By Liam Higgins
The mayors of Nabón and Oña say the valley between their towns is the perfect location for a new Cuenca airport. The site, off the Pan American highway south of Cuenca, is flat, at a lower elevation than Cuenca, and has a dry, fog-free climate.
The problem with the Nabón – Oña site, say board members of the Cuenca Airport Corporation (CORPAC), is the distance from the city: 67 kilometers, or 42 miles, with an estimated drive-time of an hour and 15 minutes from Cuenca’s city center.
The location is one of several considered by Cuenca officials since 1978 when they first decided that the airport should be relocated. Constructed on farmland on the outskirts of Cuenca in 1941, the Mariscal La Mar Airport today sits in a highly populated area.
But finding a good site for a new airport is not easy. “Because of the geography, there are few suitable places to build a new facility near Cuenca,” says Rafael Emerson, a Latin American airport consultant. “You have to deal with elevation, topography as well as weather issues such as fog. Finding an area with a three or four kilometer stretch of flat land is a real challenge in any mountainous location.”
CORPAC board member Cristian Zamora agrees and says the dilemma must still be faced — and soon. “It’s been 40 years since we decided we need a new location, or at least to make a big expansion of the current one,” he says. “We can’t put it off any longer.”
He adds that the number of air passengers has increased dramatically since the Covid-19 pandemic shut-down in 2020. “The airport is approaching the pre-pandemic level of usage and will exceed that level within a matter of months,” Emerson says. “We expect rapid growth in passenger demand in the coming years.”
Besides being located in a populated area, a a major concern with Mariscal La Mar is runway length. At an elevation of 2,245 meters (8,100 feet), the 2,018-meter (6,621 feet) runway is hundreds of meters short of international aviation standards. “It takes a farily high degree of skill for pilots to land in Cuenca because of the altitude and the runway length,” Zamora says. “We have been fortunate over the years that we have maintained a good safety record and this speaks well of pilot competence. After the Tame accident a few years ago we thought the runway was a factor but it turned out to be pilot error.”
On April 29, 2016, a Tame Embraer 190 aircraft with 93 on board skidded off the Mariscal La Mar runway during a wet weather landing and the pilots and Ecuador’s civil aviation authority blamed the runway length and surface quality immediately afterward. More than a year later, however, the official accident report pinned the responsibility on the pilots, saying their landing angle was too steep, that they touched down too far down the runway, and that they miscalculated the aircraft weight. Fortunately, no one was injured in the mishap.
Emerson says runway length has become less of a problem in recent years. “New aircraft are being designed with shorter landing requirements,” he says. “If Cuenca can add two or three hundred meters to the existing runway it could extend the life of the airport although, in the long term, they need a new facility outside of the city.”
Although Zamora and other airport board members say a new search should be initiated as soon as possible for a new location, he says expansion of the current location may be the only feasible option in the short term. “It’s not the best one but, after we look at all the possibilities, it may be the only one, at least for the foreseeable future,” he says.
Earlier studies had eliminated two locations, one in Tarqui, south of Cuenca, and a second near Challuabamba, northeast of the city. The Tarqui site was determined to be too foggy while Challuabamba was too windy.
Expansion of the current airport would involve extending the runway 500 or 600 meters to the southwest, running past the Cemeterio Patrimonial, ending at Av. Huayna Capac near the intersection with Gran Colombia and González Suárez. The plan would require acquisition of more than 100 homes and the closure of several streets.
According to Emerson and Zamora, and airport decision needs to come soon. “The population of the Cuenca metropolitan area, currently about 750,000 will exceed 1.2 million within 20 or 25 years and the demand for air travel will grow dramatically,” says Emerson. “Long-term, there will be a major increase in tourism, not to mention growth of the foreign resident population. There will also be a demand for regional international flights, to Peru, Colombia and Central American. At some point there will be flights between Cuenca and Miami, and possibly New York, but I don’t see it happenening in the next 10 years.”
He adds: “The planning for the airport needs to start now.”