Spotlight on Quito International Airport
Andrew O’Brian, president and CEO of Corporación Quiport, tells Joe Bates about an eventful and challenging year for Quito International Airport.
While 2020 has been a tough year for Quito International Airport and operator, Corporación Quiport, a string of firsts for Latin America and breaking ground on a new cargo complex means that it has not been without its successes for Ecuador’s gateway to the world.
The new firsts included becoming the first gateway in South America to resume international operations after COVID-19 brought aviation to a virtual standstill across the continent, achieving the 5-star Skytrax rating, and being the first airport in the region to be accredited under ACI’s Airport Health Accreditation (AHA) programme.
The airport also managed to complete a little of the planned 16,300sqm expansion of its passenger terminal before deciding to put it on hold as its opening in 2020 was no longer a priority.
Summing up a rollercoaster year for the airport, Andrew O’Brian, president and CEO of Corporación Quiport, says: “It has been a tough year, but one I will look back on with pride because despite facing many considerable challenges, we managed to achieve a number of new firsts for Quito International Airport and Ecuador.
“On the one hand we have faced the challenges brought by the pandemic, but on the other it is during this period that our airport achieved the coveted 5-star Airport Skytrax rating, becoming the solitary gateway in all of the Americas to join the prestigious group of now 13 airports worldwide.”
New cargo complex
The airport’s desire to have the most modern import air cargo terminal in Latin American took a huge step forward in early October when cargo consolidation operator, Tabacarcen, held the ground-breaking ceremony for a new $2 million cargo logistics centre.
Expected to be completed in mid-2021, the new facility at the existing Tabacarcen cargo logistics centre will become the new import cargo distribution centre for Quito International Airport, complementing its main cargo building which is capable of accommodating up to 250,000 of freight per annum.
According to Quiport, the new complex will boast an array of automated cargo handling solutions, which in addition to providing greater operational efficiency, will improve the traceability of freight shipments and guarantee greater cargo security.
“While everyone is reducing budgets and investments and postponing projects, today Tabacarcen is investing in this plan, betting on Ecuador, betting on the airport and betting on the future,” enthuses O’Brian. “This is a project that will create jobs and opportunities. These are the signs that Quito and Ecuador need.”
Quito actually handled more cargo in August 2020 than it did in the same month a year ago, and O’Brian believes that the upturn provides another example of the cargo potential of his airport.
So, how important is cargo to Quito International Airport today and what does O’Brian believe that the airport can ultimately achieve as a cargo destination? He says: “Cargo is very important to us. Our strategies have been focused on providing the airport with the necessary infrastructure in order to contribute to the improvement of the logistics chain.
“In conjunction with our partners at the airport, significant improvements have been made both in infrastructure and in technology in the search for improvements in processing times and security in cargo handling.
“We also have a route development programme that offers incentives to airlines interested in launching cargo operations at Quito International Airport.
“We are already a leading cargo hub in Latin America and I believe that we have plenty of potential to become even bigger over time.”
Perishables such as flowers and fruit and vegetables account for the bulk of cargo handled at Quito International Airport today.
Indeed, Ecuador’s status as one the world’s main exporters of cut flowers ensures that flowers destined for the US and Europe traditionally account for 95% of all goods flown out of Quito.
Airport Health Accreditation
In August, the gateway – officially called Mariscal Sucre International Airport but more commonly known as Quito International Airport – became the first airport in Latin America to be accredited under ACI’s Airport Health Accreditation (AHA) programme.
The ACI Airport Health Accreditation is based on the recommendations of ICAO to establish common sanitary measures and is aligned with the best practices of ACI, as well as with the safety protocol of aviation developed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
“Quiport has worked diligently in the development of protocols and sanitary prevention measures for the Quito International Airport, and when we learned about the ACI accreditation programme, we immediately applied,” says O’Brian.
“We believe that it is essential to enact sanitary measures common to the industry to guarantee the safety of our passengers, airport personnel and the society as a whole.”
Quito’s AHA accreditation means that passengers can be assured that the terminal and, in particular all passenger processing areas, are regularly cleaned and disinfected.
The process includes all access ways to the terminal, check-in, security control, boarding gates, lounges, retail stores, F&B outlets, boarding bridges, escalators and elevators, immigration control and baggage drop-off areas.
O’Brian believes that its accreditation sends a clear message to the travelling public that it is open for operations and committed to permanently evaluating its processes and procedures to ensure the safety of both passengers and staff.
Bouncing back from COVID-19
Quito has welcomed back a significant number of international and domestic flights since operations resumed this summer. Most recently, Avianca resumed services to Bogotá, which O’Brian describes as a significant step for his airport as the route accounted for 17% of all international passengers handled in Quito in 2019.
He says: “We cannot speak of a recovery in air transport without the Quito-Bogotá route. The historical ties between Colombia and Ecuador have generated a very important dynamic at all levels that is evident in tourism and business, without forgetting the large number of Colombians who live in our country and Ecuadorians who reside in Colombia. Avianca is one of our main allies and we wish it success in its operation.”
As of December 1, 2020, domestic services had resumed to eight destinations (Guayaquil, Cuenca, Esmeraldas, Galapagos, Manta, Loja, El Coca and Santa Rosa) courtesy of flights operated by Avianca, LATAM and Aeroregional.
While its international route network has been boosted by the return of services to Amsterdam, Bogotá, Miami, Houston, Madrid, Fort Lauderdale, Lima, Mexico City and Panama.
The total of 13 airlines operating services to 18 destinations compares to 19 airlines serving 26 routes – including 16 international destinations – in 2019, when a record five million passengers and 244,000 tons of freight passed through the airport.
It is hoped that the missing routes will return in 2021 and that frequencies on its existing services will be increased over time as the Ecuadorian government gave the airlines permission to 100% resume their pre-COVID frequencies at end of September.
O’Brian notes that implementing strict health protection measures and applying the protocols established by the national Emergency Operations Committee allowed Quito to become the first airport in Latin America to resume national and international operations on June 1, paving the way for other local and regional gateways to follow suit.
“Thanks to the permanent support of our investors and their strategic vision, we’ve been successful in not only keeping the airport open during these trying times but have also been able to continue with our social responsibility programmes, which help us in our mission of being a good neighbour,” notes O’Brian.
He reveals that the airport handled 20,000 passengers in June, which doubled to 42,000 in July, and 48,000 in August before reaching 60,000 in September and exceeding 90,000 in October.
All add up to around 250,000 passengers passing through the airport between June and October, which O’Brian admits gives him ground for optimism for 2021, but is quick to point out that the total represents only 12% of the traffic accommodated by the gateway during the same five-month period a year ago.
He also knows that Quito’s recovery from the pandemic is likely to take time due to the continued global impact of COVID-19 and the fact that 2019 was such a good year for the airport in terms of traffic growth and new airlines.
Quito actually welcomed five new airlines last year and the launch of new international services to Dallas/Fort Worth (American Airlines); Paris (Air France); Santiago (LATAM) and Toronto (Air Canada Rouge).
“We knew from the beginning that recovering traffic would be a slow process,” says O’Brian. “We trust that the elimination of negative testing requirements for COVID-19 for domestic travel, as well as the elimination of mandatory preventive isolation will serve as catalysts that accelerate the process of passenger growth.”
The airport’s determination to beat COVID-19 and fully restore its route network are in line with the Ecuadorian government’s ‘Be Well in Ecuador’ campaign, a key focus of which is attracting tourists back to one of Latin America’s most exciting, diverse and accessible countries.
“The co-ordinated work between the public and private sectors was key for the restart of air transport operations in Ecuador and we now need to continue this close collaboration to steer us safely through the pandemic and the next stage of the airport’s development,” states O’Brian.
Partnerships with local communities and the private sector
The planned new cargo complex and a handful of existing buildings at the airport provide perfect examples of how Quiport works with the private sector to build facilities that benefit both the airport and the surrounding communities.
They include an apron expansion project and new $2 million private aircraft hangar financed, built and managed by Quito’s general aviation operator, Ecuacentair FBO; and on-site catering and storage facilities for in-terminal F&B administrator, Meramex Air.
While there is no disputing the fact that Quiport’s initial involvement with the airport’s surrounding communities was based on its need to win their support for its development,
the relationship has evolved and blossomed over time into a truly strong bond.
So much so in fact that Quiport now openly states that it is eager to improve the standard of living of its neighbouring communities, and this has manifested itself in many different ways, including arguably one of the best corporate responsibility programmes in the business, which has had a positive impact on more than 100,000 people since 2006.
At its heart are the three pillars of Education/Training (scholarships, health programmes, English lessons, customer service courses, environmental education etc); Entrepreneurship (supporting local projects); and Integration (basketball and soccer training, activities for the elderly etc).
Back in 2015, O’Brian told Airport World that he was particularly proud of Quiport’s close relationship with the communities living within a few kilometres of the airport, many of which helped build it and at the time accounted for around 40% of its 7,000 strong workforce.
The airport’s ‘Shared Value’ programme – Nuestra Huerta (‘our garden’ in Spanish) – for example, has led to the identification and creation of number of new business opportunities at the airport that have helped financially support the local communities.
To date these have included local farmers selling produce to airport staff and the creation of a jointly owned company to manage, collect and recycle airport garbage. Is this relationship still as strong as back then?
Without hesitation, O’Brian says: “Nuestra Huerta is stronger than ever. Both passengers and the airport community have become consumers of the community’s organic produce sold there. “We’ve also reinvented the way our new community training centre works; due to COVID-19 we’ve implemented online classes for students to avoid them missing out on essential training lessons we offer.”
He adds: “Quito International Airport remains a huge economic generator for Quito and Ecuador, not only because of the passenger and cargo movement related to its operation, but also as an important job generator.”
Development still on the agenda
With Quito’s passenger numbers currently 60% below 2019 and the most positive of industry experts predicting that it could take aviation until at least 2022 for global traffic to recover to last year’s levels, O’Brian admits that the proposed $60 million expansion of the existing passenger terminal is on hold for now.
However, he is adamant that ‘on hold’ means just that and that it will be only a matter of time before the project resumes and the airport boasts a bigger and even more impressive terminal.
The project will increase the size of the terminal by 35% allowing for a renovation and extension of the check-in hall, departure lounges, immigration and baggage reclaim areas to “enhance the travel experience for passengers”. It will also add an extra 24,000sqm of apron and two aircraft parking positions.
When finished, O’Brian hopes the upgraded airport will provide more of a sense of place experience for passengers along with greater levels of comfort and operational efficiency.
“We want to achieve the wow factor for our passengers and users and a true sense of Ecuador,” he enthuses, noting that a towering five-metre high wooden sculpture of an intricately weaved tree will form the pièce-de-résistance of the new-look terminal.
In a time of great uncertainty, one thing we can be assured of is that whatever comes next, Andrew O’Brian and Corporación Quiport will act responsibly and that the wellbeing of passengers, staff and the surrounding airport communities will be considered a top priority in every decision it makes.