CEO, Jonny Andersen, tells Joe Bates more about the growth and development of Curaçao International Airport, which boasts one of the newest terminals in the Caribbean and a growing route network.
Located just 40 miles north of Venezuela off of the tip of South America, Curaçao International Airport (CUR) is the gateway to the tropical island of Curaçao, which is officially considered a ‘constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands’.
The ‘C’ in the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao in the Dutch Caribbean, it is also sister island to St Martin, Saba and Sint Eustatius, which enjoy the same constituent country of the Netherlands status having formerly been known as the Dutch West Indies.
For Curaçao, its unconventional status, effectively means that it has been independent from the Netherlands since 2010 and now has its own government that controls and manages its own affairs as an autonomous country, but the Dutch King remains its head of state and the Netherlands is responsible for its defence and foreign policy.
The airport itself is operated by Curaçao Airport Partners (CAP) – a consortium made up of CCR Airports (Brazil), Janssen De Jong (the Netherlands) and Aport (Zurich Airport) – and boasts one of the newest terminals in the Caribbean and a single 3,400 metre runway capable of accommodating B747-800s, although it is best equipped to handle aircaft up to the size of the B777-300.
Opened in late 2018 with a design capacity of 2.5 million passengers per annum, CUR’s 18,000sqm terminal is equipped with six boarding bridges that are capable of simultaneously accommodating three widebody aircraft.
CAP (courtesy of predecessor, Alterra Partners) was awarded a 30-year contract to manage, operate and develop CUR in 2003, and building the new terminal and developing connectivity to Curaçao
were two of the main aims of the concession.
With the terminal already ticked off and today’s route network unrecognisable from the one it inherited in 2003, and now including direct services to three US cities and daily flights to Amsterdam, there can be little doubt that the concession has been a huge success for CAP, the government of Curaçao, and the airlines currently serving the tiny island nation with a population of around 150,000 people.
“Our strategy has been one of continuous improvement, and with a relatively new terminal, improved connectivity and ongoing investment in new technology, equipment and facilities, I believe that we’ve been good for Curaçao,” says CAP CEO, Jonny Andersen.
Appeal of Curaçao
As destinations go, Curaçao takes some beating, as it’s geographical location ensures that it enjoys good weather most of the year, making it a year-round attraction for tourists.
This, along with its business appeal – Curaçao is the former administrative centre of the Dutch Caribbean – means that the island has long been associated with international trade and financial services, shipping and oil refining. The mix of tourism and commerce made CUR one of the fastest growing and up and coming destinations in the Caribbean pre-COVID.
Like elsewhere in the world, the pandemic hit Curaçao hard, and the airport experienced a tough 2020 and 2021 with passenger traffic down 63% and 43% respectively on 2019, before a hugely impressive turnaround in 2022 saw passenger numbers exceed pre-pandemic levels.
Andersen attributes CUR’s strong recovery to the growth in the US market and KLM’s decision at the end of 2021 to make Curaçao a main destination from Amsterdam, which resulted in double daily B777 flights to the airport during the 2021/22 winter season.
He also believes that Curaçao’s year-round appeal and growing popularity with passengers from South America aided CUR’s recovery and ensured that it was able to bounce back more quickly than other airports in the region.
CUR recently celebrated the milestone launch of its first service to Brazil, a once weekly service to Belo Horizonte, which operator Azul intends to double during the autumn of this year.
CAP’s success in boosting connectivity to Curaçao has led to Curaçao International Airport being shortlisted for a Routes Americas 2023 award in the category for airports handling less than four million passengers per annum where it faces competition from Idaho Falls Regional Airport, Providence–Rhode Island TF Green International Airport, and Tulsa International Airport, to win the top prize.
Andersen says that CAP is humbled by the recognition of the industry and is committed to the retention, growth and diversification of the destination’s route network in close partnership with current and potential future airline partners.
He is also quick to point out that attracting new airlines and routes to Curaçao is a joint effort along with the Curaçao Tourism Board and the Curaçao Hospitality and Tourism Association, with the island nation effectively stepping up its investment in promoting and developing the tourism industry since the 2017 closure of the former oil refinery.
All of CUR’s traffic from Europe today comes from the Netherlands and this is something Andersen would like to change a little if he can, casting an envious eye in the direction of Aruba that recently welcomed the launch of British Airways services to London.
“Maybe we can catch British Airways, too, as London is one of the destinations I’d like to attract,” says Andersen. “Curaçao is larger than Aruba, but Aruba has a much more developed tourism industry than us as they have been doing it for years, so we are currently at a disadvantage. However, we are learning fast and fast-tracking the development of our tourist facilities.
“We now have around 3,500 hotel rooms on the island, probably more actually, and there are plans to increase the number of hotel rooms by 30% to 40% over the next three to four years to give us around 5,500 to 6,000 rooms, and it’s primarily high yield accommodation.”
Expanding on this a little more, Andersen says that Curaçao’s strategy is to target more upmarket tourists, and the recent opening of a number of new hotels, including two Sandals resorts, have served notice of the island’s intentions.
“Operators like Sandals offer exclusive, all-inclusive destinations that particularly appeal to the US and European market,” says Andersen. “I believe that these type of facilities together with the uniqueness of Curaçao, which is very different to neighbouring Aruba, Bonaire and other Dutch Caribbean destinations, ensure that we bring something a little different to the market.”
New hotel accommodation due to open in 2023 includes a brand-new Marriott Courtyard, the second tower of the Mangrove Beach Corendon Curaçao All-Inclusive Resort, and the Curio by Hilton. They will provide a significant boost to the number of hotel rooms available on the island, and they will be needed, with Cirium forecasting that Curaçao will welcome a total of 24,240 scheduled flights in 2023, a healthy 18% increase on 2022.
Talking about the appeal of the North American market to the airport, Andersen says: “We are very much focused on the US and North America market today as it is very attractive to us in terms of what it brings.
“Americans tend to come year-round and more often, unlike Europeans who come at specific times of the year such as Easter, Summer or Christmas. Americans usually stay for a week or less, traditionally pre-pay for their holidays and their discretionary spending is much higher than other nationalities.”
US cities served from CUR today include New York (five times weekly); Charlotte (daily during winter season); and Miami (double daily), the latter being just a two-hour flight away. They will be joined by Atlanta when Delta launches ATL-CUR services on December 16, 2023. Andersen would like to see Boston added to this list in the not too distant future.
After Amsterdam, the next biggest routes at CUR today are Miami, Panama City and Bogota, although up to 15 Twin Otter or BN-2 Islander regional services per day to Bonaire, just 50 miles away as the crow flies, theoretically make it the busiest route served from the airport.
Traffic recovery and future growth
Andersen states that CUR is now well and truly back on track after experiencing what has been described as an “exceptional year” for the gateway in 2022, which saw its passenger numbers exceed pre-pandemic levels.
In facts and figures, in 2022, a total of 1.46 million passengers passed through its facilities. Passengers on international routes (non-Dutch Caribbean) accounted for 578,545 of all departing passengers – up 106% on 2019, while travellers bound for more local destinations reached 79% of pre-pandemic levels.
Europe (49%), North America (18%), the Dutch Caribbean (16%), and South America (12%) enjoyed the largest share of passenger traffic in 2022, with 100% of the traffic from Europe arriving on KLM flights. Turkish carrier, Corendon Airlines, will join it on the AMS-CUR route later this year.
Compared to 2019, passenger numbers in 2022 exceeded pre-pandemic levels to Europe by 20% and the USA by 3%, while South America and Canada reached 93% and 81% respectively of their pre-COVID totals.
The re-opening of Canada’s borders for international passenger traffic in the latter part of 2022, prompted Air Canada and WestJet to restart their non-stop winter season flights from Toronto and Montreal to Curaçao in the final quarter of the year.
And the strong upward trajectory in traffic at CUR continued in the first half 2023 with passenger numbers at the gateway up by 10% on the corresponding period last year.
Andersen enthused: “We are currently outperforming the forecast that predicted we would handle 2.1 million passengers by 2030. As a result, we expect to welcome around 1.6 million passengers in 2023 and, in the long-term, we are maybe looking at growth of 10% per year.”
With regards to traffic, one of few concerns for Andersen right now is the fact that CUR’s current traffic mix means that the airport handles the bulk of its flights between 4pm and 8pm daily, Thursdays and Sundays traditionally being its busiest days, which he admits does put extra strain on the gateway’s staff and facilities.
New rules at Amsterdam Schiphol
A very real new concern for CUR, however, is the impact the decision to reduce the number of flights from Amsterdam Schiphol could have on the growth and prosperity of Curaçao.
For those of you that are unaware, in a bid to address noise and environmental issues, the Dutch government has taken the unprecedented step of electing to reduce Schiphol’s annual air traffic movements from 500,000 today to 440,000 per annum, effectively meaning, as Andersen notes, “that someone, somewhere is going to lose some services”.
And CUR is not alone in its concerns as the restriction may potentially have a negative impact on all the islands in the Dutch Caribbean. So much so, in fact, that the Dutch Caribbean Cooperation of Airports (DCCA) – made up of the operators of the six airports spread across the Dutch Caribbean – has written directly to the Dutch government to express its fears, which are primarily about the potential economic and social impact the decision will have on the region.
Cutting services could also lead to a rise in ticket prices between the Netherlands and the Dutch Caribbean, which Andersen says could hit CUR hard.
He says: “Less air capacity and, potentially, higher ticket prices may have a negative impact on all three segments of travellers: business travel, leisure and those visiting friends and relatives (VFR). This will have a negative impact on the economy and the connectivity of social and family networks.”
In addition to Curaçao Airport Partners, the DCCA comprises Aruba Airport Authority, Bonaire International Airport, Princess Juliana International Airport Operating Company, the Public Entity Saba, and the Public Entity St Eustatius.
Next step for CAP
Despite the current Schiphol flight restriction concerns, Andersen is confident in the growth potential of CUR. Indeed, he is so positive about the future that he believes it won’t be long before the airport will have to look at further enhancing its facilities to meet rising demand.
Potential projects include totally refurbishing the airport’s former terminal so that it can be brought back into use and be ready for the next generation of electric/hybrid aircraft, and building a new ‘Inter-island Terminal’.
These are just some of the options that CAP would be happy to consider with the Curaçao government going forward as, with tourism really beginning to take off, potentially the best and most profitable years for the airport lie in the future.
However, Andersen is also very aware that CAP doesn’t have time on its hands to start a major new capital development programme as it is now into the last ten years of its 30-year concession, and big projects can take longer than that for stakeholders to recoup their investment.
“This is the challenge you face as a concessionaire,” suggested Andersen. “We have delivered what we promised we would do, but now there is only 10 years left on the concession, and that simply isn’t enough time to start a big new investment programme.
“You also have to remember that a lot is going to change over the next decade in terms of the infrastructure needed by airports to meet new operational challenges, such as the electrification of aircraft and other sustainability issues. And if we don’t act now to address some of these challenges we risk being left behind as they are already being looked at by some of the other islands.”
The good news is that CAP is ready to talk with the government about CUR’s future, and with both sides showing a willingness to work together, the signs are good that this Curaçao success story will go and on.
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