TERMINAL VELOCITY

Panama's primary air node is getting bigger, doubling its capacity by 2016. Already the largest airport in Central America, the new plans are set to cement the facility's role as a true aviation hub.

Known as the Hub of the Americas, Tocumen International Airport, just 24 kilometers east of Panama City, is currently adding a new terminal to double capacity and up its game as host to Copa Airlines, Panama's flag carrier.

Tocumen International Airport, renamed after Omar Torrijos until it reverted back to its original name following the US invasion, is currently in its third phase of expansion, the first having finished in 2006 and the second in 2012, when a new terminal, or North Terminal, was opened. That development involved two levels of infrastructure over 21,000 sqm, including 12 new gates and docking stations, a taxiing area, waiting rooms, service access, and storage, among other services. The phase boosted the airport's capacity by 50%.

Now, a new expansion, in the form of another terminal, South Terminal, is now underway and set for completion in 2016. While the second expansion cost $60 million, the new expansion, being developed by Odebrecht, has a price tag of $679 million and includes a third runway, a diversion of the Tocumen River, and new road access to the facility. Work on the third phase kicked off in 2013 and will include 50,000 sqm of development and new areas for immigration and customs, passenger check-in, parking lots, commercial areas, and 30 bridge approaches.

When complete, in 2016, capacity at Tocumen International Airport will double to 18 million passengers per year. On top of that, the number of gates will have risen to 54, while the airport will cover 141,000 sqm. As of May 2014, construction was reported as being half-way done. The number of passengers serviced in 2013 was 7.8 million, with the airport also posting profits of $133 million.

The continued expansion of the airport is occurring in lock step with the growth of Copa Airlines, Panama's flag carrier. Carlos Pashales, National Director of Airports, commented that, “the expansion plan is going to have a very positive impact on Panama's economy. We are going to have more gates for a higher number of aircraft, and Copa's hub will keep growing over the years."

Copa Airlines itself is also happy to see its nest growing, with CEO Pedro O. Heilbron telling TBY that, “it is very important that the airport is being expanded. Once this expansion phase is completed, we will have an additional 20 gates, which will allow Copa to continue growing." Indeed, in early 2014, Copa Airlines unveiled its plans for growth in 2014, including the launch of three new destinations and a 10% expansion of capacity in the shape of eight new aircraft. That makes it the ninth year on the trot that Copa Airlines has posted double-digit available seat kilometer (ASK) growth. New destinations included Fort Lauderdale in Florida, Georgetown in Guyana, and Montreal. Pashales views the growth favorably, asserting that, “by the end of 2014, Copa Airlines will have 96 aircraft and 120 destinations, so the growth we expect is tremendously positive."

CEO Heilbron, in a conversation with TBY, also underlined the significance of the carrier to the economy; “we have over 6,800 employees in Panama and around 8,700 worldwide," adding that, “in regards to Panama, we are a major contributor to the country's GDP, second only to the Panama Canal. Our direct and indirect contribution to Panama's GDP is 4%." Heilbron also spoke at length on what makes Panama such a unique place to be based, suggesting that the country has become a major business hub, tourism destination, and “home for many multinational companies that have established their regional offices here."

Tocumen International Airport has also attracted the attention of several European airlines, such as Air France, Iberia, TAP Portugal, and KLM, which all fly from terminals at the facility. As Heilbron of Copa Airlines sees it, “[these] airlines benefit from Panama's unique position as the best located and most connected hub in Latin America. As Latin America continues to grow and more airlines look to our region as an interesting market to serve, we expect Panama to continue growing as the premier gateway to our region."

But Tocumen International Airport isn't alone in servicing Panama City, with Marcos A. Gelabert International Airport, just 1.5 kilometers outside the city, the second largest airport in the country in terms of passenger count, servicing 212,000 in 2012 with an average of 71,000 flights annually. The airport has also spent $15.5 million over the last six years, as “the tourism sector has driven the airport's growth," said David A. Vos, Administrator at the airport. And Marcos A. Gelabert is to Air Panama as Tocumen is to Copa Airlines. The second largest carrier in Panama, Air Panama flies mainly on domestic lines to approximately 25 destinations. The airport is also extending its runway, by 100 meters on each end, with room for 15 more private aircraft also planned.

While the Panama Canal often steals the limelight when it comes to the transport sector, Tocumen International Airport, and its expansion, shouldn't be overlooked as a key hub for bringing people, and cargo, into and out of the country. When completed, the airport will pull even further ahead of its competition in the Central America region and become synonymous with air travel in the region.