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Hub of the Americas

Tocumen International Airport’s general manager, Joseph Fidanque III, talks to Joe Bates about his gateway’s ambitious development plans.

Tocumen maybe not be the biggest of airport’s in terms of passenger numbers and Panama is certainly one of the smallest countries in the world let alone Central America, but don’t ever let this fool you into thinking it is a sleepy back water because the airport is hugely ambitous.

So, you think you’ve heard it all before? Well, think again because this is no ordinary airport as its plans include a new state-of-the-art south terminal (Terminal 2), building Central America’s first airport city and, if the finances add up, a mororail link to a rail station two kilometres away.

There are also plans for a new parallel runway between 2022 and 2024 to complement its existing 8,500ft and 10,500ft runways and ensure that Tocumen’s already congested airfield is able to keep up with demand in the mid to long-term.

And the airport master plan calls for a new 2.6 kilometre, four lane access road and a new ATC tower to ensure that controllers can view the third runway. 

The situation means that it actually has three different master plans – one for the overall development of the airport developed by ADPi (including Terminal 2 and the location of the new third runway and future third terminal), one for the airport city and one for the possible development of the new monorail.

Its ambitions are bold, but it is perhaps easy to forget that Tocumen is already the biggest transfer hub in the region and, with the notable exception of Mexico City, has a route network that serves more US cities than any other airport in the region.

In fact the airport calls itself the ‘Hub of the Americas’, and with traffic set to rise by an average of 6% to 7% per annum for the forseeable future, its Panamanian-government owners want to protect the country’s only major international airport. 

Indeed, such is the importance that Panama places on Tocumen International Airport that President, Juan Carlos Varela, personally appointed general manager, Joseph Fidanque III, in August 2014 with the specific brief to oversee its development.

And the new boss is under no illusions about the importance of the airport to his country and its future prosperity.

“There is more to this country that just the Panama Canal,” he tells Airport World. “Tocumen is the country’s main airport and the Hub of the Americas and, as such, a key economic generator for Panama.”

“There cannot be many airports in the world that handle more passengers than the population of their country. Around four million people live in Panama but we expect to handle more than three times this in 2015 with just shy of 14 million passing through our facilities.

“The airport is also DHL’s hub for Central America and a growing player in the cargo market, especially the movement of pharmaceuticals, although I feel that there is much more to come in terms of moving high value goods.

“Make no mistake about it, Tocumen is a national asset and needs a long-term vision for not only today but for 20 or 30 years from now to ensure that it is allowed to grow and continue to play a major role in the country’s development.”


New infrastructure

The desire to upgrade Tocumen’s key aviation infrastucture will see it invest $1.4 billion on Terminal 2, airfield enhancements, new cargo buildings and the refurbishment of some existing facilities over the next four years.

Fidanque proudly says that the 20-gate Terminal 2 has been designed by Sir Norman Foster of Foster+Partners who has arguably designed some of the world’s most iconic airport terminals in Hong Kong and Bejing. 

Set to open in late 2017, the new 85,000sqm terminal will be located 200 metres south of the existing passenger complex and raise Tocumen’s capacity to more than 20mppa.

Despite the short distance between the terminals, a new automated people mover (APM) system is expected to connect to them as passengers will face a potential 1.6km walk from the northern end
of the existing terminal to southern tip of T2. 

“Our new terminal will be iconic and beautiful and there will be nothing else like it in Central America,” enthuses Fidanque. 

He says T2 will boast “state-of-the-art technologies” and have 9,000sqm of new retail and F&B outlets that he hopes can boost Tocumen’s revenues to help pay for its development and help keep airline fees down.

He is currently talking to a couple of companies about formulating a plan for the retail/F&B layout in the terminal, one of which is Pragma in the UK, and openly admits that he will be canvassing interest from potential duty free operators and other concessionaires at the upcomiong Tax Free World Association (TFWA) Exhibition & Conference in Cannes.

Other features of the new terminal include 60 customs and immigration desks and a baggage handling system capable of processing 6,500 bags per hour.

Fidanque is also honest enough to admit that the airport isn’t 100% certain that it can afford the new APM upon the terminal’s opening, but promises that it will have one if “the maths add up”.

The new terminal will increase the number of gates at Tocumen to 54, rising to 68 including 14 remote stands, the benefits of which Fidanque says cannot be underestimated.

“We need the gates to make transferring through Tocumen easier and more efficient as we simply don’t have enough at the moment for our level of traffic,” he states.

He notes that new taxiways and rapid exit taxiways are also being added to improve Tocumen’s airfield efficiency as the existing runway configuration – Tocumen’s 8,500ft second runway is located at an angle to the main 10,500ft runway – can mean that during peak periods it sometimes takes aircraft 20 minutes to reach the gate after landing or the runway from the gate when taking off.  

A new parallel runway, he points out, will help solve this problem by creating a whole new airfield dynamic. 

It is expected to be built on empty land next to Tocumen that the airport can acquire by compulsory purchase after the Panamanian government prevented it from being developed in anticipation of it being needed by the airport.

In the interim period before the new runway opens Fidanque confirms that he will be looking to limit the number of private jets operating into Tocumen in a bid to free up precious runway space.

Indeed, nearby Howard Airport has already been identified as the most likely new base for general aviation in Panama City due to its hangar space and maintenance facilities.

And Fidanque’s determination to make this happen was cemented earlier this summer when a Learjet got stuck on one of Tocumen’s runways when it suffered problems with its landing gear. The incident forced the closure of the runway for two hours and led to a catalogue of delays.

“You don’t see a small jet landing at Heathrow or JFK, so why should they land here. It just doesn’t make any sense,” he says.


Monorail system

Providing rail access to Tocumen would significantly improve its accessibilty to the capital, but with the nearest subway station two kilometres away and no chance of extending it to the airport, the gateway has come up with an ingenious plan to bridge the gap.

“It is in the early stages of development, and we have yet to decide if it is finacially possible, but we are looking at building a monorail system between the Tocumen and the new Panama Metro station,” explains Fidanque.

“We are working on the master plan now and believe that a mororail system is feasible, but if the costs prove prohibitive, an APM could be a more affordable alternative.”

The airport would almost certainly be looking for private developers to contribute the bulk of the expense of the new monorail, which is expected to cost around $60 million to develop.

The rail station for a new Line 2 of the Panama Metro is currently being built by state-owned El Metro de Panama SA. Line 1 opened last year and is described as a metropolitan rapid rail system that links Los Andes County with downtown Panama City via 13 stations and 8.5 miles of track.


Airport city

First mooted on 2004, the airport is now keen to revive Tocumen’s airport city plans and, according to Fidanque, at least three companies are interested in the project.

A hotel, convention centre and a hospital were formerly discussed for a 325 hectare site bought from the University of Panama and the airport is refusing to rule them out this time around as it prepares to finalise the master plan for its deveopment.

“There are a lot of companies that want to be near to the airport and develop facilities such as hotels, conference centres, offices and logistics centres for aviation related activity,” says Fidanque.

Unlike last time around, Tocumen instead of private developers is the driving force behind the devlopment of the airport city project, which Fidanque believes is the logical next step in the gateway’s evolution.

He reveals that the airport expects to announce the company chosen to develop the master plan for the airport city project any day now.

Tocumen is located around 35 kilometres from downtown Panama City, which typically takes around 25 to 30 minutes by road.


Traffic trends

He describes 2014 as a good year for the airport based on solid traffic growth of 9.6% that saw passenger numbers through Tocumen swell to a record 12.8 million.

Fidanque attributes the impressive upturn to a number of factors, the biggest without doubt being the continued expansion of Tocumen’s route network by home carrier Copa Airlines and new entrants such as TAP Portugal (Bogota–Tocumen) and Air France, which currently operates five weekly flights between Panama City and its Paris hub.

United Airlines also launched a new Denver service in December 2014 and the news routes have continued coming this year with Copa already adding New Orleans and announcing plans to launch services to the Mexican cities of Villahermosa and Puebla in August and San Francisco, the airport’s 14th non-stop US destination, in September.

He says that the Air France route has proved so successful that he expects the carrier to up frequency from five to seven weekly flights later this year. 

The airport’s fast growing route network means that 81 global destinations are currently served from Tocumen, with the figure rising to at least 83 by the year-end.

The size of Panama – its 75,000 square kilometres makes it slightly smaller than the US state of South Carolina – and lack of other airports in the country effectively ensure that Tocumen only handles international traffic.

Fidanque says the bulk of the traffic handled at Tocumen is between Central and South America or the Caribbean with a high percentage of passengers and cargo transferring through Panama on journeys to either North America or South America.

The airport’s 10,500ft long main runway has also helped in this regard as Fidanque points out that other airports in the region are not quite so fortunate, and few located at high altitude are capable of accommodating fully laiden widebody flights from Europe or North America.

In recent years there has also been an upturn in traffic between Panama and Europe, although Fidanque would like to see the launch of more non-stop services to Europe.

He joked: “When we meet up in Panama at the ACI World Assembly/ACI-LAC Regional Assembly, Conference and Exhibition I shall be asking you how I can get a flight to London!”

If only I had that much influence with the airlines, Joseph, I would gladly organise it.

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