Does Costa Rica need a new airport, anyway?

Thoughts on Costa Rica's new airport project.

Earlier this month, Costa Rican authorities finally confirmed news that had been a long time coming: The project to build a major international airport in the Alajuela canton of Orotina has been suspended.

Instead, Costa Rica will prioritize the San José-area Juan Santamaría (SJO) as its primary airport, and Liberia International Airport (LIR) in Guanacaste as its secondary one.

The proposed Orotina airport was supposed to be ready by 2027. But does the country even need it? Let’s take a look:

Benefits of the proposed Orotina airport

The Orotina airport, which would be the country’s largest, promised aeronautical and commercial benefits.

Primarily, its larger size would mean a greater passenger (and cargo) capacity. Proposals indicated the airport could handle 38 flights per hour at its inauguration, and mockup designs showed more gates than at SJO. The Orotina project would thus facilitate more flights, meaning more tourists and more economic activity.

As a secondary advantage, Orotina’s proximity to sea level would allow planes to take off carrying larger payloads — allowing for longer direct flights. And the area’s relatively flat topography would be safer than the mountains surrounding San José.

Finally, tourists would benefit thanks to Orotina’s proximity to the beach. The airport would make it much easier to reach popular Pacific coast destinations like Manuel Antonio, Uvita and others.

Overambitious proposals

Reports studying the feasibility of a new airport estimated Costa Rican airports might handle 9 million passengers in 2020. Other projects suggested the new Orotina airport would alone handle 7.8 million passengers in 2027, and 50 million by the end of the century.

These figures were ambitious then and are laughable now in light of the pandemic, which has decimated international travel. Pre-coronavirus, SJO handled 5.5 million passengers in 2019, while LIR handled just over 1 million. 2021 projects only a modest rebound over a dismal 2020.

More pressingly, the required infrastructure for a major airport outside the Greater Metropolitan Area simply does not exist. Route 27, a new(ish) highway connecting Orotina with San José, is already inadequate. The train line that used to link the two cities is inoperable.

Adding a new airport without accounting for tens of thousands more cars — not to mention freight and cargo — would be a disaster.

Among the other considerations: Costa Rica is broke and might struggle to get the necessary loans to pay for the new airport. Costa Rica spent 32 years designing and building Route 27, so an expansion would be ready by … 2058 or so. Costa Rica has historically underserved the Caribbean region, and replacing the centrally located SJO with an airport on the Pacific would further this.

What should Costa Rica do?

The company that manages SJO says the airport can now handle 38 flights per hour. Not coincidentally, that’s the figure that had been cited for the Orotina airport’s opening.

While SJO is sustainable in the short and medium terms, it’s clearly not feasible forever. The airport has a single runway and is flanked on all four sides by houses or businesses. There simply is no room left for a major expansion. (The traffic around SJO is awful, too.)

Still, the airport operators believe targeted improvements — more check-in kiosks, more baggage carousels, a larger customs area — could keep SJO viable as Costa Rica’s primary airport for at least 20 more years. We tend to agree, especially since new planes can efficiently fly longer routes than before.

Costa Rica also has plenty of room to expand LIR in Guanacaste. That airport is significantly less busy than SJO, but it shares many of the benefits as a terminal in Orotina: It’s at sea level, is close to the ocean, and it could handle significantly higher capacity in the future if needed.

Ultimately, however, Costa Rica will someday need another “primary” airport. It will likely choose to build one in the vicinity of the San José area — where the vast majority of Costa Rica’s population resides. Orotina would be as fine a spot as any.

The only question is when. (But don’t hold your breath.)

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