THE RUNWAY FOR AIRWAYS, HIGHWAYS, AND RAILWAYS

Costa Rica 2018 | TRANSPORT | FOCUS: OROTINA AIRPORT

Costa Rica is currently in the process of constructing an airport large enough for its ambitions.

Costa Rica has outgrown its former bellwether airport, Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO). Orotina, long been considered as a site for a new flagship airport, was chosen formally when the Costa Rican government finally approved the construction of a USD3-billion terminal in June 2017. The project is expected to be almost eight times the land area of SJO, providing Costa Rica with much-needed capacity to meet its goals of increased global presence and international activity.

Inaugurated in 1958, SJO was for years Costa Rica's only international airport and Central America's busiest airport. It has in recent years been usurped by Panama's Tocumen International, which saw almost 15 million passengers in 2016, three times that of Juan Santamaría. SJO recently completed a renovation and is in the midst of a USD100-million expansion project that will expand a taxiway, add two boarding gates, and help reach a capacity of 6 million passengers a year by 2026.
However, tourism demand is expected to grow faster than SJO can add capacity. Costa Rica's aggressive promotion of tourism has turned it onto a USD2-billion sector with tremendous economic impact but has also placed significant demands on the country's air travel system. 70% of its 2.6 million visitors in 2016 arrived by air; the Costa Rican government has estimated that SJO will reach full capacity by 2027 and projects demand to rise to 20 million passengers per year by 2047.
Enter Orotina. Located in Alajuela province 60km north west of San José, it has been considered an ideal future site for an international airport. The government began the process for site evaluation in 2016 by contracting British firm Mott MacDonald to lead the site study. After choosing a sea-level location free of obstacles such as mountains or high-rise construction, formal approval of development arrived in June 2017, with the government announcing that the project would take place in three phases.
The first USD1.9-billion phase will construct a 128,000-sqm terminal that is expected to be completed by 2027 and handle 7.8 million passengers per year. Long term, the final stage of the project is expected to be completed by 2047, ultimately comprising almost half a million sqm of terminal space with capacity to handle 50 million passengers per year. The project will be financed through a PPP, as the government does not have the fiscal means to fund the full amount of the project, which is expected to be more than USD3.5 billion once completed.
After Orotina's completion, current plans call for SJO to become a terminal for local flights only, specializing in small aircraft and serving as a repair base for Costa Rican planes. This should help increase the affordability of air travel within the country and boost safety and security by creating a modern repair facility.
The Costa Rican government has already approved the purchase of more than 400 private properties at an estimated price of USD41 million to construct the project, but Mott MacDonald's feasibility study also indicated that that the airport's construction will require significant surrounding infrastructure improvements. The firm's report called for expansions of the highway connecting San José and Puntarenas and the construction of a train connecting Orotina with San José. These additional infrastructure improvements are regarded as necessary to handle the increased tourism and business flows, and should further help develop the western regions of the country, bringing additional economic benefits.
Mott MacDonald is just one of the many foreign partners the Costa Rican government has brought in to help plan this landmark project. When construction begins in 2018 and the project moves toward completion, continued collaborations will be a major part of Costa Rica's efforts to turn Orotina into the crown jewel of its air transportation system.