Honduras , Costa Rica , Guatemala , Panama , Nicaragua and Belize

As CentAm airports reopen, low passenger demand delays infra plans

Bnamericas Published: Friday, October 02, 2020
As CentAm airports reopen, low passenger demand delays infra plans

Central American countries’ decision to shut down all airports during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic has forced reconsideration and even postponements of investment plans and projects.

While cases vary in the seven countries – some decided to open their air traffic sooner than others – they share a common denominator: the negative economic effect of the COVID-19 emergency and the related decline in individual income has led to a review of all 2020 plans.

Nicaragua was the first to lift travel restrictions on July 14, Costa Rica began a gradual reopening on August 1, Honduras on August 17, Guatemala on September 18, El Salvador began a gradual reopening in September, Panama throughout September, and Belize restarted air traffic on October 1, according to reports. 

While construction resumed for some projects, falling passenger numbers add to the problems the four to six months without service have caused. 

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the volume of airline passengers across Latin America is likely to fall 57.4% in 2020. 

BNamericas takes a look at the most important changes in airport infrastructure plans that came as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.


Despite being one of the first Central American countries to reopen its airports, the negative economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic will force Costa Rica’s most important airport operator to postpone infrastructure plans for the next three to four years. 

Aeris Holding Costa Rica, the operator of the Juan Santamaría international airport (SJO) in San José, saw a drop in passenger demand of 98% during the almost five months that it was closed (April-August), forcing it to exhaust the reserves it had for expansion plans this year, Aeris CEO Rafael Mencía told daily La Nación earlier this week. 

“The master plan was concluded at the end of last year, in December 2019, with a series of formulations and expectations on the development of infrastructure that contemplated all air traffic before COVID-19. The pandemic came to affect air traffic in a severe way,” he said, adding that the operator expects to see a decline in demand of 70% this year. 

“Now with the pandemic and the new traffic, we are working with [the Costa Rican government] on new ideas,” Mencía said. 

Among the projects that will be put on hold indefinitely is the construction of a four-story building with 16 new checkpoints, an extra baggage carousel and an expanded customs area. Another project included relocating a fire department south. 

SJO is the busiest airport in Costa Rica. 

In 2015, the government began studies to build the US$1.9bn Oritina new airport in Alajuela province to replace the saturated airport. It would have double SJO’s capacity. However, since 2019 the authorities have questioned the need for the airport and no further plans have been announced. Construction was expected to finish by 2027. 

Another airport that has not been confirmed is the US$700mn Limón airport in Limón district. The project’s status remains in the environmental evaluation stage, according to BNamericas’ Projects Database. 


While Panama has the largest and most modern airport infrastructure in the region, it is continuing plans to expand the Tocumen international airport serving Panama City. 

The US$917mn project involves the construction of a terminal, an access road and a 70m control tower. 

Works, however, were suspended for almost four months as Panama implemented the longest and strictest construction suspension in the region. Health authorities ordered in mid-July that only 100 workers could work on stages 1 and 2 of the parking lot. 

The project should be almost complete as the government said in January overall progress was 98%. 

Tocumen airport director Raffoul Arab requested from the budget assembly commission a budget increase to US$298mn for operation expenses and a few unfinished works and improvements, according to local broadcaster Eco TV.

Some of the funds will go to completion of the second terminal and to begin modernizing terminal 1, as well as the purchase of sanitary equipment for checkpoints, he said. 

Health ministry Minsa also allowed works to restart in August on the US$200mn expansion of Panama City’s metro line No. 2, adding a 3-4km link to Tocumen airport.


Another expansion project in Central America concerns the La Aurora international airport serving Guatemala City. 

Works have not yet started but are urgent as the cargo terminal has not been expanded in three decades, local daily La Nación reported. 

According to a recent report from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the project will require an additional investment of US$41mn, raising the estimated capex from US$117mn to US$158mn. 

There is still no definite date to begin the project. Financing is expected to materialize under a public-private partnership in the build, operate and transfer modality. However, Guatemala's PPP promotion agency Anadie included the expansion in a portfolio of seven infrastructure projects worth a combined 12bn quetzales (US$1.5bn) to counter the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic in 2021. 

It involves expanding the taxiway, terminal, cargo area, hangars and perimeter security, including three aerodromes for domestic connections.


Construction for the new US$120mn Palmerola international airport (PIA) that Grupo Emco builds in Comayagua city continues and the future operator of the airport told local daily El Heraldo on September 24 that works had reached 68% overall progress. 

A new inauguration date for the terminal was scheduled for 3Q21 after Emco failed to conclude the project in 2019. 

Aside from having been granted a five-year extension to complete the project, the government said in a decree in December that it would also grant the operator of PIA a concession to operate the existing Toncontín airport in capital Tegucigalpa, less than 100km from PIA. 

The move is part of a plan to assign the concession of the country’s international airports to a new operator not too long after InterAirports’s 20-year concession ended on September 28. 

The remaining three airports – Ramón Villeda Morales in San Pedro Sula city, Juan Manuel Gálvez in Roatán city, and Golosón in La Ceiba city – were concessioned to a recently created state-owned company called Empresa Hondureña de Infraestructura y Servicios Aeroportuarios (Ehisa). 

The company will operate the airport temporarily until Honduras’ superior counsel for public-private partnerships (Sapp) launches a tender to award the three airports. 

Yet, PIA announced on September 8 a series of investments to improve infrastructure at Toncontín airport, El Heraldo reported. 

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