Air transport is an important sector for Panama and, according to a report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), aviation and aviation-related tourism contribute some $5.9 billion to Panama’s economy, an amount equal to 12.6% of the country’s GDP. This is much higher than the global average contribution of 3.4%, reflecting the positive impact of efficient connectivity to Panama’s economy.
Air transport contributed 12.6% of country’s economy
The aviation sector in Panama (comprising the airlines as well as the airport and ground-based infrastructure) directly employs 13,400 people locally, and supports through their supply chains a further 18,700 jobs. A further 11,400 jobs are supported through the household spending of those employed by the sector and its supply chain.
The airlines, together with the airports, air navigation and other essential ground services that make up the air transport infrastructure, carry over 11.7 million passengers and 110,200 tons of air freight to and from Panama every year. More than 56,400 scheduled international flights depart from Panama annually, destined for 71 airports in 29 countries.
Since the birth of the Republic, Panamanian leaders have been interested in aviation and air transport to the point that just after 1903 when Panama separated from Colombia, a prize of $3,000 (a fortune in those days) was offered for the person who would undertake the first flight from the isthmus. Finally on April 21, 1912 Clarence A. de Giers took off from what is now the Galerias Obarrio in a monoplane Bleriot XI before 4,000 spectators.
However, it was not until the famous U.S. aviator, Charles Lindbergh, came to Panama on January 9, 1928, that civil aviation began to be developed, fueled by world euphoria about air travel. In 1931, the Government bought three airplanes, two Curtiss Osprey and an amphibian Keystone, thus forming the National Air Service.
Captain Enrique Malek, who is considered the father of commercial aviation in Panama, created the first commercial airline called Aerovias Nacionales S.A. At the end of 1944 other airlines were founded, among then Compañía Panameña de Aviación, COPA. The Tocumen International Airport was built in 1947, and quickly became Latin America’s “Air Hub”.
Finally in 1963 the Civil Aviation Directorate was created to regulate aviation in general, and in 2003 it was elevated to an authority.
Civil Aviation Authority (Autoridad de Aeronáutica Civil)
The Civil Aviation Authority (Autoridad de Aeronáu-tica Civil) is the government body in charge of Panama-nian air space and all matters relating to commercial and civil aviation in the country.
Over the last few years, the Authority has renovated airports in the provinces of Coclé, Colón and Chiriquí in order to create more international airports around the country aiming to attract tourism and foreign investors to those areas. The Government has invested more than $200 million in the refurbishment of five airports and the project was completed at the end of 2014.
“Aviation and aviation-related tourism are critically important to Panama—an economy built on connectivity. It’s been a successful strategy that supports Panama’s strong economic links with an efficient airport and a very successful airline. With over 40% of passengers at Tocumen International Airport transiting through the facility, it is clear that Panama has carved out a major role in the region that is paying significant economic dividends,” Tony Tyler, Director General and CEO of IATA.
Tocumen S.A. is a government company that manages and operates the international airports in the country. Currently this organization handles Tocumen International Airport; Panama-Pacifico International Airport; Enrique Malek International Airport; Scarlett Martinez International Airport and Enrique A. Jimenez International Airport. The rest of the terminals are the responsibility of the Autoridad de Aeronautica Civil ( Civil Aviation Authority)
Airports and airstrips in Panama
Panama has seven international airports. Tocumen International Airport is the most important and the biggest; Enrique Malek, located in Chiriqui province, handles flights from Costa Rica; Scarlett Martinez, which is close to the Pacific beaches, receives charter flights coming from Canada.
Marcos A. Gelabert International Airport (PAC) is located on the former Albrook U.S. airbase in Panama City and is Panama’s second largest airport and home to the country’s second largest airline, AirPanama.
Bocas del Toro “Isla Colón” International Airport has routes to and from Pavas and Tamarindo in Costa Rica. Panama-Pacifico International Airport is close to the capital city and receives charter flights and commercial flights from Colombia. The Enrique A. Jimenez International Airport in Colón has been completely renovated and its commercial potential is waiting to be exploited.
For domestic flights, Panama officially has over 100 airstrips, making it the country with more airstrips per square mile than any other nation in the world. It is technically feasible for many chartered and private planes to access the remote interior regions and beach towns of the country and hop from town to town.
“Panama is one of the few countries on the continent that has superior growth. There are three airports in the world where the movement of registered passengers is bigger than its population and Panama is one of them,” Joseph Fidanque III, Manager of Tocumen, S.A.
Tocumen International Airport
This is the most important and biggest airport in the country. Currently, 22 commercial airlines and 18 cargo airlines have flights from Tocumen. It has direct flights from Panama to Europe, America and even one to the Arab Emirates in the Middle East which takes approximately 17 and a half hours, currently the longest flight in the world.
Copa Airlines is located in Tocumen and already operates services from Panama City, “ Hub of the Americas”, to cities in the Unites States of America including Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, New York and Washington, plus a further 53 international and domestic airports throughout the Caribbean, North and South America.
Tocumen is going through an expansion process with the construction of the South Terminal at a cost of $779.4 million. The first mezzanine comprises an arrival hall with a modern baggage system capable of handling 6,500 pieces of luggage per hour, 60 migration booths and customs offices.
The second level will be dedicated to departures with 50 registered stations for passengers to check in, duty free stores, waiting rooms, ample circulation hallways and 20 new gates. The third level will house airline offices and operation rooms and the fourth floor will hold food courts, airline and administrative offices and a VIP room.
The South Terminal building will measure 75,000 m2, of which 9,000 m2 will be dedicated to the commercial area. A control tower will be constructed for the new terminal which will be able to handle Boeing 737s and Boeing 777s among others. A four lane boulevard to connect the South Terminal with the South Corridor is also being built. Once the project is completed Tocumen will be able to manage 33 million passengers a year.
Once the South Terminal is ready, Tocumen International Airport will measure 148,000 m2, with eight remote positions, 54 gates for arrivals and departures, completing 62 bridges and will become the connection hub of the region.
Another project that will be developed at Tocumen, spanning 70 hectares, is the construction of cargo terminals specially designed for management and storage of merchandize, compatible for all types of products, with modern equipment as required by modern trade practices. Tocumen, S.A. is also studying the possibility of creating a free zone which will be located in the main terminal.
The aim of these improvements is for Tocumen International Airport to be able to cover Latin America cargo needs for the next 20 years. It is expected that more air cargo companies will be attracted to the terminal with these new facilities.
Several companies offer rental of helicopters, jets and airplanes as well as services. Most of them operate from the Marcos Gelabert International Airport, located in Albrook, in Panama City.