El Salvador International Airport is opening a $20 million expansion on 20 March that will more than double its gate capacity and greatly increase its passenger-handling capability.
The expansion at the airport, sited near the country's capital San Salvador, will add eight new gates and air bridges at the enlarged terminal and creates remote parking space for another five aircraft. Until now the airport has offered only six gates connected to the terminal and almost-random apron parking arrangements.
According to Grupo TACA's vice president and general manager for El Salvador, William Handal, El Salvador state airport and port authority CEPA has paid for the project entirely out of government funds - no users have been asked to contribute.
Handal says the expansion will effectively be used almost entirely by Grupo TACA's airlines both to accommodate existing flights and as they launch expanded non-stop service to North American destinations.
Handal says that TACA has been calling urgently for the expansion for the last five years. During that period Grupo TACA has increasingly had to bus passengers to aircraft parked out on the ramp, or even had to make them walk to their aircraft.
Each new gate has its own departure lounge, and according to Handal the new facilities are "beautiful and very comfortable." The expansion supports the extra gates with an enlarged arrivals hall featuring five new large baggage conveyor belts, which replace the two much smaller belts that previously served all passengers.
The enlarged terminal also features more duty-free shopping space and outlets as well as two additional restaurants. However, according to Handal, there was no need to enlarge the airport's customs and immigration facilities in line with the new expansion, because last year CEPA built new facilities five times as large as those that the airport previously had.
During last year's expansion phase, CEPA also doubled the space available for ticketing and check-in so the latest expansion has not provided any further space for these functions.
However, one feature of the new expansion that is of great benefit to Grupo TACA is provision for vastly enlarged premium-class lounge space. Handal estimates that the new club that TACA is opening will be fully six times as big as the tiny lounge that was all it could offer in the past. Another plus is that the new club will be located in the new terminal extension.
He says that this is a particularly important development in light of the forthcoming launch of TACA's Class Ejecutiva business class service, aimed primarily at its growing North American route network.
Just how critical TACA's need for more gates has been can be seen from Handal's statement that "even in the low season TACA needs eight gates" at El Salvador International.
"In the high season, we need them all," he says, adding that fortunately TACA will have by far the bulk of the use of all 14 jetway gates because its operations continue throughout the day, whereas most other carriers use the airport only early in the morning.
Handal cannot confirm the theoretical passenger-handling capacity of the expanded terminal facilities, but says it is well in excess of the 2 million passenger level that CEPA expects the airport to reach in the next two or three years.
In any case, he adds, CEPA's passenger growth estimate for the near future may be rather optimistic, even though Delta and United are each beginning a new flight to El Salvador International in the next few weeks.
Handal believes that the airport can easily achieve a 1.25 million-passenger throughput within the next year, but says "a million [extra] passengers is a lot", considering that El Salvador International handled about 1 million international passenger arrivals and departures in 1997.
TACA is beginning new non-stop services to Washington, DC and New York from the airport next month as the first step in its planned expansion of non-stop flights to North American destinations. TACA itself operates to eight US destinations from El Salvador International, while group carriers Aviateca and LACSA operate to Miami and San Francisco respectively from the airport, each with an intermediate stop at Guatemala City.