Santos Dumont sells out while Rio experiences an impasse over airports


Santos Dumont airport, in the center of Rio de Janeiro, saw a jump in passenger traffic in 2022, and local leaders believe that the terminal operates above its capacity.

The situation occurs in the midst of an impasse involving the two major airports in the city.

The management of Jair Bolsonaro (PL) planned to grant Santos Dumont together with Galeão, in the north of Rio, but the future of the terminals still raises uncertainties and is under analysis by the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) government.

For Rio de Janeiro leaders, it is necessary to curb demand at Santos Dumont. In the local assessment, the measure is necessary to generate greater coordination in Rio’s air traffic and direct more flights to Galeão, which underwent emptying and entered the process of re-bidding last year.

The annual capacity of Santos Dumont is estimated at 9.9 million passengers by Infraero, the federal public company that manages the airport, focused on domestic aviation.

However, in 2022, the terminal received 10.17 million travelers, between departures and arrivals, the highest number in a historical series with data available since 2012 on the Infraero website.

The increase was 49.5% compared to 2021 (6.8 million). In the pre-pandemic, the contingent was close to 9 million – it was 9.1 million in 2019 and 9.2 million in 2018.

“The reflection [do aumento] it’s the line of passengers at certain times, it’s the agglomeration, the discomfort”, says former state secretary of Transport Demo Pinho, advisor to the presidency of Fecomércio RJ (Federation of Commerce in Goods, Services and Tourism of the State of Rio de Janeiro ).

“It’s the same thing as having a car for five passengers and operating the vehicle with six or seven people. There will be people sitting on your lap or inside the trunk”, he says.

Pinho reports that business entities defend, based on technical studies, a reduction in Santos Dumont’s capacity to 8 million passengers a year.

This limit, he says, would be enough to maintain the financial attractiveness of the airport and help with the recomposition of flights at Galeão.

According to data published by Anac (National Civil Aviation Agency), Santos Dumont received 9.9 million paid passengers in 2022 – a definition that excludes travelers who do not generate revenue for airlines.

It is the highest level of a historical series with data available since 2000 on the agency’s website.

In a note, Infraero states that “it operates within the margin of the current capacity of Santos Dumont airport”.

According to the company, continuous improvements are adopted in passenger processing, together with airlines, to obtain efficiency gains and guarantee the “same levels of safety and quality”.

Galeão International Airport, in turn, received 5.7 million paid passengers in 2022, according to Anac.

The number, which includes domestic and international flights, is equivalent to only 41.8% of the 2019 level (13.7 million), in the pre-pandemic period. Over the past decade, Galeão has received more than 16 million travelers a year.

For local authorities, the emptying is related to the swelling of Santos Dumont, which is closer to businesses installed in the city center and tourist attractions in the south zone, for example.

Galeão is located on Ilha do Governador, and access is via routes such as the Linha Vermelha, a frequent location for traffic jams and cases of urban violence.

Responsible for the airport, RIOgaleão announced in February 2022 a request to return the concession. The company associated the measure with economic difficulties exacerbated by the pandemic.

As a result, the Bolsonaro government began planning a joint auction for Galeão and Santos Dumont. By that logic, the same investor group could manage the two terminals.

In November, RIOgaleão, which is controlled by Changi, from Singapore, signed an amendment with reservations to proceed with the return.

At the time, Anac indicated that, upon signing the document, the concessionaire would declare “irrevocable and irreversible adhesion to the rebidding”.

However, with the change of government, the debate gained new contours. After a meeting in Rio in January, Minister Márcio França (Ports and Airports) signaled the interest of the Lula administration and the company itself in putting together an agreement for the permanence of the current concessionaire.

Prefecture wants restrictions

The municipal secretary of Economic Development of Rio, Chicão Bulhões, assesses the government’s indication as positive and praises the company’s work.

However, Bulhões understands that the most urgent debate involves the need for “coordination” between Galeão and Santos Dumont.

The city government defends that flights at the domestic airport be restricted to closer sections, within a radius of 500 kilometers –which would include the connection with São Paulo–, in addition to the connection with Brasília.

“Santos Dumont is above its passenger capacity”, says Bulhões. “If this regulation problem is not resolved, it will have a dysfunctional concession anyway [no Galeão]”, it says.

Marcus Quintella, director of the FGV Transportes study center, does not see Santos Dumont as a reason for emptying the international airport.

He says that Galeão is an “excellent” terminal, but that it has been affected by structural problems in Rio, such as the economic turbulence of recent years and urban violence.

“An airport does not generate passengers. What generates it is the city. It is the economy of the region”, he says.

Delmo Pinho, from Fecomércio RJ, considers that access to Galeão needs to be improved.

“If you want a person to leave a central airport and go to the other one, which is very good, but is further away, the journey has to be comfortable. They need to feel safe.”

Rebidding has many steps, says ministry

consulted by Sheetthe Ministry of Ports and Airports states that “the natural path” for Galeão “is to carry out the rebidding”, but mentions that the process “involves many steps”.

“Anyway, the ministry is committed to finding the best solution for expanding Galeão’s operations, whether managed by the current concessionaire or by a new concessionaire”, he says.

The folder also reports that the Santos Dumont issue “necessarily involves the solution to be given to Galeão”, since both make up Rio’s airport system.

“It should be noted that, managed by Infraero, Santos Dumont has excellent ratings,” he says.

RIOgaleão says that it “remains committed to acting with operational and safety excellence” and that it “continues working for the commercial development” of Galeão.

“The concessionaire makes itself available to contribute to the analysis of the airport situation in Rio de Janeiro”, he points out.

Anac, in turn, claims that “everyone involved is talking to discuss the best possible solutions” and that local passengers need both airports.

According to the agency, “with the challenges of the economic crisis and the pandemic, it is natural that there is an impact on total demand and that Santos Dumont suffers less in the short term, without prejudice, however, to the potential long-term demand of the [área de controle terminal] TMA-RJ, which is directly related to the region’s economic growth”.

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