Avianca's Main Territory

Managing A Hub At Bogota’s El Dorado Airport

How Avianca, Colombia’s flag carrier, manages its main hub in Bogotá with airport infrastructure, capacity and traffic growth, as well as geographic challenges.

The airport in Bogotá, Colombia, is important not only for this extremely significant country in northern South America, situated at the juncture of South and Central America, but also for the airlines of the world that fly there.

Geographically, Bogotá’s size and location make it an important transportation link along the spine of South America’s beautifully rugged Andes Mountains. There are 8 million people living around Bogotá, making it one of South America’s largest cities and an attractive location for a hub.

Colombian commercial air traffic has grown rapidly, a reflection of the country’s strong economic growth, which has exceeded 5 percent during the past few years. Scheduled air service has surged and, additionally, traffic has been stimulated by low-cost carriers. Bogotá’s average annual passenger traffic growth during the past five years is an impressive 13 percent.

Bogotá has only one commercial airport, El Dorado International Airport. The airport takes its name, El Dorado, from a myth about a tribal chief who covered himself in gold dust, which then grew to a legend of a lost city teeming with gold and precious stones. As the stories grew, it enticed European explorers to come to South America for two centuries.

In 2012, El Dorado International Airport inaugurated a new international passenger terminal. This was followed by a domestic terminal that opened in 2013. These two terminals replaced outdated facilities built in the 1950s. The US$1.26 billion investment took more than seven years to complete. The modernization and expansion of the airport generated a substantial improvement in airport services compared to the previous situation in Bogotá. However, even with this large investment, the airport still faces major challenges since its design capacity was under-planned.

The new facilities at El Dorado International Airport were not built to handle the surge in volume that has taken place. Passenger and capacity growth resulted in the airport exceeding its capacity design by a wide margin. The airport was designed to handle an estimated 15 million passengers by 2015. Actual traffic at the airport is currently in excess of 25 million. Even with the new terminal, airlines must park their aircraft in remote parts of the airport and bus passengers to the terminal.

Other challenges the airport faces include its high altitude, mountainous terrain, weather and lack of modern technology to manage airspace. Due to the combination of high altitude and runway length, there are limitations on how far certain airplane types can fly from El Dorado International Airport.

We recently visited with Santiago Pinzon, Avianca’s director of hub control, to learn how Colombia’s largest airline manages its hub in Bogotá in the context of these challenges.

Eldorado International Airport

Bogota’s new US1.26 billion airport replaces outdated facilities built in the 1950s. It has two terminals. T1 has two concourses that handle international and domestic arrivals. Colombia’s flag carrier, Avianca, is the only airline operating from Puente Aéreo (or T2), which is used for domestic flights only.

El Dorado Airport

There are two passenger terminals at El Dorado. The main terminal, T1, has two concourses to handle international and domestic arrivals. It has 33 jet bridges, 18 parking positions, 128 passenger check-in positions and 51 immigration counters. The other terminal, T2, is called Puente Aéreo (Air Bridge). Avianca is currently the only carrier operating from T2, which is used for domestic flights only.

Avianca is in the process of moving some of its domestic operations from Puente Aéreo to Terminal 1 to facilitate transferring domestic and international passengers. This will open space in Puente Aéreo to move regional carriers that serve domestic markets to operate from there.

El Dorado International Airport accounts for half the total air traffic in the entire country. Twenty-seven airlines serve Bogotá, of which six are domestic.

The airport ranks first among all airports in Latin America in terms of cargo transported, second in departures performed and third in passengers carried.

According to airport statistics, the airport moved more than 27 million passengers in 2014, and it transported over 622,000 metric tons of cargo.

The domestic market is substantial. Of the 27 million passengers, 8 million were international and 19 million were domestic, in a country with a population of more than 45 million.

Extreme Passenger Growth

El Dorado International Airport has experienced significant passenger growth during the past several years, growing from less than 15 million passengers a year in 2008 to more than 25 million annual passengers in 2013. Of those, 8 million represented international travel while 17 million were domestic.

El Dorado’s Multiple Adverse Factors

Challenges for the airport begin with the high altitude of Bogotá, one of the highest-elevation national capitals in the world, being situated on a heavily frequented trade route in South America’s gargantuan (both in elevation and geography) Andes Mountains. The Andes are one of the largest mountainous regions on the face of the earth (north to south, the world’s longest continental mountain range). At an elevation of more than 8,300 feet (2,600 meters), not all destinations can be served nonstop due to airplane performance limitations.

In addition to the thin-air, high altitude and terrain, weather conditions in the northern portion of South America can be notoriously difficult to predict. The airport often experiences adverse weather including foggy conditions that, as a consequence, can cascade flight delays in a domino effect.

Furthermore, El Dorado lacks some of the latest cutting-edge technology to manage air traffic and airspace efficiently.

Another major challenge is the airport control tower. The new tower has been delayed by a year, and costs have also increased.

The master plan for Bogotá indicated that due to continuing passenger growth, another airport will have to be built. In fact, in January, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos announced plans to complete the construction of a second airport in Bogotá known as El Dorado II, within the next five years. The new airport will be built east of Bogotá, a distance from the existing airport.

Bogotá Flight Challenges

Bogotá, surrounded by the Andes Mountains with adjacent peaks reaching nearly 12,000 feet (3,760 meters), is one of the highest-elevation national capitals in the world. The thin-air high altitude and vast terrain naturally create challenges for airlines flying in and out of the city. In addition, the area often experiences adverse weather conditions such as fog, causing additional problems like frequent flight delays.

National Carrier Avianca

Avianca’s network is one of the largest in Latin America. The airline serves 98 destinations in the Americas and Europe and 26 countries worldwide.

Avianca operates its main hub at Bogotá, operating approximately 214 flights per day from El Dorado International Airport. Nearly 75 percent of the airlines’ daily flights operate from Puente Aéreo and the remainder from Terminal 1. Avianca is the airport’s dominant carrier and offers more than 60 percent of the airport’s departures.

Flights from Bogotá to Colombia’s major cities Barranquilla, Cali, Cartagena, Medellin and Pereira account for 56 percent of all domestic flights operated by Avianca and 61 percent of the domestic traffic carried by the airline.

According to a January 2013 article in Colombia Reports, Avianca President Fabio Villegas Ramirez indicated the airport is already overflowing. He said the new terminals are insufficient for the number of passengers, and they create problems for connecting flights and baggage handling. He also stated that the new international terminal has almost the same number of gates as the old terminal, while demand grew much faster than expected.

According to Santiago Pinzon, Avianca dedicates time and resources to manage and resolve changes that arise in El Dorado’s day-to-day operations with the aim of mitigating the impact on Avianca’s operations and the service to passengers due to last-minute changes, closures or operational constraints.

Under normal operations, the airline manages its assigned gates and positions according to the types of aircraft and routes. However, when external factors such as bad weather affect the normal course of operations, and compliance with flight departure and arrival times is affected, Avianca assigns positions to minimize delays.

Avianca leverages advanced technology to plan and manage gates at El Dorado airport. Sabre AirCentre® Gate Planner, an automated planning tool, is used prior to the day of operation to optimize the number of flights that can operate from an allotted number of gates at an airport.

Sabre AirCentre® Gate Manager, an automated system that evaluates real-time flight data, is used to analyze changing conditions at the airport and detect potential problems to automatically allocate gates on the day of operation.

Avianca’s Home Base

Avianca is the dominant airline for El Dorado International Airport, operating 61 percent of the airport’s departures, which is approximately 214 flights a day.

Overcoming Obstacles

According to Avianca’s Pinzon, “expansion is not sufficient, and we need a greater number of boarding gates, more space for parking aircraft, as well as customer-service areas. The incorporation of new processes and technology to make the air operation in Bogotá more efficient is required, which would allow an increase in the number of takeoffs and landings per hour at El Dorado. It should be recognized that the national government and the director of the Colombian Civil Aviation Authority have been advancing important actions in order to overcome the obstacles on both fronts and continue to do so.”

Avianca works in partnership with Aerocivil and OPAIN (Operadora Aeroportuaria Internacional), seeking optimal solutions to the constraints resulting from operating within a limited structure and to service the growing number of travelers.

Aerocivil is a government agency under Colombia’s Ministry of Transport. It is headquartered on the property of El Dorado International Airport and ensures the orderly development of civil aviation, the airline industry and the use of Colombian airspace.

The airport is managed by OPAIN, a consortium consisting of Colombian construction and engineering firms and Swiss Flughafen Zurich A.G.

Parking positions and gates are managed by OPAIN based on volume parameters, routes, aircraft type and available resources. Gates are assigned on a rotating basis and are non-exclusive.

Developing Solutions For An Even Busier Future

Following the announcement of El Dorado II, Colombia’s government is now tasked with creating a new master plan to develop long-term solutions that address the current operating and growth challenges. With this announcement, the industry expects to have an airport with optimal size and conditions to adequately respond to the terminal-projected traffic for at least the next 30 years.

In the meantime, as Avianca grows and further develops its hub at Bogotá, the airline must continue to work with Colombian government agencies and airport entities to determine ways to minimize customer impact and ensure that the airline’s growth plans are not jeopardized in the long run by airport constraints.

As Latin America’s award-winning airline (“Best in Business” for 2014 according to Business Traveler magazine), Avianca appears to embrace its salient position as a South American thought leader in the greater world of transportation.

Avianca’s ongoing level of success in dealing with the special challenges of being the dominant carrier in Bogotá is likely to be watched closely by aviation analysts and other airlines worldwide.