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Santiago’s new terminal will be a uniquely Chilean surprise and delight


The impressive new terminal at Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport in Santiago, Chile, will officially open on Sunday, January 23rd, writes Stanis Smith.

It has taken about ten years to go from conception to completion of the facility, which is the largest new terminal to have been completed in Latin America in recent times, and one of the most significant and innovative in the world.

This 175,000sqm (1,884,000 sqft) project began its life with a radical new concept developed by Stantec Architecture, in association with the Chilean firm Amunategui Barreau.

The main goals of the new terminal are to increase the airport’s future capacity to 30 million passengers per year, to provide international passengers with world-class facilities, and to repurpose the existing terminal for domestic flights.

The project includes a major new processor for arriving and departing international flights (including a new check-in hall, security checkpoint, customs and immigration facilities, baggage claim and other functions), five new concourses adding up to forty-five new contact gates, a revised roadway system to separate international and domestic traffic, and renovations and expansions to the existing terminal.

The design of this new international terminal had to meet key challenges. How could passengers and airline staff connecting between international and domestic flights move easily and efficiently between the two terminals?

How could arriving international passengers avoid the maze of elevators, stairs and escalators that are a typical annoyance at many airports? And how could the design of this major new terminal be “Uniquely Chilean” and deliver an airport experience that offers passengers “surprise and delight”?

The Design Team came up with remarkable innovations in response to these challenges.

A key design innovation facilitates passengers and crew connecting between the new terminal and the existing. The masterplan inherited by the Design Team would have required connecting passengers and crew to go by vehicle from one terminal to the other.

The Design Team proposed changing the roadway system and orientating the new processor so that the ‘front door’ for the international check-in would face the front door for the domestic check-in.

This would enable connecting passengers and crew to walk from one terminal to the other through a landscaped plaza, a more environmentally-friendly, efficient and pleasant experience than being driven between terminals. This novel, attractive and cost-effective concept was enthusiastically accepted by the Client, the Chilean Ministry of Public Works.

Another design innovation was to provide deplaning international passengers with naturally lit ‘interstitial corridors’ that would take them to the Arrivals processor. Stantec has pioneered this approach at other international terminals including Ottawa Canada and Nassau Bahamas.

It is important to make the travel experience easy for the increasing number of passengers with mobility challenges, and this interstitial corridor arrangement is far more passenger-friendly and more cost-effective than the typical upper-level sterile corridors that require inbound passengers to use elevators, stairs or escalators to move up and down.

From an architectural perspective, the client and the Design Team wanted the project to have a unique and distinctive “sense of place” that would evoke the extraordinary landscape of the country. Chile’s geography is defined by the majestic Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The design therefore drew its inspiration from the natural undulations of both the mountains and the sea.

The main check-in hall is crowned by a lofty and elegantly curving roof facing the plaza that echoes the form of the surrounding mountains. Each of the concourses for the new gates have a pair of sinuous wavy roofs that are ‘out of phase’ with each other. The almond-shaped windows between the two “waves” bring natural light into the centre of the concourses, creating interesting patterns of light and shade along their entire length.

The terminal’s structural system has been designed to meet the significant seismic challenges of an airport that is situated near a geological fault line. At the same time care has been taken to go beyond function and design the steel columns and structure in an elegant and attractive manner.

The design of the terminal’s exterior is an innovative response to sustainability considerations, as well as the desire to give the building a ‘personality’ that is uniquely Chilean.

Many airport terminals use all-glass curtain-wall systems for their exterior, an approach that typically causes unwanted glare for passengers and agents, and increases the capital and operating cost of the air-conditioning equipment needed to cool the building. The design of this terminal’s exterior is a combination of vision glass and solid panels.

The solid panels reduce the heat load, while the transparent panels have been strategically placed to maximise views and natural light. These different panels alternate in a unique and playful manner providing visual interest to both the interior and exterior. The solid panels are finished in copper-coloured material, a nod to the metal that is one of Chile’s main exports.

The design prepared by Stantec Architecture and Amunategui Barreau was the subject of a P3 bid that was won by the Nuevo Pudahuel consortium, made up of VINCI Airports, Aéroports de Paris (ADP) and Astaldi.

It is a testament to the consortium that they have respected the initial design and the long-term vision, and the terminal as constructed is almost identical to the initial concept. Almost ten years after design began, the terminal that will open on January 23rd 2022 reflects the Client’s commitment to a unique world-class terminal that will position Chile as a global international hub.

About the author
Stanis Smith FRAIC AIA is an independent architect and strategic advisor to airport clients. He led Stantec’s airport group from 2003 to 2019 and led the Concept Design Team for the Santiago International Terminal.


  1. Sergio Espinosa 18th January 2022

    Nice article and a fabulous airport, but correct the misspell in the title (Santiago, not Sanitago).

    1. Joe Bates 18th January 2022

      Well spotted!


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