San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Juan Santamaría Addition to Open In December

In the cavernous, concrete space that is to become a bustling boarding area, workers in yellow helmets touched up the floor for the new carpeting while a pile of plastic grates sat waiting to be installed over the new florescent light fixtures.

Engineering and Planning Director Eduardo Chamberlain looked around at the extension cords criss-crossing the floor and the air conditioning vents that had yet to be put in.

This, two blocks of the new terminal being constructed at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport by concessionaire Alterra Partners, has to be ready for passengers by Dec. 7.

“It’s a lot,” Chamberlain said with a shrug, “but it’s perfectly doable.”

During the six-year drama that has been Alterra’s tenure in Costa Rica, its airport expansion project has dragged and stalled and dragged some more.

But finally, a part of phase two will be open with the completion of the Block A and Block B boarding areas. The rest of the phase will include an expanded immigration and check-in area, as well as three more blocks.

The rest of the construction won’t finish up, however, until at least 18 months after Alterra’s contract dispute with the government is settled, Alterra spokesman Fernando Lara said.

The expansion to be opened in December, just in time for the floods of tourists that come with the high season, includes more waiting space for passengers and more contact points for the planes to unload.

The new addition has two stories. The bottom floor has a low ceiling and four gates for boarding passengers. The gates will serve large planes – like those of Spanish airline Iberia – that are too big to dock at the bridges where the planes park at the terminal.

Passengers will be bused out from the covered boarding areas to the waiting planes.

The waiting area will be able to accommodate a total of 500 passengers and will include food stands like Cinnabon, as well as a cash machine and a duty-free shop.

The top floor, meanwhile, feels much like the new terminal the airport opened in the first phase. With its soaring, curved ceiling and broad windows looking out onto the runways, the floor has four gates and space for 400 waiting passengers.

This floor features four new bridges to which planes can dock directly. That will bring the total number of physical boarding points at the airport up to eight, Lara said.

The gates in the two new blocks will bring the total number of gates at the airport to 14, meaning a dozen planes will be able to load or unload at one time.

That perhaps encourages visions of theme park-worthy lines at the immigration booths, what with the 236,000 passengers that crushed through the airport during last year’s high season.

In anticipation, the airport is shuffling some space around to add another six immigration posts to the existing 12, as well as a temporary waiting area that can accommodate 500 people to replace the 200-person space there now.

Once the new immigration area is finished next October, the airport will have 26 immigration posts.

Final phase two upgrades to boarding areas, once completed, will leave the airport with a total 10 bridges and 16 gates.

The progress of the construction depends on what happens in the ongoing contract dispute between Alterra and the Costa Rican government.

Alterra received a contract in 2001 to expand the airport and pay for it with the fees it earns from its management. But in 2003 the Controller General’s Office found that an addendum to the contract fixed the fees too high, and the dispute has been ongoing ever since.

By now, the main negotiations are going on between the banks that were financing the expansion and the Costa Rican government.

The banks won’t lend Alterra the $48 million needed to finish the project until they are sure that Alterra will be able to make enough off the contract to pay them back.

Lara said the second phase of the expansion won’t be completed until at least 18 months after the conflict is settled, and so far there is no word of any settlement.

The daily newspaper La República reported last week that the Central American Bank for Economic Integration is considering taking over the project if the International Finance Group (the bank heading up the current group) backs out.

Viviana Martín, president of the Technical Council of the Civil Aviation Authority, told the paper that “in order to be responsible, we’re looking at a plan B.”


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