Building any new airport is a major infrastructure development project, but when the required facility is located 7,000ft above sea level in the Andes, it is a mega-event.
The construction challenges, and finding the funds to pay for it, perhaps best explains why Quito’s downtown located Mariscal Sucre International Airport has remained open for so long despite its outdated facilities and operational limitations.
However, all this is about to change with the planned February 20, 2013, opening of Quito’s new $700 million gateway to the world.
Located 20 kilometres from Mariscal Sucre, the new airport will initially boast a single, state-of-the-art terminal and runway capable of handling up to 5.5 million passengers per annum.
It is being built by Quiport – an international consortium led by Canada’s Aecon Construction Group and Andrade Gutierrez from Brazil – which pledged to finance, build and operate a replacement airport for Mariscal Sucre when awarded its 35-year concession in 2002.
In truth, the new airport has been built quite quickly considering all the legal and environmental hoops that have had to be jumped through since then, but, because construction work first started on the site in late 2005, it does feel like it’s been a long time coming.
While slightly disappointed that this year’s planned October 12 opening date has been put back, Quiport president and CEO, Philippe Baril, is 100% confident that its February 20 date with destiny will happen.
“The date is final, we shall have our new state-of-the-art airport on February 20 next year,” says Baril. “It will be amazing and totally transform airport travel to Quito and Ecuador.
“We are ready to go now, so waiting a few more months will simply give us a little more time to make sure the transition from Mariscal Sucre to the new airport goes as smoothly as possible.”
Quiport’s determination to ensure a smooth overnight transition to the new airport has led it to enlist the help of move specialist Munich Airport (FMG).
Including overseeing its own switch to a new site in Munich 20 years ago, FMG has provided assistance on 23 airport ‘moves’ – either to new sites or terminals – across the globe, making Baril confident that it is more than capable of ensuring the overnight move of the airport’s 6,000 staff, tonnes of equipment and aircraft.
“Its track record speaks for itself,” says Baril, noting that one of the airports FMG has provided such services for is Madrid-Barajas, which has 35,000 staff.
In terms of timings, Baril says that the president of Ecuador will officially inaugurate Quito’s new airport on February 20, although it won’t handle any aircraft until the following day as all flights will continue to operate to Mariscal Sucre until 6pm.
The move will then happen overnight allowing for the first flights to leave the new airport at 6am on February 21.
Baril insists that the move cannot come quickly enough for his team and his airline customers, although he appreciates that it will be a bit of a culture shock to the Ecuadorian people.
He comments: “I know that some people are concerned about the distance to the new airport, but that, in part, comes from them being spoilt by the downtown location of Mariscal Sucre, which practically allows them to look out of their windows, see their plane coming in, and then leave for the airport.
“Average journey times now are probably about 15 minutes, and that will obviously change when the new airport opens. However, we are only talking about maximum journey times of 30 to 45 minute on a new six-lane highway, so things won’t be that different really.
“I am 100% positive that once people experience the new airport and see how it will transform flying to Quito, they will be very happy and concerns about its distance from the city centre will soon disappear.”
Baril laughs out loud when asked why Quito so desperately needs a new airport.
“Where do I start?” he muses. “Because the existing airport is 52 years old, in the middle of the city and surrounded by houses, tall buildings and mountains, which makes it one of the most difficult airports to land at in the world. In fact, only experienced pilots are allowed to fly here.
“Its height, 9,000ft above sea level, also means that flights are not able to take-off with full payloads, effectively meaning that aircraft only have a range of four to five hours flying time from Quito before they have to stop and refuel.”
In reality this means that the furthest commercial jets can fly non-stop from Quito is Miami, Lima, Houston and Atlanta. Any further, and aircraft have to refuel at Guayaquil (Ecuador) or another airport en route to destinations such as New York, Santiago or Madrid and Amsterdam in Europe.
In marked contrast, the new airport’s location 7,000ft (2,400m) above sea level – 2,000ft (610m) lower that Mariscal Sucre – and 4.1 kilometre long runway, as opposed to 3km today will ensure that it will be capable of handling direct flights to Europe.
In addition to the boost for passenger traffic, this also means that flights will be able to carry significant volumes of bellyhold cargo for the first time.
Baril also believes that it is almost impossible to overstate the positive impact the new airport will have on customer service and, subsequently, passenger satisfaction levels.
A bold statement perhaps, but for starters the terminal will have 17 shops and restaurants that will include international brands such as Starbucks and Johnny Rockets, among others.
It will also have over 1,000sqm of duty free outlets operated by Attenza Duty Free, the commercial identity of Motta Internacional SA, a subsidiary of Stanley Motta, the current chairman of Copa Airlines.
Attenza Duty Free will have two locations in the airport – an 886sqm walkthrough store in international departures and a 266sqm outlet in international arrivals.
“Even the biggest supporters of Mariscal Sucre would acknowledge that its facilities are tired and old. It will be a very different story at the new airport, which will be modern and spacious and contain the type of facilities that you’d expect of a top international airport.
“In all honesty, our lack of facilities and operating constraints meant that there was really no point in us signing up to ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer satisfaction survey, as we couldn’t do much to make improvements.
“We will absolutely join ASQ in 2013 and I am sure that we will do very well.”
The new airport will also do much to boost the coffers of Quiport, as under the concession agreement signed with the Ecuadorian government, it will get to keep 89% of its regulated revenues.
The situation is almost exactly the reverse at Mariscal Sucre, where the government receives 100% of the income from the airport’s handful of shops and F&B outlets.
Baril says the change will mean that Quiport earns 25% of its revenue from commercial activity at the new airport.
The extra capacity the new airport will bring is certainly needed as booming traffic demand has led to passenger numbers at Quito Airport rising from 3.5 million in 2007 to 5.4 million (+6.4%) in 2011 – a rise of almost two million passengers in just four years.
And with passenger throughput soaring by 9% during the first six months of the year, Baril notes that the new capacity-enhancing gateway is very much needed.
He attributes the huge upturn in traffic to falling ticket prices as a result of increased airline competition on the back of Ecuador’s rapidly developing economy, fuelled by oil, mining (gold and copper) and tourism.
The international community’s interest in Ecuador and, indeed, increasingly in investing in Ecuadorian businesses and industries, is also helped by the fact that it uses the US dollar as its currency.
Baril is quick to point out that business traffic to Quito is on the rise, particularly from Panama, which brings around 400 business passengers a day.
Indeed, he reveals that business passengers currently account for 60% of all domestic passengers and around 10% of international travellers.
The biggest airlines serving Quito in terms of operations are local carrier TAME, LAN and Aerogal for domestic flights, and American Airlines, KLM and Iberia for international services.
United, Delta and TACA are among the other international carriers serving Quito, and Baril is confident that Quiport will be able to add to the list when the new airport opens for business.
In fact, he even goes as far to state that he believes that it will serve as the catalyst for route development at its facilities, and crucially, the fact that airlines will not have to operate via Guayaquil or some other destination to refuel, will appeal to a host of carriers that it hopes will include Air France, GOL and Aeromexico.
“Airlines have been holding off for the new airport to open before making any route development decisions. Soon they will no longer have an excuse not to fly to Quito,” he says.
A sign of Quiport’s ambitions for the gateway is evidenced by the fact that its master plan sets out three distinct dates for development work to begin on expanding the terminal – in 2015, 2019 and 2023.
Next on the agenda is a 15,000sqm extension to the terminal, which Baril says will be 100% funded by Quiport, whose list of international shareholders include Aecon, Houston Airport System, Canadian construction firm ADC and Brazilian companies Companhia de Concessões Rodoviárias and Andrade Gutierrez.
“There is a lot to look forward,” smiles Baril. “Passengers that fly to Quito from next February will be in for a pleasant surprise by what they find.”