San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Why is the new Liberia airport terminal still empty?

Nobody knows when airplanes will finally land at the new terminal at Daniel Oduber International Airport, in Liberia, capital city of the northwestern province of Guanacaste. Opening day was initially scheduled for Oct. 1. 

With the tourism high season under way, local business owners have anxiously awaited the opening of the new terminal, but neither the Costa Rican Civil Aviation Authority nor the concessionaire, Coriport S.A., would say when that would happen.

Last week, the aviation authority said in a press release that work had been completed, but the government had not yet approved the terminal’s opening. 

The press release also noted that the government advised Coriport of a number of issues that need to be addressed, although the statement did not mention specific problems. 

“It is a collective effort to open the terminal as soon as possible. We are conscious that the use of the current airport is uncomfortable. However, the opening of the new terminal will depend on the company’s response,” the press release said. 

In 2009, Coriport was granted a 20-year concession to build and operate the new terminal, which will facilitate up to 1,500 additional passengers simultaneously. Built at a cost of $41 million, the new terminal will create a more efficient travel process for passengers at the country’s second-largest airport (TT, Oct. 14).  

At 23,000 square meters, the state-of-the-art structure dwarfs the current building in both size and capabilities. The new terminal will help increase tourism dollars, create roughly 100 new jobs, and provide a solution to the notorious Liberia airport lines that sometimes stretch outside the terminal, airport general manager Francisco Cordero told The Tico Times in October. 

In the meantime, businesses that depend on Guanacaste’s tourism industry are paying the price of the delay.

“Flights are still arriving at the old terminal, but the image that we are projecting as a country, not only to tourists but also to investors in Guanacaste, leaves much to be desired. We need to prevent this situation from lasting longer,” Guanacaste Tourism Chamber Director Verónica Grant said. 

Liberia Airport 2

Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport.

The Tico Times

In February, local coffee firm Café Britt won a concession to open three commercial spaces in the new terminal, totaling 385 square meters. The stores were ready to open on Oct. 1. 

According to Café Britt CEO Pablo Vargas, two weeks before the first official opening date, the company hired and trained 20 new employees to work at the new stores. 

The employees have been relocated to other Britt operations in Guanacaste. However, keeping them on hold generates a monthly loss of $17,000. The company has spent $1 million on infrastructure and inventory to prepare for the opening.

IMC Medios, which manages advertising in the airport, has also lost revenue because of the delay. According to Marianela Dobles, the firm’s sales manager, clients have been expecting to advertise for more than two months. 

The engineering company Ad Astra Rocket Company, launched by Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang, is also eagerly awaiting the new terminal. According to Chang, one of the reasons the company chose Guanacaste was to be close to a new, modern airport for its exports and imports of aerospace and scientific equipment. 

“We are worried about the delay, since we are about to begin transporting very sophisticated equipment to and from the United States,” Chang told The Tico Times via email. “We want to make sure that we do not have to do it through San José, since the road is dangerous and could lead to delays. However, we have no information about an upcoming opening date.” 

Delays are affecting tourism. According to the Costa Rican Tourism Board, in 2010, more than 225,000 passengers arrived through Liberia. The current terminal is located in a cramped space that can accommodate only about 900 passengers per hour.

In November, AirBerlin and Jetblue added new flights to Liberia, and in January, Delta Airlines will add a flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul, in the U.S. 

Members of the Guanacaste Tourism Chamber, or Caturgua, are unhappy with the setbacks. 

“Airport operators are not the only ones worried about the delay [in opening the terminal]; other businesses awaiting tourists are also unhappy with this situation. The main reasons are that they know very little about the cause of the delay, and they have not been given an official date for the opening,” said Caturgua’s Grant. 

For the aviation authority and Coriport, a thorough revision of the concession contract is a priority. When consulted by The Tico Times, neither agency would provide a new date for the terminal’s opening or the cause of the delay. 

“For us, the public interest is above anyone else’s interest. There is a contract to respect, and we have a group of technicians concluding a meticulous inspection process in order to assure a safe and efficient service,” Aviation Vice Minister Luis Carlos Araya said. 

Cordero recently said the company would work closely with the government to meet obligations, but that it is unclear whether the new terminal will by ready by the holidays, one of the busiest travel seasons of the year.

Despite the delays at Liberia’s airport, experts say Costa Rica’s use of a system of private concessions is the best way to complete public infrastructure projects. 

“This country has to do public works through concessions, but experience tells me that the processes of control and inspection have to be clearer and more conclusive,” Araya said. “This is why we are emphatic about following the Liberia airport contract at every step.”

 The issue was discussed earlier this month at a forum on competitiveness organized by the Costa Rican-North American Chamber of Commerce (TT, Dec. 2). 

“We have failed to understand public infrastructure concessions as a whole,” Carlos Plass, executive director of Aeris Holding Costa Rica, which operates the Juan Santamaría International Airport outside of San José, said at the summit. “We have not been able to relate concrete and metal to concepts like better quality of life, more security, lower prices, fewer accidents, fewer deaths, more free time, economic growth and the country’s development.” 

Plass said that in Costa Rica, the concession process is made difficult by a weak institutional system, legal insecurity and heavy regulation.

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