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Sea Level, Mile High & Higher

Published: 03/11/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » November 2014 » Destinations » Home » Features »

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In 2013, Brazil’s Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport came in at the number one spot for busiest airports in South America by traffic, with 35,962,000 passengers, a rise of 33.9 percent since 2010. Getting there from places like MIA – the major US gateway to South America – as well as other destinations within Latin America, is well on its way to becoming both easier and less congested for travelers. 


First at sea level, it’s no secret why Miami International Airport (MIA) with its 966,980 seats is dubbed “Gateway to the Americas.” It’s the largest air portal linking the US, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Covering 3,230 acres just west of downtown Miami, MIA has four runways that range from 8,600 feet to 13,000 feet. Its 2013 rankings among US airports include first in international freight, second in international passengers, third in both total freight and total cargo, and 10th in total passengers. Worldwide, it’s 9th in both international freight and total freight, 26th in international passengers, and 26th in total passengers. 

In terms of flight operations, a total of 395,922 commercial aircraft movements were posted, 188,779 of which were international, with the remaining 207,143 domestic. The 40.5 million passengers who passed through MIA last year are virtually split evenly between the 20.2 million passengers traveling internationally, and the 20.3 million traveling within the US, bringing the weekly average total to 770,269 passengers. Of the more than 2 million tons of freight moving through MIA, 1.8 million tons of it was international, leaving another quarter million tons as domestic freight traffic. As of September 2014, Miami serves a total of 96 carriers, of which 57 are international and 39 US airlines carrying passengers conveniently nonstop to a total of 140 destinations, including 92 international and 48 within the US.

The 2013 completion of a $6.4 billion Capital Improvement Program (CIP) brought airport-wide changes to operations, the airfield, roadways, cargo facilities and terminals. The work added 4 million square feet to the previous 3.5 million square feet in the north and south terminals combined. 

Today MIA’s three terminals (north, central and south) now offer a total of 130 gates, 104 of which are international capable, plus 645 counters for purchasing tickets and other transactions. The new modern look is much brighter, with additional concessions for food (much of which is influenced by Latin America) and other areas for rest and relaxation, including seven VIP clubs and lounges post-security, with another three spread about pre-security.

Other areas of improvement include the MIA Mover, an elevated train transporting passengers from terminal to a new car rental facility and downtown rail connectors. In addition, access roads were widened to relieve traffic congestion. Next up, the opening any time now of an expanded mass transit hub – Miami Intermodal Center.

Mexico City

At over a mile above sea level, Mexico City International Airport – officially Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez (MEX) – is by far Mexico’s busiest airport and the second busiest in Latin America with a 2013 passenger traffic count of 31,532,331. It’s also Latin America’s busiest airport by aircraft movement. 

Owned by Grupo Aeroportuario de la Ciudad de México and operated by the government corporation Aeropuertos y Services Auxiliairies aries, MEX is the main hub for AeroMexico and services a total of 27 domestic and international airlines, with another 17 cargo carriers. However, it’s capacity is bursting at the seams and woefully inadequate for future growth.

Recognizing the need, on Sept. 2, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto unveiled plans for a new international airport to serve Mexico City, with a lofty goal of increasing the city’s ability to compete as a central business and travel connection hub.

With a spectacular design by British architect Norman Foster and Mexican colleague Fernando Romero, the four-plus year project is slated to begin in 2015. When completed, MEX will be one of the largest airports in the world, spanning over 5.4 million square feet and boasting the additional title of ”most sustainable airport ever built.”

Consisting of one giant X-shaped structure (rather than multiple separate buildings) the terminal will be wrapped in a unique skin to allow natural light to permeate the building and circulate air, collect rainwater and provide incredible views of planes circling the sky. Surrounded with a garden of cacti and symbols of the eagle and snake to symbolize the nation’s flag and coat of arms, the bright, airy enclosure is intended to incorporate large areas of translucent and opaque panels, daylight reflectors and building-integrated photovoltaic panels.

“These are all aimed at providing shade and thermal insulation, while also allowing views out and diffusing natural daylight throughout the terminal, thus reducing the need for supplementary lighting,” explains Foster and Partners architect, Piers Heath, part of the design team with FR-EE’s Fernando Romero.

Additional solar panels will ultimately provide 50-megawatts of peak power from other buildings and fields on the site, with enough electricity to supply the major portion of the airport’s energy. Of course, this is in addition to the facility’s own on-site central energy plant.

Financed by the $634 million in annual revenue currently being taken in by MEX, the new triple terminal airport is being built in two phases. The design is intended eventually to accommodate more than 100 million passengers a year, a substantial increase over the 30 million-plus that travel through the current airport each year. And it is poised to invite lines such as Alaska Air Group, Southwest Airlines and other low cost carriers. 

“One of the benefits of such a big airport is that more airlines can come to Mexico,” says Luis Zamorano, the director of transport and accessibility for the Mexico City-based Center for Sustainable Transport, a non-profit organization focused on transportation issues. “With a better airport, they could connect to many more locations around the United States.” 


With an elevation of 9,350 feet above sea level, San Francisco de Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is the highest official capital city in the world. However despite the handicaps that such altitudes place on air transport, Ecuador saw the need – and the opportunity – to further develop its aviation resources to accommodate more passengers traveling to and through the Americas.

Limited by its extreme elevation, the original airport went into operation in 1960. It would soon become the busiest airport in Ecuador and one of the busiest in South America, with a reported 6.2 million passengers and 164,000 metric tons of freight in its last years of operation. Here Ecuador’s national airline, TAME, rules. 

But even though the airport was a convenient five-minute drive to Quito’s financial center, being located in the middle of a city surrounded by towering mountains came with severe limitations for expansion, limiting direct flights to almost anywhere and denying access to today’s larger aircraft.

“The old airport was in the middle of town. Landing was dangerous,” explains Carlos Criado, business development director, Mariscal Sucre International Airport. “Runway conditions of a little under two miles meant a lot of flights could not depart to final destinations due to penalized payload because the aircraft could not take off. The advantage of the new airport is a runway of more than 2.5 miles, with a 400 feet decrease in altitude.”

Now the old landing strip has been turned into an urban park, and a little less than 12 miles away, an all-new airport opened on Feb. 20, 2013, under the same name (at the insistence of Ecuador’s president) thereby paying homage to Antonio Jose de Sucre, hero of Ecuadorian and Latin American independence. 

“We didn’t have the flexibility to grow with the previous airport,” explains Alisson Larrea, corporate affairs and marketing manager, Mariscal Sucre International Airport. “Now we have the only greenfield airport in the region.”

Built on an area of land 10 times larger than its predecessor, the airport features a four level terminal with nearly 128,000 square feet of floor space, six jetways and 12 remote gates, plus an air traffic control tower nearly 135 feet tall. The initial cargo capacity will be 250,000 tons a year, eventually increasing to 440,000 tons. 

However, all this new came at a price. Delays, infrastructure challenges, an increase in drive time from 30 minutes to an hour for most local residents, massive complaints concerning buses and the time it took to get passengers on board and disembarked from the aircraft, the cost of food in the terminal, even the disappearance of free WiFi in the early stages – all made for a contentious beginning.

“We had to ensure that our main users of passengers were understanding the benefits of the new airport, says Larrea. “And with social media nowadays, we’re able to get the information out.”

All the communications has begun to take root, and UIO seems to be getting past the operational growing pains. It was recently named “South America’s Leading Airport 2014” by the World Travel Awards. To win, it had to beat five other airports, including Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport, which previously had taken home the honor every year since 2009.

Operated by Quiport under a contract that lasts until 2040, Quito’s new greenfield Mariscal Sucre International Airport, or Aeropuerto Internacional de Quito (UIO), offers larger passenger and cargo facilities and bears the exclusive title of “Ecuador’s Certified Airport.”

“We are having an expansion in domestic areas,” says Criado. “Mainly we are expanding areas of boarding lounges, reducing 70 percent of the flights that board by bus, to 30 percent by bus and others by gates for better quality of service for passengers. Additional changes for the international airline areas include latest technologies such as self check-in kiosks and WiFi capabilities and greater security. We worked with immigration to make service as quick as possible for travelers.”

Will all this new-found capacity bring more international traffic to the lofty heights of Quito? Decidedly so, Criado says, citing the six months of discussions with other airlines to come to the new airport. The result has been direct flights from places like Mexico City, Miami, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Madrid and even Amsterdam, via such carriers as AeroMexico, Iberia, LAN and KLM. 

Load factors upward of 70 percent have led to a growth in international traffic by 10 percent, and all that’s prior to October’s new flights between Fort Lauderdale and New York, via TAME Airlines. With an average of 31 outbound and 30 inbound flights daily, TAME is Quito’s pack leader, while AeroGal comes in second with a frequency of 16 flights daily.

“Politicians love the word hub,” notes Criado. “But not all airports are hubs. And it is not easy to be a hub. What we are trying with Tame is a type of creativity. Bringing people from New York to change planes and go to other destinations like São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Caracus, Bogotá. But this is all in the initial stage at this point. It would be too pretentious to say we’re now a hub. But for domestic flights passengers have connectivity to all areas within Ecuador.”  

By Michael André Adams

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