Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hey Honduras, you're making an airport mistake

I don't take public positions on what should or shouldn't happen in Honduras, mostly because I don't know anywhere near enough. (Though I've been surprised at the willingness of bloggers thousands of kilometres away in Canada to make firm and unsupported assertions about the country.)
But the plan to relocate the Tegucigalpa airport is an exception, in part because there's directly relevant Canadian experiences.
Tegucigalpa - Tegus - is the capital, a city of 1.3 million people. It's tightly nestled in a valley, and surrounded by mountains.
Which is not a good thing for airport construction. The existing airport, Toncontin, regularly makes the world's 10 scariest airport lists. A History Channel show, Extreme Airports, ranked it second. (Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, Nepal, topped the list.)
The Tegus approach requires pilots to skim the hills, make a sharp u-turn, plunge steeply and then hit the brakes hard once they're on the ground. Pilots receive special training if they're assigned to the route.
When we flew into the county in January, we were sitting next to a young Honduran flying back from the U.S. We took it as a bad sign when he began fervently praying as we started our approach.
But, on the positive side, the airport is just six kms from the city centre. And, while landings and takeoffs can be challenging, there hasn't been an 'incident,' as airlines like to say, since the runway was lengthened in 2009. (After a 2008 crash that killed five people.)
The government has decided it would be better to move the airport, which might not be a bad idea. But it has also decided to build a new $125 million airport at a military airfield at Comayagua, 80 kilometres from Tegucigalpa. (The airfield is used by the Honduran airforce and U.S. units.)
It's not an easy 80 kms to travel. The highway climbs through steep mountains and the entrance to the city is chronically congested. The trip is certainly over an hour. Anyone catching a flight out of Tegucigalpa would have to allow much more time in case of traffic problems.
This should all sound familiar to Canadians. In the mid-1970s, governments spent about $500 million building Mirabel Airport about 40 kms from Montreal. It was a complete flop, despite good highways, because travellers and airlines wanted to keep using the existing airport at Dorval, about 15 kilometres from the city. There is little or no use by airlines, and the runways have been leased for car racing.
ALG Europraxis, consultants hired by the Honduran Commission for the Promotion of Public-Private Investment, have offered warnings about the plan. Anything over 40 kms is considered a remote airport, the firm warns.
So I'm breaking my rule about the airport plan. Don't do it, Honduras.

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