JET LIFE

Colombia 2017 | TRANSPORT | FOCUS: AIRPORT EXPANSIONS

A massive airport infrastructure project is underway as Colombia seeks to upgrade facilities to meet increased business and tourism demand.

Colombia is in the midst of a major airport infrastructure project aimed at meeting rising tourism demand and improving domestic interconnectedness. With increased volume at both key hubs and smaller regional airports, industry and governmental officials understand that upgrades are needed to ensure safe and reliable air travel. With over USD2.9 billion of improvements planned over the next few years, the sector looks poised to take flight and become the national driver that the nation deserves.

Colombia has more than 590 airports, 74 of which are commercial. Air travel has grown considerably in recent years, with increased tourism and global business giving the nation one of the highest passenger growth rates in the world—14% a year, well above the 4-6% increases that were the previous norm. According to government statistics, passenger numbers have tripled in the past decade, going from 13 million in 2006 to 34.1 million in 2015. Transportation officials expect increases of as much as 16% in 2017 and project growth to continue in future years, with Bogotá's El Dorado International Airport alone projected to go from 27 million annual passengers to 40 million by 2021. This growth has been spurred by improved safety conditions in the country and a corresponding rise in tourism and commerce as Colombia takes on a larger role in Latin America. However, growth has not come without its own set of difficulties. With dramatic usage increases have come increased stress on an already struggling air transit system. Both international hubs and regional airports are being affected, with midsized cities such as Medellín, Cali, and Cartagena ill-equipped to handle the new surge of passengers.

To meet demand, a number of infrastructure plans have been announced. President Juan Manuel Santos recently introduced a USD70 billion comprehensive infrastructure plan that calls for 31 airport expansions among its many projects. An additional COP2.8 billion will be invested from 2015-2018 toward the remodeling of 57 airports, with the goal of increasing passenger capacity to 46 million by the end of 2018. This increase will be spread throughout the entire country. At El Dorado, for example, the international terminal opened in 2012 is already well over capacity; built to handle 15 million passengers a year, it saw almost twice that number pass through it in 2016. Planes often need to park in remote locations, an inefficient practice that creates problems with connecting flights and baggage handling. Fully aware of the need for further expansion, Colombia has greenlit plans to construct a second airport 15km away. Scheduled to begin in 2017 and be completed in 2021, the USD3 billion project will more than double Bogotá's passenger capacity to 69.2million passengers per year.
Additional plans are underway in other cities that have seen a surge in business travel and tourism in recent years as well. Cali's Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport is working on a new international terminal, Cartagena's Rafael Nuñez Airport is expanding from 150 to 200ha and increasing its capacity to 7.5 million passengers, and Barranquilla's Ernesto Cortissoz airport is adding a maintenance hangar and reconstructing a cargo terminal that will raise annual capacity from 2.4 million passengers to 7.4 million by 2036. At Jose María Cordova airport in Medellín, upgrade plans call for new terminals and taxiways, as well as a runway extension that will allow for new international flights.

Well aware that further development is needed at every level, a number of airports in previously underserved and underdeveloped regions are getting infrastructure upgrades as well. The cities of Yopal, Ibagué, and Pasto will all be receiving new airport terminals thanks to the government's infrastructure push, allowing them to take a more active role in the country's economic growth. Pasto's airport will receive USD26 million in investment that will double the size of its boarding rooms, increase vehicle capacity, and raise the control tower. The upgrades at the other small airports will follow this model of increasing safety options and size to allow for new flight routes. All involved recognize that reshaping Colombia's air transportation system will not be an overnight task. Indeed, the government's larger infrastructure plan includes projects for up to two decades in the future. Still, improvements are already being felt, and continued work on expanding capability will pay dividends for Colombia as it moves to become a regional and global destination for economic and tourist activity.