The San Juan Star / July 19, 2004
By Larry Luxner
SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic — JetBlue's arrival in the Dominican Republic will undoubtedly boost the fortunes of the country's newest airport, Cibao International Airport (STI), located in the country's fertile Cibao region just south of Santiago de los Caballeros.
"Competition will lower fares for airport users. That is a big benefit," said the airline's executive director, Victor Suárez, noting that "we are going to expand seat capacity for the airport, which means passenger volume could rise by 20% thanks to JetBlue."
That's why David E. Neeleman, chairman and CEO of JetBlue, hosted a press conference at the airport's main passenger terminal on Jun. 15, five days after the airline began nonstop service to Santiago from New York's JFK (exactly one hour later, Neeleman threw a similar party at Santo Domingo's José Francisco Peña Gómez International Airport, with the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rican-born Hans Hertell, as a featured guest speaker).
STI, the country's third privately owned airport after Punta Cana and La Romana, opened on Mar. 18, 2002. Three months later, American Airlines began flying from Santiago to New York and Miami. STI handled 262,000 passengers in 2002, rising to 592,000 in 2003 — more than double the 290,000 airport officials had projected for that year.
For 2004, Suárez says he's predicting around 600,000 passengers.
"We designed the airport in four stages over 20 years, and by the fifth year we are supposed to have 800,000 passengers," he said. "It has been profitable since the first year."
In 2003, the airport generated revenues of $12 million for its owners.
Unlike Santo Domingo's José Francisco Peña Gómez International Airport, STI is 100% privately owned. There are roughly 70 stockholders, of which 10 hold the majority. The biggest by far is Corp. de Zona Franca Industrial de Santiago, followed by Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra. Grupo M, an apparel and textile free-zone giant, owns perhaps 3-4% of the airport's total stock, said Suárez.
So far, said Suárez, the owners have invested over $50 million in the airport, which boasts a 2,620-meter-long runway and a 14,000-square-meter airport terminal building. The airport itself covers more than 150 acres and is situated in a relatively rural area in between Santiago and La Vega. In fact, cows graze in a pasture right at the entrance to the airport, only a few feet from the clutter of car-rental agencies just outside the main passenger terminal.
Once inside the airport, passengers are greeted by towering palm trees and an open-air courtyard environment with restaurants, snack bars and gift shops selling local souvenirs. There's also a 150-square-meter duty-free shop run by Inter Duty Free which offers cigars, premium spirits brands and other luxury items.
Suárez said that 95% of the traffic in and out of STI is considered ethnic travel; the other 5% of travelers are tourists and business executives. He said that 80% of the airport's market is coming from New York, another 10% from Miami and the remaining 10% from Puerto Rico.
Suárez hinted of the possibility of a new airline, Dominair, offering service to STI from San Juan, Miami and Caracas.
"If Dominair starts flying, the fares from Puerto Rico will come down," he said. "Right now, buying a ticket from here to Puerto Rico costs the same as a ticket to New York. There's no competition."
Indeed, a check of the American Airlines website revealed that a round-trip ticket from STI to San Juan for travel Oct. 15-22 costs $320.20, while a trip to New York JFK for the same dates costs only $279.30.
Another Dominican company, Caribair, plans to start flying from STI to the eastern Cuban city of Santiago de Cuba, while a third carrier, Aeropostal, is also considering a Santiago-Santiago route.