EASY FLYING

Panama 2016 | TRANSPORT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Joseph Fidanque III, General Manager of Tocumen International Airport, on the expansion of the airport, new airlines operating from the hub, and plans for the future.

A number of new airlines will begin operations here in 2016. What has attracted them to Panama?

The number one reason is that this is a hub from which people can continue on to smaller cities in the region. Travelers from the Far- or Middle-East can fly direct via Emirates, and transfer through Panama to anywhere in the region, from Costa Rica, to Nicaragua, and so on. Because of security and many other complications, it is much more difficult to travel through US cities and the airports there are all congested. It used to be the case that passengers had to fly through the US to go to Europe, but that has changed over time. KLM now brings over 400 passengers a day from Europe. A significant number of these remain in Panama, while the rest go to other cities in the region. If we didn't have this connectivity and amount of flights, we would not have the amount of business, so it is a blessing. Tocumen Airport is a hub, but the country itself is a bridge to the Americas. People come to do business here. Many regional companies have benefited from the strong logistics sector here, which is a strategic asset for the country. This is why new airlines such as Emirates and Lufthansa have decided to come and why there are others in the pipeline. We have the potential for more from Europe. The important approach is to connect hubs. Dubai is a hub, so it is an important alternative. Another advantage of Panama is its stable climate, which is rather important for ensuring timely performance and avoiding delays.

Do you think Panama is competing with hubs such as Miami or New York?

We are not replacing any of those destinations; we are complementing them. Panama is filling a gap within this region of the world. Airports like Miami are congested already. The key factor is quick connectivity, planes arriving on time, and being able to move those planes from the sky to the gate. When a plane takes an hour to take off after boarding, as sometimes happens in New York, there is a loss of competitiveness. Competitiveness is a big focus for our administration, which is why we are expanding our infrastructure. In the coming years, we will invest about $1.4 billion in infrastructure.

What progress has been made on the new Terminal 2?

At our current rate, T2 will be finished by January 2018. The major infrastructure is about to be finished right now. Glass and roofing will be installed this year, followed by the infrastructure, consisting mainly of the baggage system, which will be done by the end of 2017. Once we do that, we have a plan for T2.5, or T3, depending on how we see the company progressing. Parallel to that, depending on our growth, we will address the need for a new runway. We are looking at doing this between 2022 and 2024.

How have passenger volumes grown over the last year?

It is not going to be an enormous growth year, mainly because Latin America had a tough year due to commodity prices. This challenge has brought a big devaluation in Colombia, with which we have close ties, so traffic with Colombia has decreased in tandem. Traffic has increased from Europe and from Brazil. Chile and Argentina have already started picking up, and Venezuela is more or less the same. Travel to the US has been good. We will do better and there will be some growth, but 2016 will be a tough year for Latin America due to the readjustment of currencies. That said, the horizon of Latin America is good. We are bullish in our outlook and project annual growth in travel of about 6% for the next 10 years in Latin America.

How do you think Panama should market itself as a tourist destination?

We have a lot of opportunities in beaches and conventions. That is the number one opportunity, which Panama must continue to leverage. That means Panama has to finish building a convention center, of which it is in dire need. Everything around the Canal is important as well, as it continues to be a wonder for people even today. Panama is also an important shopping destination, and this should be another area of focus for the country.

What is your expectation for Tocumen International Airport in 2016?

Our main objective is to finish the new T2 terminal. It is a big, complex project because of the technicality it involves. My job is to ensure that we can cater to our customers, which are the airlines and passengers. We have to ensure that Emirates, Lufthansa, and the rest enjoy good success. This is a hub airport, and it must continue to cater to the hub model in order to continue to expand. We play a key role in making sure that the systems are working properly, and it is important that we continue to modernize our facilities. We are going to be working on the runway so that we can move more aircraft. It is going to be a tough year for us in terms of construction, and not just because of T2. We are investing about $60 million in construction. It is going to be busy to administer that, but we welcome the workload.