Latin American airports are investing for passenger growth, despite macroeconomic concerns clouding the outlook of the region's airlines.
Several airports are in the midst of expansion works, while a handful of cities are planning completely new airports.
A number of existing airports are operating under new concessions that launched in recent years, kicking off growth being phased in under new management.
These include several in Brazil, which is in the process of privatising airports previously operated by state-owned Infraero.
Sao Paulo Guarulhos, the country's busiest airport, was privatised in 2012 and unveiled a new international terminal in 2014. The new Terminal 3 and the recent completion of an expansion to Terminal 2 lifted the airport's handling capacity to 48 million passengers annually. Guarulhos handled close to 40 million passengers in 2015.
In the past year, the airport was also certificated to receive the Airbus A380 – a step that its operations director, Cdr Miguel Dau, cites as among the improvements rolled out since Guarulhos was privatised.
"If you compare the airport before and after the concession, you have a very clear view of the improvements in terms of efficiency, increased passenger comfort and operations," Dau tells FlightGlobal.
When the airport was privatised, it was handling about 47 aircraft movements an hour. This has since risen to 52, says Dau.
As Brazil's economy remains sluggish, Guarulhos expects flat passenger traffic growth in 2017. The country is still reeling from the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, which has put Michel Temer in charge. Temer has promised economic stability for the country, but remains deeply unpopular with ordinary Brazilians and among Rousseff's political supporters.
Guarulhos' Dau is holding out hope that a further strengthening of the Brazilian real will lead to travellers returning to international destinations. Depending on how passenger demand performs in the coming years, the airport could trigger a further expansion in the form of a second pier for Terminal 3, he says.
This could add further capacity of 12 million passengers annually to the airport, he says.
While plans for a third runway for Guarulhos were previously dropped, Dau says a new government in power could give impetus for talks to restart.
Airports in other parts of Latin America are readying to add new terminals to expand their capacity.
Chile's Santiago airport was handed over to a new operator, Nuevo Pudahuel, in October 2015, kicking off a 20-year concession under which it will add a new international terminal, slated to open in 2020.
The airport, which now has only one terminal, says the new international terminal will increase capacity to more than 30 million passengers annually. Santiago handled 17 million in 2015.
"In addition, there are contractual traffic levels that will trigger the construction of additional capacity to add new terminal resources above 30 million passengers per year," says Nicolas Claude, the general manager of Nuevo Pudahuel.
The company is a consortium formed by Groupe ADP, Vinci Airports and Astaldi.
A new terminal will allow existing and new airlines to grow in Chile, says Claude. The airport has achieved double-digit growth since the start of 2016.
"In addition to the quality of service that the new terminal and the refurbished existing one will offer, Santiago airport will be able to compete with the other airports in the region," he adds.
In Peru, Lima airport is planning to add a second runway and a new passenger terminal for the third phase of its expansion. In May, the airport inaugurated a renovated northern apron area with seven aircraft parking stands, taking the total of such stands to 54. This enabled the airport to increase its daily flight capacity 20%, says airport operator Lima Airport Partners (LAP).
The airport handled 17.1 million passengers in 2015, and passenger traffic rose 11.2% in the first eight months of 2016, LAP says.
Further north, Panama City Tocumen is progressing with construction of a new south terminal. Construction is more than half complete, says the airport's general manager Joseph Fidanque.
The $1.1 billion terminal will add 20 new gates, of which two are capable of handling widebodies. The airport will have 54 contact gates after the new terminal opens beginning in January 2018, taking the airport's capacity to 21 million passengers annually from 14 million.
Fidanque expects the terminal to be fully open in April 2018. "It's progressing on track," he says.
Further down the road, the airport has plans to build a third runway that will be ready between 2022 and 2024. Construction is likely to begin in 2019, Fidanque says. A new cargo terminal and duty-free zone are also in the works, he adds.
Tocumen is home to Copa Airlines, which operates more than 85% of the flights out of the airport. Fidanque says the airport proceeds with major investments only if Copa is on board. "We partner closely. I can't be building an airport without talking to my biggest client."
Fidanque believes the expansion of Tocumen will make the airport even more attractive than it is today. He points to Panama's ideal location between North and South America, and the country's sea-level position and good weather conditions that allow flights to operate smoothly.
Latin America's airports are growing as they look to attract service to new destinations, particularly beyond the Americas. Guarulhos, for example, is courting service to Australia and New Zealand, says Dau. Service to Israel is also on the airport's wish list.
Panama City's "number-one priority" is service to London, says Fidanque. Within the Americas, the airport is in talks with two US carriers which Fidanque declines to name.
While Latin American airports are expanding, some cities are planning new airports as space constraints limit growth at existing facilities.
Authorities in Mexico City and Bogota have disclosed plans for new airports to replace or supplement the existing congested ones – among the region's busiest – although these plans have attracted their share of criticism.
The new Mexico City International airport, intended to handle 50 million passengers annually in its Ps180 billion ($9.2 billion) initial phase, is slated to open in 2020. The capacity could be expanded further to 125 million passengers annually, Mexican authorities have said. The state-owned company in charge of building the new airport did not respond to queries from FlightGlobal.
In Bogota, Colombia's government earlier this year unveiled plans for a new airport, dubbed El Dorado II, to serve as the city's secondary airport.
Congestion at Mexico City and Bogota airports have long frustrated airlines, but plans for the new airports have also been questioned by the industry.
Colombian airlines are unsure about the logic of splitting operations between two airports in Bogota, and are calling on the authorities to expand the existing airport instead. "It makes no sense," Avianca chairman German Efromovich told FlightGlobal in March. "You should expand the one that you have."
The airline industry has also wondered aloud if the new airport plans are too little, too late, after years of operating at facilities bursting at the seams. IATA's regional vice-president for the Americas, Peter Cerda, pointed out in June that other countries such as Singapore and China had planned far ahead when it came to ensuring that airports could meet future growth. He cites those two as examples that Latin American governments can look to.
"Planning for any sort of infrastructure is not short term," he says. "We as a region have not done a very good job."
Source: Cirium Dashboard