best airport in South America for four years running, and in a survey of 213,000 travel agents, the World Travel Awards chose it for three consecutive years as the best in South America and number 17 worldwide.

Next, the Peruvian government approved renovation tenders for six more airports, all won by Corporacion America. They are: Tacna, Arequipa, Ayacucho, Juliaca, Puerto Maldonado and Andahuaylas.

In the first stage of these renovations, the focus was on modernization. In the second, the government turned its attention to new terminals. One new terminal, in Arequipa, will handle 3 million passengers per year, similar to the traffic at Montevideo.

The presidency of Ollanta Humala also has a new airport for Cuzco in its construction portfolio, since the current one is saturated. Sources from the sector estimate that the investment will come in between $400 and $450 million, and that it will be built in the valley. The existing airport is 3,300 meters above sea level, and passengers have the sensation of not having left the plane after it lands because of the thin air at such high altitude.

In the Jungle

Ecuador has also stepped up airport investments. It renovated the Guayaquil terminal area in 2006, which is now surrounded by a botanical garden and can handle 5 million passengers per year. In 2011, it offered up the construction challenge of offering tenders for Tena– an enclave in the Amazon jungle.

Ecuador’s next airport inauguration, in December or January, will take place on the Galapagos Islands. Corporacion America proudly reports that it will be “the world’s first ecological airport,” incorporating as many renewable resources as possible.

“It’s our baby project, the one we’re giving the best care,” says Barrenechea. He claims the characteristics of the project are so innovative that no other project in the world comes close to duplicating it. Among the particulars, it will operate on solar energy and utilize rainwater.

This is the only management concession the Rafael Correa government has issued, and will last 15 years. The investment is just 25 million dollars, “but it is a much more complex project than a conventional one of $100 million,” Barrenechea says, partly due to logistics, like bringing in supplies from the mainland.

Argentina hasn’t stood idly by. The expansions of the Ministro Pistarini International Airport and the Jorge Newbery Aeropark, both of which serve the capital city, are well into their respective stages of renovation. Corporacion America is responsible for the work, through its subsidiary Aeropuertos Argentina 2000. It has also completed renovations in Cordoba, Bariloche and Santiago del Estero. The company currently manages 33 airports in Argentina and 17 overseas.

The revamped Ezeiza international airport, in Buenos Aires. Photo: Corporacion America

Another member of Mercosur, Paraguay, is projecting a doubling of passenger volume at the Silvio Pettirossi International Airport of Asuncion in the near future. The work there, expected to begin before year’s end, will expand its capacity to 2 million passengers per year.

In recent years Uruguay has renovated the Carrasco Airport in Montevideo, and another at the beach resort of Punta del Este.

“Montevideo is the jewel in the crown,” says Barrenechea, explaining that the air terminal there has a “unique roof that would be very difficult to re-create.”

Improving Connections

Beyond South America, Central America refuses to be left behind in the rush to upgrade. Panama, for one, is moving ahead at full speed. The Tocumen International Airport is undergoing its third expansion– prompted by the growth of Copa Airlines, for which it serves as hub– and two further expansions are in the planning stage.

“We are in the heart of the Americas,” Ernesto Orillac, viceminister of tourism of Panama, told Latin Trade, “and we are taking full advantage of our geographical position.”

At present Tocumen connects to 70 destinations, giving the local tourism industry a big boost. Tocumen is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year, and in 2011, 6.5 million pa-ssengers passed through its terminal, making it Panama’s main port of access.

Over the last five years tourism has grown between 10 percent and 12 percent annually in Panama, while spending by tourists has spiked 12 percent to 14 percent annually. Part of the bump comes from new kinds of tourism— like shopping trips or family vacations— on top of well established business travel.

Orillac notes that in July Panama officially opened a new domestic airport in Rio Hato, on the Pacific coast, to develop the Bocas del Toro zone. At the same time it is renovating three existing structures: David, Colon and Howard Base, the latter having been occupied previously by American military forces. The Colon airport, on the Caribbean side, will be converted from a domestic airport to an international terminal.

The most embryonic project, but also one that’s generating enthusiasm, is in Guatemala City. Oddra Lacs, from the General Management of Civil Aeronautics, tells Latin Trade that this year the World Bank will conclude a feasibility study on renovations at the San José Airport, including plans to equip it for international traffic. There are four more airports, each with unique needs, waiting their turn to be modernized. Right now the most important one in terms of passenger flow is at La Aurora, in the capital city.

Lacs said other airports that need upgrading include terminals in Puerto Barrios, Peten, Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu. Peten, the most tourist-oriented, can only receive aircraft with up to 48 passengers and wants to attract larger flights to boost visits to the Maya zone.

Lagging behind in airport upgrades are Bolivia and Venezuela, countries with no renovation plans for the future, but which “have huge needs for improving infrastructure,” not only in terms of logistics, but also in terms of security, according to a source in the sector.

 

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