Tocumen International Airport (AITSA) this year will begin construction of the south terminal, thus far with an approximate value of $650 million dollars. Juan Carlos Pino, AITSA general manager, says that he is laying the groundwork for the new future of business, logistics and tourism aviation in Panama.
With these plans, the airport expects to become consolidated as the Hub of the Americas, a fundamental step to take the place of the Miami International Airport.
First, the AITSA must face some challenges, ranging from changing its structure, improving critical services for immigration and customs and increasing the supply of fuel, to purchasing a new waste incineration machine and modernizing technology to reduce avian hazards.
The aim is for Panama to have an airport that is unique to Latin America.
After an audit by the U.S. Homeland Security Department, it was determined that if the airport wants to include more boarding gates, it would have to urgently improve passenger service, both at customs and immigration.
Tocumen SA has already begun remodeling immigration and customs, but according to Pino this is only a palliative measure for the big problem that will arise when passenger numbers are intensified.
Tocumen's manager pointed out that the current terminal is now 34 years old, and due to its problems with electricity and water supply, an expansion would require replacing all of the systems, which would put a halt to the airport's operation. "The decision was reached to construct a new terminal and connect it to the other one via a bridge," he added.
The company that designed the airports in Hong Kong and Beijing, Fosters and Partners, presented the model for the South Terminal. The new terminal will be in the shape of a stealth plane (the 'invisible' aircraft in the U.S.) and will cover 82,000 square meters, nearly 20,000 square feet larger than the current terminal.
The South Terminal will have three levels: the first for immigration and customs controls, the second for departing passengers and the third for airport offices. Its innovative design will consolidate the Hub of the Americas as the iconic airport of the region.
Tocumen SA will also build a four-lane boulevard to provide direct access from the South Corridor to the airport and to facilitate reaching the terminal at rush hour. However, by increasing construction linearly, visibility was obstructed for the control tower, so an additional tower will be built to resolve this inconvenience.
The new terminal will have more visible changes for the passengers, such as the implementation of a new baggage system to sort luggage.
The project also requires rerouting the Tocumen River to avoid flooding in the upper river basin and in the construction sites. The course will be straightened, eliminating all bends in the river, to create a more direct outlet towards the sea.
The next phase will consist in the construction of the third runway, as it will be needed within the next five years. To accomplish this, Tocumen SA will acquire all of the surrounding land. "If we do not acquire the land and planning permits to build the runway now, when the time comes and we want to, we will be enveloped by commercial and industrial developments," Pino asserted.
For now, the government has halted construction of some nearby projects in order to regulate a good flow of water and soil and thus provide for the future construction of an additional runway for the airport.
BREAKDOWN OF COSTS
According to the AITSA manager, the first phase of the South Terminal will cost approximately $650 million dollars. This price tag includes laying down a four lane boulevard to access the terminal, rerouting the river and building the new control tower, platform and taxiway leading to the runway.
IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS
The immigration and customs system is the main priority for improvements in passenger services. "The new space for immigration and customs will be sufficiently large to centralize the operation-if that is required-since it will support handling up to 18 million people per year," indicated Pino. The plan is to remodel the current terminal once the South Terminal is completed.
The unification of the immigration and customs services worries Camilo Fábrega, representative of the LAN-Chile airline. When asked about the matter, Pino responded that the combined passenger services will start out as a pilot project in Paso Canoas, and from there it will move up.
It is important to note that the AITSA does not want the U.S. to set up a free immigration system with Panama. This is because the airport does not have the necessary infrastructure to house U.S. employees, and because the costs are exorbitant for implementing this type of migration. Nevertheless, the terminal is currently using Global Entry, which involves scanning the passport past a biometric reader.
U.S. Homeland Security requested the AITSA to eliminate the 'invisible migration', a method by which airlines report passenger data back to the airport before the flight lands, to check if any traveler is wanted by Interpol or another authority. Pino reported that the U.S. government is pressuring Panama to install immigration controls for passengers in transit, but assured that efforts are being made to save the 'invisible migration'.
Furthermore, 50 migration cubicles (25 on each side of the terminal) are destined to be employed, and a team of 75 migration inspectors have already been hired on a permanent basis. Thirty customs inspectors have also been hired to expedite the process.
Another important challenge that the AITSA faces is increasing the capacity of the fuel reserve. Tocumen currently has a reserve for a day and a half, but wants to enlarge the supply to last 3 days. It was reported that the capacity of the airport fuel supply was previously being increased to 630,000 gallons, but the Panama Fire Department suspended the project in mid-construction.
The firefighters said that the AITSA needed to have a 600,000-gallon tank of water on hand in the case of a fire rescue. Upon analysis of the issue by both parties, they determined that it was not necessary to install this large of a tank, but rather a pump that could extract 2,000 gallons per minute from an 8,000 gallon storage tank to transport foam or dry chemical extinguishers in the event of a fire.
According to the president of Panama Airlines Association (ALAP), Mauricio Benaim, there was a need to address this issue of fuel at Tocumen. "It is very important for all the airlines that the airport has a reserve for several days," he stated.
TRASH AND AVIAN HAZARDS
Two years ago the AITSA began to cover the costs of international garbage collection. An emergency trash incinerator, an Open-Air Burner, is currently being used due to the collapse of the main machine. However, the purchase of a modern four-chamber incinerator has already been put out to tender.
As for the risk to birds, a Smithsonian study confirms that bird migration is worsening due to global warming. However, a Korean company showed a AITSA delegate a new laser-based technology that reaches higher than the airport teams can and that could reduce the risk of avian danger.