After a series of delays, Quito's new Mariscal Sucre International Airport will open Feb. 20, giving Ecuador the longest runway in Latin America, and opening the way for non-stop, jumbo jet flights from as far away as Europe.
Latin America's Longest Runway
The 4,100-meter runway, among the half-dozen largest in the entire Western Hemisphere, was actually ready for use in July 2012, and received an American Airlines jumbo jet in a test landing (left). But opening was delayed until early 2013 because the surrounding infrastructure was not ready to support important needs such as ground transportation.
The construction process has been going on since 2006. "Feb. 20 is a firm date," says Lorena Teran, executive director of the Quito Convention and Incentives Bureau. "The existing airport closes down completely on the night of Feb. 19, and the new airport opens up fully on Feb. 20." When that happens, it will be the realization of a key development priority, not just for the city of Quito, but also for the entire country. The old Mariscal Sucre airport was considered a limiting factor to inbound travel and economic growth for the nation, hampered by its short runway (3,120 meters) that, combined with the mountains that surround it, made it a poor match for modern jumbo jets.
New Infrastructure Needed
The new airport has a longer runway and is located outside the city on a flat plain with clear air approaches. But with the move to a 1,500-hectare tract of land about 12 miles east of the city center came new infrastructure problems. First, the roads linking the site to downtown were not up to handling the 5 million travelers a year the first phase of the airport is built to accommodate, and there are no on-site hotels or hotels near the new airport. Some local travel companies predicted the journey from the airport to downtown hotels could take as much as two hours on the patchwork road system.
That's one of the reasons the local travel and convention business sector asked Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to delay opening the new airport until after the tourism and convention high season of October through January. Those in the industry are more confident now. "The situation is much better now than it was last summer when the airport itself was ready," Teran says.
Highway Bypasses Shorten Ground Travel Times
During the past few months, a series of highway bypasses has been built around major weak points in the existing road system, and a new ground transportation terminal for shuttle bus service to the new airport is opening on the grounds of the old airport, which is 15 minutes from downtown. "This should help a lot, although the new highway system between the airport and the center city won't be fully complete until sometime in 2014," Teran adds. When the airport opens, travel time to and from the city center is expected to be around 45 minutes.
Several major hotel projects are in the works for the new airport are in the works, and Teran expects formal announcements this year of major hotel brands' plans.
The new Quito airport will be served by a dozen major airlines with non-stop service from world air hubs including Miami, New York City, London, Frankfurt, Paris and Johannesburg.
The complex has the capacity to handle 18 aircraft at a time, with a 38,000-square-meter terminal building with 60 airline counters and six gates, plus 12 aircraft boarding stands outside the terminal. It's still small compared to Cancun's 47 gates or Bogota's 34, but this is just the first phase of a Quito air hub that industry analysts expect to grow in coming years.
Certainly, one of the region's largest international carriers hopes to capitalize on the new facility. "American Airlines is excited about the new Quito airport," says Art Torno, American Airlines' vice president for Mexico, Caribbean and Latin America. American is the largest U.S.-based airline serving Ecuador, with 24 weekly non-stop flights from its Latin American hub in Miami. "The new Quito airport will offer passengers a more modern facility with additional space," Torno adds. "We believe that having a new, modern airport will make air travel to and through Ecuador more attractive for passengers."