MIAMI — Most people visiting Rio de Janeiro are there to take in the beauty that the city offers in the form of beaches, mountains and – quite frankly – people. On my recent visit, however, those priorities were pushed aside in favor of exploring the two airports operating in the metropolis, the Santos Dumont airport (IATA: SDU) in the heart of downtown and Galeão – Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim International Airport (IATA: GIG) a bit further out of town. Both offer reasonable facilities, commensurate with the level of service they offer. Santos Dumont is somewhat more aviation-geek friendly given its location and surroundings but it also handles far fewer and much smaller operations.
Santos Dumont Airport
Since its origins as a seaplane base in the 1930s the current Santos Dumont Airport has been at the heart of the Brazilian aviation industry; it is fitting that the airport today is named for the pioneer of aviation in the country, Alberto Santos Dumont. A statue in front of the building and a mural inside both pay honor to his legacy.
Thanks to its close-in location SDU is favored by many passengers for short and medium haul travels. At the same time, however, operations are limited in order to keep the impact on local neighborhoods to a minimum. Currently the airport operates only 19 operations/hour and no operations overnight. The departures terminal is relatively new, having been built in advance of the Pan American Games in 2007. It features both jet bridge and hard stand operations, in addition to providing concessions and lounges outside the secure area. Sadly I was not able to get inside security on this trip but the public areas are pretty nice, with large, open spaces and reasonably tasty food; at least my lunch was.
Another highlight of SDU is its proximity to the Sugar Loaf site. Sugar Loaf is one of the main tourist sites in Rio and it just so happens to sit more or less directly off the end of runway 20 at SDU, the primary runway in use. This means that just about every departure lifts off from the runway headed right at the observation deck atop the mountain, offering an AvGeek moment from above and some fun shots framing departures if so desired as a spotter.
Speaking of spotting, SDU has a small parking lot at the southern end of the field which is easily walkable from the terminal and offers a fantastic vantage point for departures. Most arrivals touch down sufficiently far down the runway that views aren’t as great, but I suppose that depends on what lenses you pack. Do be aware that the far side of the airport houses a military installation so keep the cameras focused on commercial operations to avoid any troubles.
Galeão – Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim International Airport
More commonly known simply as the International airport or by its IATA identifier GIG, this is the larger of the airports in town and is much more akin to a typical major international airport experience relative to SDU. GIG was pressed in to commercial service in 1952 and since the 70s has been the major international gateway for Rio de Janeiro. There is significant amounts of construction ongoing in an effort to get the facilities ready to handle the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. It doesn’t look ready today, but there is still a little bit of time left for Infraero and the contractors to get things ready.
Operations are split across two terminals at GIG. That’s not so great if you miss your stop on the bus and have to walk between the two, but if that does happen, at least take solace in the fact that the hallway connecting the two terminals offers up a fantastic view of operations on the field through the huge windows along one side.
Terminal 1 is the less used space at the airport though it has more carriers still operating there; most are international airlines with a handful of daily operations. The terminal also has a nice food court on the top floor. The food court is great for several reasons, the last of which is the ability to get the local Pão de Queijo at pretty much every shop. The ATMs are located up here which is important as an arriving passenger looking to get some cash before heading into town. And, for the AvGeek crowd, tucked away towards the back-left of the food court is a set of tables with great views of the ramp from above.
Terminal 2 is a newer facility and, while it handles fewer airlines than Terminal 1, more passengers use it daily. The public spaces are nicer than in Terminal 1, save for the food court area.
Quite a bit of construction continues in Terminal 2 as Infraero works to expand and enhance the concessions and other services available. In the interim, however, the gate areas seems somewhat cramped, particularly given the larger planes used for the long-haul routes.
Also of interest is that a few gates can be switched between domestic and international service by opening and closing the appropriate doors at either end. A similar system works in Toronto’s Pearson Airport as well.
The lounges at GIG are nothing to rave about, though better than the crowded gate areas. The two lounges in Terminal 2 are merely adequate, with light snacks and drinks available. The Smiles lounge has showers, too, though it is also rather more crowded and the furniture shows wear from that higher usage.
There are no special features or amazing amenities at GIG which make it stand out amongst the world’s airports. But it does seem to be doing a pretty decent job of handling its traffic today. Hopefully that lasts into the coming years as Brazil and Rio see major spikes in tourism numbers.