Before the pandemic, South America's airport industry was on the rise. Let’s take a virtual trip to what used to be the busiest airports in the region.

South America’s airports are being hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. Since March 2020, the passenger traffic in most of them was practically non-existent with a drop of 92.2% compared to 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Between May and June 2020, the biggest Latin American carriers Aeromexico, Avianca (AVHOQ) and LATAM were forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. 

The majority of the airports remained open due to ongoing domestic flights and air cargo operations, which were vital for the countries’ economies. However, the decrease of passengers means losses for the airports. IATA estimates that during Q1 2020 the region's airports have lost $700 million. Mexico and Brazil are recovering quicker than other Latin American countries due to domestic traffic activity, pointed out the association

Some South American countries are slowly opening for visitors, while others remain closed. Brazil opened its borders on July 29, Colombia – on September 21, while Peru did so on October 5, 2020. Chile is planning to welcome passengers once again in December 2020. 

São Paulo Guarulhos Airport (Brazil)

São Paulo Guarulhos Airport (GRU) is the busiest airport in Brazil and the country’s main international gateway. 

On January 20, 2020, the airport celebrated its 35 years of existence. In 1985, it started operations with only one runway when a flight landed from New York. The second runway opened in 1989. In 2019 the airport welcomed 43 million passengers. 

Guarulhos is a hub for Avianca Brazil, LATAM Brazil and Gol. Azul (AZUL) and other regional Brazilian carriers also operate flights to the airport. GRU is served by all major North American and Latin American carriers, as well as a large number of European carriers.

It is the leading hub in the continent, and the primary international airport serving São Paulo. “GRU Airport has the largest local demand, particularly for outbound tourism flows; it has approximately 30 long-haul destinations; and it operates with narrow-body aircraft, accessible from Ushuaia to Cartagena and San Andrés,” said João Pita, the Head of Airline Business at GRU Airport to International Airport Review. 

The airport is looking to improve its infrastructure. For example, the terminals so far are not connected by trains, making the logistics between them less convenient. Also, the journey between GRU and the center of São Paulo can take around two hours by bus due to the traffic.

Bogotá El Dorado Airport (Colombia)

El Dorado International Airport (BOG) serves the capital of Colombia, Bogotá. Construction of its first passenger terminal started in 1955, and it opened for service in 1959. In 2010, the construction of the airport's second terminal started. T1 became one of the most modern terminals in South America. 

In 2019, the airport welcomed 35 million passengers and had a route map of over 42 national and 48 international destinations. Meanwhile, there have been discussions about the expansion of the airport to accommodate the growing demand. A possible second airport could be built, tentatively known as El Dorado II.

“It is essential that Colombia’s main hub airport El Dorado in Bogotá be expanded to handle the predicted demand in the coming 20 years,” said Peter Cerda, IATA’s Regional Vice President for the Americas.

BOG airport’s main carriers are Avianca (AVHOQ) and LATAM Colombia, while low-cost carriers Satena and Wing are also based here.

The airport is proud of its environmental initiatives. It started solid and wastewater recycling programs and will shortly install solar panels at BOG to make the gateway more energy efficient. 

Lima Jorge Chávez Airport (Peru) 

Jorge Chávez International Airport (LIM) is located in Lima – the capital of Peru. Situated on the Pacific coast, LIM is used as a connecting hub between South American and Central American countries and North America. 

Built in 1950, it started operating flights in 1960. Its name comes from the Peruvian aviation pioneer Jorge Chávez Dartnell, the first man to cross the Alps with a monoplane in 1910.LIM’s passenger traffic growth has been consistent throughout the last decade. However, it has seen an uptick of growth since 2015. The airport welcomed 23 million passengers in 2019.

At the end of December 2019, the airport started its expansion project, which includes a second runway and a new Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower.

Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport (Chile)

Also known as Santiago Airport (SCL), it is the main international gateway to Chile and its capital Santiago de Chile. Located 15km from downtown Santiago it is the 4th busiest airport in South America. 

The construction of the airport started in 1961. In 1980 it opened for operations and was given the name of Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport in honor of the founder of the Chilean Air Force and Chilean carrier LATAM Chile. In March 2007, after several reconstructions, the second runway was opened for traffic. 

It is the hub for flights to Europe, Oceania and the Americas. The busiest routes are to Lima, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Bogotá, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Panama City, Miami, Mendoza and Mexico City. 

In 2019, it welcomed 24.6 million passengers. There were a total of 23 airlines operating flights out of Arturo Merino’s Airport. Approximately 82% of the airport’s flights are operated by LATAM Airlines. The second-largest operator is the Chilean low-cost Sky Airline.

In 2020, only 13 airlines were operating from Santiago’s Airport. There were only 14 direct routes, a 78% decrease in comparison with the previous year. All connectivity to Oceania and North America was lost. The Chilean government has prohibited foreigners to enter the country during the pandemic, but it plans to lift the restriction in December 2020. 

São Paulo Congonhas Airport (Brazil)

São Paulo-Congonhas Airport (CGH) is the second busiest airport in Brazil and the fifth busiest airport in South America, having transported nearly 21 million passengers in 2019. 

The name Congonhas comes from the neighborhood where it is located,  previously called  Vila Congonhas, former property of the Viscount of Congonhas do Campo, first president of the Province of São Paulo. CGH is owned by the City of São Paulo but operated by Infraero. Opened in 1936, it is one of the oldest civil airports in Brazil.

When the airport opened, the surrounding area had only a few buildings, but with time, the area got more populated. To date, nearly 12 million inhabitants live in São Paulo, where CGH is located. 

The airport has one of the most dreadful runways to operate in Brazil. The deadliest crash in Brazil’s civil aviation history happened in CGH on July 17, 2007. A TAM Airlines Airbus A320 overran the runway and crashed into a nearby warehouse as it landed in rainy conditions, killing all 187 people onboard and 12 people on the ground. 

After the incident, several restrictions were set on the airport to improve safety, which led to CGH losing its international airport status. Congonhas Airport is mainly operating domestic flights and is restricted to 30 operations per hour with narrow-body aircraft. CGH’s main airlines are LATAM, GOL (the largest domestic airline in Brazil), and Azul Brazilian airlines.

In April 2020, Congonhas Airport had no regular flights whatsoever. There was an increase in traffic during the months of June-July but it was interrupted by construction works by Infraero. Until September 2020, only smaller airplanes were able to land in CGH.