The San Juan Star / August 2, 2006
By Larry Luxner
CURACAO, Netherlands Antilles — Commercial operations began Monday at Curaçao's new $44 million international airport, which among other things boasts one of the longest runways in the Caribbean.
Saturday night's inauguration party was attended by more than 500 guests including Emily de Jongh-Elhage, prime minister of the Netherlands Antilles. It comes as Curaçao officials plan to double the number of hotel rooms from 3,000 to 6,000.
The unveiling of the new Curaçao International Airport also coincides with a change in the island's political status that by next year will make Curaçao a self-governing autonomous entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The new 12,000-sq-meter passenger terminal — a bright and airy structure that emulates traditional Dutch architectural styles and is painted in cheerful, pastel colors — is designed to handle 1.6 million passengers a year, up from the current 1.1 million at the existing terminal.
"We've designed the building to have a Caribbean and a particularly Curaçao feel to it," said Walter Abernathy, CEO of Curaçao Airport Partners (CAP), the consortium that runs the new facility. "When we first presented it, some people were disappointed, saying they wanted a steel-and-glass building. But in our view, you can find that in Topeka, Kansas."
CAP is 51% owned by Alterra, 10% by local construction firm Janssen de Jong N.V. and 39% by Venezuela's Trim-Invest Ltd. Alterra — itself a consortium owned by Bechtel Holdings and Singapore Changi Airport — is also involved in managing the new international airport passenger terminal in Lima, Peru.
The new airport has a two-mile-long runway; in all the Caribbean, only the former Ramey U.S. Air Force Base in Aguadilla is longer. In addition, the project gives passengers 25% more processing space than before, room for four passenger X-ray baggage scanning units, twice as much adjacent check-in support office space, 65% more room for arriving passport control, a new area for departing passport control, four passenger loading bridiges and 50% more room for parking.
CAP began operations in Curaçao in August 2003 under a 30-year concession that foresees passenger traffic growing to 2.5 million per year by 2033. The consortium employs 156 people and is already making money, but not much.
"We're not as profitable as we expected to be," Abernathy told The STAR. "When we took over, the locally based Dutch Caribbean Airlines had 65% of the airport's total capacity. When that airline, which was government-owned, went into bankuptcy, we lost a tremendous part of our business."
He added: "Before we took over, we did some independent forecasts, which we based our modeling and financing on. At that time, we asked what would happen if DCA went under, and they predicted it would take four years to get back to where we were, and eight years to get back on plan."
In reality, it only took a year and a half to get back, said Abernathy.
"We know we'll go through some rough periods, but in the end, we'll be better off because it won't be a protected market," he said.
At present, the largest of the 14 carriers flying into and out of Curaçao is KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, though Abernathy says that'll change once Dutch Antilles Express relocates from Bonaire to Curaçao.
"We've also got new service planned by several airlines," he said, noting that Martinair is starting service in October with two flights a week to Amsterdam. KLM already offers daily flights to Amsterdam, while low-cost Dutch carrier ArkeFly goes there three times a week. In addition, American Airlines offers two daily flights to Miami, and American Eagle three flights a week to San Juan.
"We work very closely with the Curaçao Tourist Board, and we have a coordinated air route marketing strategy that assumes 3,000 new hotel rooms coming on board in the next two to three years," Abernathy said. "We are marketing specifically to the areas we think we need to serve: Europe, the Caribbean and the United States."
Curaçao's new airport terminal boasts more than a dozen duty-free shops including Aldeasa, Costa Rica-based Cafe Britt, electronics retailer Omni and Colombian Emeralds International. There's also the 5 Star Sports Bar — the only place in the entire terminal where smoking will be allowed.