Central American aviation leaders urge unity

Central American commercial aviation leaders pledged renewed cooperation to resolve myriad issues of government regulation, excessive airport and passenger fees and infrastructure inadequacies at the Aviation Day Central America conference in San Jose, Costa Rica Sept. 19. The conference was organized by IATA, ALTA and the Costa Rican Airlines Association (ALA).

While projecting a collective brave outlook, the seven countries of the region—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama—nonetheless face considerable hurdles to form intra-regional agreements, as the speakers and attendees at the conference repeatedly urged each other to look at themselves as partners and not competitors. As CEPA El Salvador president Nelson Vanegas put it, “We don’t all know each other … we need an alliance to learn about lessons learned.”

The conference drew participation from several airlines serving the region, including Copa CEO Pedro Heilbron, Volaris CEO Enrique Beltranena and Avianca CEO Hernan Rincon, as well as representatives from the Costa Rican, Panamanian, and Guatemalan governments, Central American ATC provider COSESNA, and other regional stakeholders.

Regional challenges, successes

Avianca’s Rincon, speaking via Skype to the conference, outlined challenges facing the region, including infrastructure and access levels (“airports here have become a headache without doubt”), individual regulations in each country (“regulations should be united in all of Central America,” and unified procedures (“depending on the country where you land, the aircraft door is opened [and passenger disembarking is handled] in a different way”).

IATA regional VP-the Americas Peter Cerda spoke of successes and struggles Central America is experiencing as commercial aviation expands and occasionally falters in the region. On the positive side, Cerda noted Panama’s aviation and international tourism efforts provide for 238,000 jobs and contribute 14% to the country’s GDP; aviation’s contribution to Belize’s GDP is even higher at 33%. Yet in Guatemala and Honduras, aviation provides GDP benefits of just 1% and 3%, respectively.

Cerda said if countries in the region wish to achieve the maximum benefits of air connectivity, they need to create not only a regulatory framework in line with global best practices, but also guarantee competitive costs and efficient airport administration through open communication with the industry, as well as committing to transparent management and industry participation in planning and infrastructure development projects throughout Central America.

“Aviation generates 859,000 jobs and contributes $17.9 billion to the gross added value of the total GDP of the seven countries of Central America,” Cerda said. “Thanks to its geographical location, Central America is well positioned to increase the economic benefits offered by aviation.”

Preparing for growth

But the region must prepare for projected regional growth of 421 million more passengers by 2036 and the condition of the region’s airports are a nagging concern, with several conference speakers pointing out inadequacies in the passenger experience at Central American airports, from security and customs/immigration checkpoint bottlenecks to low customer use of new technology kiosks.

“San José, Costa Rica and Tegucigalpa, Honduras need new airports, the Tocumen airport in Panama needs a third runway … and in El Salvador, the terminal of the San Salvador airport also needs an extension,” Cerdá said…

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