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OPAIN CEO, Álavaro González, talks to Joe Bates about the future development plans for Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport.

Bogotà’s El Dorado International Airport handled a record 32.7 million passengers in 2018 to cement its status as Colombia’s gateway to the world and the third busiest airport in Latin America.

Indeed, it is a South American success story, as most of its key passenger facilities have either been built or upgraded over the last decade by concessionaire OPAIN.

“Our goal is to make El Dorado a world class airport with world class facilities and services that match its status as the gateway to Bogotá and Colombia, and this ambition will never go away,” states OPAIN CEO, Álavaro González.

“We will never waiver in this desire and we will continue to invest in people, new technology and improving our existing facilities to ensure that El Dorado is a world class airport that continues to grow in a sustainable way over the next seven to eight years.”

If you were wondering why he was so specific in his timeframe, it is because OPAIN’s 20-year concession to manage and develop Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport (BOG) runs out in early 2027, and under the terms of deal and Colombian law, it cannot be renewed.

This means that OPAIN, a special purpose vehicle (SPV) originally set up by a consortium of Colombian construction and engineering companies for the sole objective of operating and developing the airport’s terminal and cargo facilities, will cease to exist from 2027.

And with OPAIN already exceeding its contractual obligations in developing BOG – it has invested upwards of $1.5 billion on transformational new additions such as one of Latin America’s most impressive passenger terminals and a 7,000sqm cargo terminal – there could be concerns that all spending will be put on hold as it lets the clock run down on the concession.

This, however, is something that González insists couldn’t be further from the truth, revealing plans to embrace Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM), new technologies and plans to expand the terminal and revamp its retail/F&B offerings over the next few years.

“We will invest more and, although it will not be on the scale of before as we won’t have time to recoup the investment, it won’t be insignificant as we know we have to enhance our capabilities to keep up with rising traffic demand and passenger expectations,” says González.

“We are already the busiest airport in Colombia and the third busiest in Latin America for passengers and the No.1 for cargo, but we want to be the best and make El Dorado the airport that airlines want to serve and passengers want to fly to when visiting Colombia or catching onward connecting flights.

“This will only be possible if we offer our customers the facilities and levels of service they want and would expect to find at one of the world’s top airports.”

He notes that failing to deliver “the best possible experience” to passengers and its airline customers could ultimately result in BOG losing out to other airports in the region such as Panama City, Mexico City and Lima.


Customer service focus

OPAIN has certainly developed as a commercial business over the last couple of years under the leadership of González, arguably becoming much more dynamic and customer focused.

The change, which González has given momentum to through a number of key management changes, has led to it concentrating a lot of time and effort on improving the customer service skills of staff and growing commercial revenues.

A planned revamp of BOG’s retail and F&B offerings, which will include introducing a host of new local and international brands and making shops easier to access, is part of this new approach. New performance related contracts for outlet operators are also being considered in order to maintain consistently high standards and service levels.

It should also come as no surprise to learn that the renewed emphasis on the customer experience has led to a rise in passenger satisfaction levels at BOG over the last couple of years.


El Dorado’s Level 2 ‘Reduction’ status in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme arguably demonstrates a similar strong commitment to protecting the environment.

Indeed, González reveals that good environmental stewardship to ensure the sustainable development of BOG is something that OPAIN takes very seriously.

So much so, in fact, that the airport has one of the best solid and wastewater recycling programmes in Colombia and will shortly install solar panels at BOG to make the gateway more energy efficient.

He is particularly proud of El Dorado’s ‘Integral solid waste management programme’, which means that the airport now recovers 52% of its waste. And he expects the figure to rise to 65% by 2021.

Next up is the installation of 10,369 solar panels across the airport site, which OPAIN expects to generate around 12% of the energy consumption of BOG’s terminal building and reduce El Dorado’s annual CO2 emissions by 1,375 tons – the equivalent to the oxygen produced by 76,000 mature trees.

“Sustainability is a fundamental element for the management and development of one of the best airports in South America,” insists González. “As a result, every day we execute initiatives that seek to protect and optimise the use of natural resources, so that we generate a favourable impact for the planet.”


Traffic trends

A total of 32.7 million passengers (+7%) and 741,500 tonnes of cargo, the most in all of South America, passed through El Dorado International Airport in 2018 to confirm its ranking as Colombia’s biggest gateway, handling around 70% of the country’s air traffic.

Domestic traffic currently accounts for around 70% of the total number of passengers handled at BOG annually, although international traffic continues to grow, and is now responsible for a healthy 30% of the throughput.

Transfer traffic is also on the rise due to good onward connections offered out of BOG by hub carriers Avianca and LATAM Colombia, while Bogotá is also the home base for low-cost carriers Satena and Wing and a focus city for Copa Airlines, Viva Air Colombia and EasyFly.

Home carriers Avianca (64%) and LATAM Colombia (15%) are in fact the biggest operators at El Dorado, although González is quick to point out the “hugely positive impact” the low cost carriers have had on passenger numbers in recent years, in particular Bogotá based Wingo, which now accounts for around 15% of the domestic LLC market.

The top five domestic routes are Medellín, Cali, Cartagena, Barranquilla and Cúcuta, while Madrid, Lima, Panama City and Mexico City are the most popular international destinations.

González attributes the upturn in passengers to Colombia’s fast-growing economy and the fact that the country’s geography makes aviation the only feasible mode of transport for long distance domestic travel.

“Passenger traffic has been growing for about a decade, last year by 7% and before that by double digits,” he says. “This country is divided into three parts by the Andes, and although the distances between cities isn’t that great, you have to go across mountain ranges to get anywhere, so it favours flying, as most people prefer a 30-minute flight to an eight-hour drive.”

Future development

El Dorado’s passenger facilities comprise a $600 million ‘showpiece’ international terminal (Terminal 1), opened in 2012, a domestic area (Terminal 2) and two concourses added in 2014 that now effectively form a single building covering 223,700sqm.

These facilities ensure that El Dorado has 54 gates, 138 check-in counters, 45 Immigration lanes, hundreds of retail/F&B outlets, a “high tech” baggage claim area and a six-lane road entrance that can accommodate 80,000 vehicles daily.

BOG also has a new ATC tower and CAA control centre, although these were government funded and opened in 2015.

González says that the design capacity of El Dorado is around 40 to 45 million passengers per annum, and with the upward trajectory in traffic expected to continue for the foreseeable future, the airport will start to run out of capacity in five to six years based on growth projections.

Plans for a new terminal and third runway that could raise BOG’s capacity to 70mppa have been mooted, but with the government yet to make a decision on how it wants to develop the airport and the concession coming to an end on January 19, 2027, enhancing today’s facilities and improving operational efficiency through new technology and initiatives such as Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) is the easiest option at the moment.

González, who states that El Dorado is the future for Colombia following the government’s late 2018 decision to axe plans for a second Bogotá airport, tells Airport World that this effectively means that OPAIN will expand the terminal(s), invest in new technology such as self-service kiosks, e-gates and aircraft parking guidance systems, and take advantage of the recent airspace redesign around BOG to increase the airport’s airfield capacity from 72 to 90 air traffic movements per hour.

The fact that BOG has a night curfew and is also home to the Colombian air force whose presence can cause flight disruptions, is not ideal, but there is little OPAIN can do about these issues until the government decides to review the situation.

“We do suffer from congestion at certain times during the day, but I am confident that the full adoption of A-CDM across the airport from next year will make everything more efficient,” says González.

“We are also looking at introducing a number of new smart technologies that will make processes and procedures quicker and easier for passengers, so this should not only ease congestion but raise our capacity to handle more passengers.”

ACI Latin America & Caribbean Regional Conference

Bogotá will host this year’s ACI Latin America & Caribbean Regional Assembly, Conference and Exhibition in Colombia (October 21-23) and González believes that the event will give OPAIN the chance to showcase El Dorado and all that’s good about Bogotá and his country to a global audience.

He also feels that hosting the event will provide OPAIN with the opportunity to enhance its reputation as a leading airport operator, extend its influence with ACI Latin-America & Caribbean, and share and exchange knowledge and best practices with the airport community.

“People will be surprised and delighted by Bogotá and, of course, our airport and Colombian hospitality,” enthuses González. “I also want to change some people’s perceptions about Colombia, which is a very different country to the one that it was 20 years ago.”


Doing things differently

Without doubt BOG’s 2006 privatisation was a little different to most others because concessionaire winner, OPAIN, is only responsible for the management and development of the passenger terminal and cargo facilities.

It does this with the help of APORT, the 100% owned subsidiary of Zurich Airport, which provides OPAIN with operational and technical support under the terms of a Technical Services Agreement (TSA).

Elsewhere on the airport, the task of operating and maintaining El Dorado’s runways and taxiways is carried out by Compañía de Desarollo Aeropuerto Eldorado (Codad).

While the Colombian government, through the state-owned Civil Aviation Authority, is responsible for air traffic control services, runway lighting and the installation of radar, instrument landing systems and all other navigational aids at El Dorado.

Under the terms of the concessions, Codad is entitled to all landing fees and OPAIN makes its money from activities such as aircraft parking, passenger taxes and the use of airbridges to office rental and shopping.

Some would say that it’s not an ideal set up, but there is no denying that it has worked as passenger traffic at El Dorado continues to rise, BOG now boasts one of the best and most recognisable airport terminals in Latin America and, just as importantly, it has a growing reputation as one of the most environmentally friendly gateways on the planet.

González is aware of all of this and fiercely determined to avoid a drop in the standards that BOG currently enjoys in the last few years of the concession by raising the bar on operational efficiency, environmental best practice and customer service even higher between now and the end of the contract.

He notes: “We have done everything that was expected of us and more since Day One, and we will continue to do this, and make El Dorado better for everyone, until the end of the concession.”

What comes next for BOG after OPAIN? Well, one possible scenario is that its holding company, Cementos Argos SA, could form a new SPV and negotiate a new concession with the Colombian government. But that, my friends, is a story for another day!


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