Light at the end of the tunnel
ACI Latin America-Caribbean’s director general, Rafael Echevarne, reflects on the impact COVID-19 has had on the region’s airports and the start of the recovery from the global pandemic.
How difficult have the last 18 months been for airports in ACI’s Latin America-Caribbean region and have any countries been more impacted by the pandemic than others?
As in most other parts of the world, the pandemic has had a huge toll on the aviation industry in Latin America and the Caribbean. Aviation in this part of the world is not a luxury, but a necessity, as there are often no realistic alternative transportation modes for domestic or international travel. There are, for example, hardly any railways and very few highways due to the huge landmass and very difficult geography and the very nature of the Caribbean islands.
There have been huge differences between countries. Throughout the pandemic, for example, Mexico has been the only country worldwide where the government never imposed any restrictions on inbound or outbound foreign travel or requirements in terms of Covid tests or quarantines. In contrast, Chile and Argentine have some of the most restrictive regulations, with both countries practically being closed to the rest of the world for over a year now. We are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel in these countries, but there are still travel restrictions, particularly in Chile, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.
Is it possible to say what COVID has cost the region’s airports in terms of job losses, lost revenue and passenger numbers?
In 2020, the aviation industry in Latin America and the Caribbean had a traffic reduction of 61% with respect to what was estimated for that year, with approximately 435 million fewer passengers. In terms of revenue, we saw a reduction of approximately $7 billion in 2020.
In 2021 we expect a 47% reduction on the pre-pandemic estimates for both passenger and revenue. This will effectively mean that both passenger numbers and revenues are around 57% down
on 2019, which it must be remembered was a record breaking year for the industry.
Could the region’s governments have done more to offer financial assistance to airports?
As governments in our region do not have the financial resources found in the US or Europe, we were quite realistic about the possibility of direct financial support. However, governments could have been more supportive in facilitating concession payments and investment obligations. We welcomed the Brazilian government’s proactive approach in facilitating the postponement of concession payments, but other countries were not so helpful and could have done more.
How has ACI-LAC helped the region’s airports during this time?
We have been supporting our members by maintaining an active dialogue with governments and international agencies, like ICAO. The launch of the Airport Health Accreditation programme was key in demonstrating to governments that airports were proactively managing the situation. In fact, LAC´s airports were the first in the world to implement ACI’s Airport Health Accreditation (AHA), which looks at the level of compliance with the protocols recommended by ICAO, WHO, the US CDC and Europe´s ECDC.
In terms of training and staying in touch with our members, we fully embraced video conferencing and we organised a total of 27 webinars during the pandemic, all of which were very well attended.
Do you think that one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic will be to trigger a new phase of private investment in the region’s airports?
The private sector is fundamental for the development of airport infrastructure in LAC. Together with Europe, LAC has the largest proportion of airports with private sector participation in the
world. The tendency is expected to continue, with a number of processes underway in a number of countries. Also, the latest concession rounds in Brazil were successfully completed earlier this year, which are a testament of the interest of the private sector in the region.
Are any LAC region airports leading the way in terms of contactless travel or any other innovative technologies whose implementation may have been sped up by the pandemic?
ACI is a great advocate for this type of solution from three different perspectives: safer processes from a health point of view; faster processing times, which lead to more passenger satisfaction and more efficient use of infrastructure; and cost-effective solutions for airport operators. Many airports in the region were already world leaders in the introduction of technology, like Uruguay´s Montevideo airport. We are trying to convince hesitant governments that technology is a great ally to combat COVID and to modernise the air travel industry.
What is the forecast for the recovery of passenger traffic in the LAC region this year and in terms of getting back to and surpassing 2019 levels?
Some airports have already surpassed 2019 levels, like in the Dominican Republic and some Mexican airports. Overall, domestic passenger traffic is expected to reach 2019 levels in 2023 while the recovery of international passenger traffic will require one more year, thus not getting back to 2019 levels until 2024.
Has COVID had any impact on the traffic rankings for the busiest airports in the region?
Despite the very significant reduction in traffic, there have been no changes in the ranking of the top five passenger airports in our region. In 2019, the busiest airports were Miami (MIA), Mexico City (MEX), São Paulo (GRU), Cancún (CUN), Bogotá (BOG), Lima (LIM) and Santiago (SCL) and this was also the case in 2020 and is likely to be the same again this year. BOG continues to lead the way when it comes to cargo volumes.
How big a challenge has the global pandemic been to the almost legendary resilience of the aviation industry?
The COVID pandemic, and the recovery from it, has arguably provided the aviation industry with its greatest ever challenge. I would like to recognise the resilience of some countries that either never closed their borders during the pandemic or opened them as soon as possible to ensure connectivity and help support the tourism industry. It is important to note that those countries that allowed international travel didn’t experience higher infection rates. The protocols implemented by the air transport industry have been extremely successful.
What do you view as the main COVID and non-COVID related challenges and opportunities facing LAC’s airports today?
We need to work together with regulators to ensure there are mechanisms for airport concession contracts to respond to unexpected events like COVID.
In terms of opportunities, we are very excited about the potential of our region and the critical role that aviation will play for the social and economic development of the entire continent. The technological advancements are there to ensure aviation can grow in a sustainable way. Aviation is a necessity in our region and will continue to be in the long-term.
In terms of the non-COVID related issues, the two main challenges we have are aerodrome certification and environmental sustainability, and we are working with our airports and regulators to address both of them.