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A Look Southward

Published: 31/03/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » April 2014 » Destinations » Home » Features »

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International passenger demand to Latin America is burgeoning, begetting stronger airlines and better airports. Consider: according to the International Air Transport Association, Latin carriers posted an 8.1 percent rise in demand in 2013 vs. 2012. After the Middle East, this was the “second-strongest [regional] performance” on the planet. 

Leading the pace of that robust progress are some key airfields: 

Bogotá El Dorado International (BOG) is Avianca’s prime hub. One of the region’s historic pioneers, Avianca merged with Salvadoran carrier TACA in 2010 to fashion a formidable, service-intensive competitor.

In terms of sheer size, homeport El Dorado is immense. It’s 1,700-acre expanse is graced by a pair of 12,467-foot runways tailor-made for launching intercontinental flights. From BOG you can connect to the likes of La Paz and Lima, as well as smaller cities such as Villavicencio and Yopal. That’s the advantage of a network carrier, one with real reach.

Handling much of the traffic is El Dorado’s new International Terminal. Opened in 2012 the futuristic affair has twice as many immigration counters as the old digs, double the check-in counters too. Bogotá’s elegant edifice is a light-suffused, amply ventilated space packed with more places to eat, drink and spend.  

Cancun International (CUN)may be the consummate leisure-centric airport on the continent. But it also handles a surprising number of business travelers bound for the beach resort to get in a bit of conferencing. It’s not so much a hub as an omnivorous O&D (origin and destination) airport. After Mexico City, it’s Mexico’s busiest airfield, growing by 10.4 percent in 2013 compared to 2012.

To keep up with demand, CUN sports a pair of intercontinentally-capable parallel runways. In the works is a 20-gate Terminal 4. When it’s finished Cancun can claim 88 gates in all. Cancun has racked up its share of trophies. In 2011 it won Airport Council Internationals’ kudo as Best Airport in Latin America – Caribbean. The award is pegged to service. 

While some largely leisure airports are bereft of airport clubs, Cancun has two of them. You’ll find the Business Lounge après security in Terminals 2 and 3. 

Panama City Tocumen International (PTY)sits atop the narrow isthmus that connects North and South America, an apt place for what’s emerging as the region’s “big connecting hub,” according to Josh Marks, CEO of masFlight, an aviation data and analytics firm. “The future is going to be Panama,” agrees Mike Boyd, president of aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International. He labels Panama City “the Singapore of the hemisphere.” 

Copa is king at PTY, one of the most expansive airlines in either North or South America. Its traffic has been growing by double-digits. Plans were by the beginning of this year for Copa to be flying 90 airplanes, an increasing proportion of them new, larger Boeing 737-800 Next Generation twinjets. 

You can shelve the “banana republic” references. Panama is a bonafide economic powerhouse. Latin American trade is hot just now, and the commercial waves emanate from Panama City. Copa is the link, and Tocumen the linchpin. 

PTY has undergone a multi-stage expansion since 2006. The latest iteration of this growth is Terminal Muelle Norte. A completely new facility, its dozen gates are connected to the main passenger terminal via moving sidewalks. In all, inclusive of remote boarding spaces, it sports 40 gates. Muelle Norte opened in 2012.  

Quito Airport Mariscal Sucre (UIO)is on our list too. Not because the Ecuadorian airfield is a major hub, not even because it offers service to the wildly otherworldish Galapagos Island. We added UIO because of the dramatic improvement its new airport represents. 

If the old Mariscal Sucre airfield made for breathtaking landings (literally) the new suburban site of the same name offers similarly stimulating scenarios. It’s a $750-million affair that sports a runway long enough to handle the gargantuan A380, even offer nonstop flights to Europe. It’s the lengthiest in Latin America. Andean altitudes, and less length, limited the reach of nonstop flights from the old airport. It’s no coincidence that international traffic blossomed by 12.8 percent during the first quarter of 2013 compared to a year earlier. The new UIO opened in February 2013. 

New route possibilities are flooding in, including feelers from Air France and Air Canada. In a major signal, perhaps, of better things to come, Iberia began flying nonstop thrice-weekly from Quito to Madrid last Fall. 

If you haven’t frequented Quito since then get ready for some changes – for the good. Quito Airport Centre sports a new food court, more commercial services, a new VIP lounge, expanded duty-free, and a 5-star, 140-room hotel for folks who don’t want to make the trip into the city. It too can be lengthy.  

Rio de Janeiro/Galeão-Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport (GIG)is the portal through which world-class athletes and their followers will be flowing fast over the next two-and-a-half years. They’ll be Rio-bound for the 2014 FIFA World Cup of football (the round, non-ovular kind) and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. 

To prepare for the influx, Terminals 1 and 2 underwent major makeover and the airport laid down loads more parking spaces. These sorely-needed terminal renovations mean trendy Rio should be able to handle as many as 43-million passengers per year.

Americans already love Rio, and have loved it for years. The United States was, behind Argentina, the second-largest lofter of leisure travelers to the city in 2012. A full 159,997 of them flew down to Rio. They love the city and crave Copacabana. What they don’t necessarily love is the airport. The Rio Timesquotes one passenger arriving a while back as saying, “I thought the airport was pretty lackluster. The baggage claim especially felt creaky and the clamoring taxi drivers outside gave it a ‘Wild West’ feel.” 

The update will be welcome.

São Paulo Guarulhos International Airport (GRU)is the largest airport in Brazil’s largest city. It’s a no-nonsense businessport, serving some 35 million passengers per year. Flyers flow through three terminals: TPS1, TPS2 and TPS4. 

In anticipation that it’s going to be seeing a significant slice of the traffic ultimately bound for Rio’s sporting events, GRU too is reworking a couple of terminals. On tap for Terminals 1 and 2: expansion of baggage handling, passport control and security screening, new signage, renovated escalators and elevators, more parking and better restrooms, an overlooked amenity making an airports hospitable.

On the way is TPS3, the airport’s fourth facility. It will include a 50-room hotel, located in the restricted area inside the terminal, before immigration control. It’s largely intended for passengers with connecting flights.

There will also be moving sidewalks connecting Terminals 1, 2 and 3, a shopping mall replete with a variety of restaurants, and a new automated self-serve bag check-in set up.

No, there are no new mega airport projects afoot just now in Latin America, nothing certainly on the grandiose scale of what’s happening in the Middle East at places such as Doha and Istanbul. What’s happening way down south falls more in the prosaic ‘blocking and tackling’ category. Although it may not possess the pizzazz of those major projects that are coming online a half world away, for the fliers flowing in increasing numbers to this part of the planet, it’s critically important. 

By Jerome Greer Chandler

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