Published in November 2015 issue

By Rafael Recca

In the early 1990s, there were plans to move AEP to an artificial island located in the River Plate, in front of the current airport’s location. A few years later, the authorities talked about closing the airport down and transferring all its traffic to Ministro Pistarini Airport (EZE), located at Ezeiza, 35km (21 miles) from downtown Buenos Aires. But that talk came to nothing and, despite its very restricted space, with a coastal highway on one side and water on the other, the Aeroparque has received a series of upgrades and expansions.

That’s a blessing for passengers. “Can’t get a better location,” a passenger recently said on Yelp, the online site for customer reviews. “This must be by far the most impressive small airport in LatAm,” said another.

Despite the waves of change, the airport, on its slender strip of coastline, has held on.

THE BEGINNINGS

In the early years of the 20th century, a booming agricultural economy helped finance major public works, including the building of subway lines in Buenos Aires. As a result of the excavations and knocked-down buildings, a land extension of 340 acres (137Ha) was left alongside the shores of the city, mainly on the north coast region.

In 1931, the Buenos Aires authorities, hoping to make better use of the area, tried to get approval to build a neighborhood in this extension. At the same time, the Argentinian Chamber of Commerce was lobbying for an airport within the city boundaries. Finally, on the last day of the regular session of 1935, the National Congress enacted a law allowing the design of an airport on the new lands on the north coast. As hydroplanes were widely used at that time, being near the water was one of the location’s advantages.

However, nothing happened for several years, because Morón Airport, about 35 km (22 miles) from Buenos Aires, was sufficient for the air travel demands at the time. Then, in 1947, the Argentine Air Force decided that it wanted the airport built. Construction began in January that year, and didn’t take long: The runway was laid out in gravel and the control tower and terminal building were built of wood.

The airport opened in May 1947 and was named ‘Aeroparque 17 de Octubre,’ for the date in 1945, known as ‘Loyalty Day’, when a massive labor demonstration demanded that Juan Peron, Argentina’s future president, be freed from prison. The name ‘Aeroparque’ (Airpark) came from the idea of the whole area, at the very beginning, being divided into two sections. One containing the airport runway and all operational facilities— including a small wooden terminal building— and another, located at the north side, housing a kindergarten, a classroom to teach children how to build model airplanes, and an artificial lagoon. The gravel runway was later replaced by a paved} one that extended north to the shore of the lagoon. The 3,700ft (1,132m) runway was further extended to 5,180ft (1,580m) in 1952.

The first operations from AEP were carried out in 1947 by the National Aeronautic Secretariat, part of the Air Force, which carried VIPs and representatives and operated medical flights. There were some military flights and general aviation service, but early operations at AEP were sparse.

Domestic scheduled service started one year later and, by the end of 1948, AEP kicked off international flights to Montevideo (MVD). Among the first carriers were Aeroposta Argentina, ALFA (Aviacion del Litoral Fluvial Argentino) and the state-owned LADE (Lineas Aereas del Estado).

Despite the establishment of proper arrival and departure procedures, and the existence of two non-directional beacons (NDBs), the airline ZONDA (Zonas Oeste y Norte de Aerolineas Argentinas), the predecessor of Aerolineas Argentinas (AR), considered AEP’s navigational aids too unreliable to be safe. In fact, Pilots used a large Coca-Cola sign placed on the top of a building below the final approach course as a visual reference.

In May 1949, after the merger of Aeroposta Argentina, ALFA, ZONDA and FAMA (Flota Aerea Mercante Argentina), Aerolineas Argentinas was formed. By the end of 1950, Argentina’s flag carrier started operations out of EZE, keeping its operations in AEP to a minimum.

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END OF THE PERON ERA & FIRST DEREGULATION

After President Juan Domingo Peron was overthrown in a coup d’état in September 1955, AR’s monopoly came to an end.

The deregulation of the aviation market allowed many new players into the field, especially from the private side. They saw that operating from AEP, near downtown Buenos Aires, would help them attract passengers. By 1957, the Aeroparque was full of previously unheard-of operators: ALA (Aerotransportes Litoral Argentino), Austral, Norsur, PLAS (Primera Linea Aerea Santafesina), TABA (Transportes Aereos Buenos Aires), Transcontinental and even PLUNA (Primeras Lineas Uruguayas de Navegacion Aerea).

To keep up, the AR’s management also decided to increase its presence in AEP. And, amid political tumult in Argentina, the authorities decided to rename the airport for Jorge Newbery, a Latin American aviation pioneer and founder of the Argentine Air Force.

By the late 1950s, AEP’s capacity reached its maximum. Operations were chaotic for airlines and uncomfortable for passengers. The apron was too small to hold large aircraft such as LADE’s Vickers Vikings and AR Convair 240s. The runway lighting was so lacking that, at sunset, firefighters lit up kerosene barrels alongside it to enable flights to continue at night. An absence of hangars forced the operators to carry out maintenance operations outdoors.

In 1960, the airport grew by filling in the north lagoon and extending the runway to 6,890ft (2,100m).

The premises around the lagoon—a cafeteria and dressing rooms—were revamped to house the current control tower. In 1961, after the crash of a Transcontinental (TSA) Curtiss C-46 during a night approach, the runway was provided with electrical lighting. Also, general aviation operations were restricted to two-engine aircraft and private/ air taxi operators. Single-engine props and flight schools had to move outside Buenos Aires.

THE SECOND DEREGULATION WAVE

In the 1980s, Argentina’s aviation market was consolidated under the duopoly of AR and Austral (AU). After several carriers had failed to stay in the market in the Seventies, some startups attempted to make their way into the large domestic market, finally succeeding in the 1990s with the second deregulation of the industry.

The deregulation enabled LAPA (Lineas Aereas Privadas Argentinas) to incorporate several second-hand Boeing 737-200s to replace its two SAAB 340Bs, it led to the creation of Southern Winds, DINAR, American Falcon and Aerovip, among others, and also fostered the growth of legacy carriers such as LAER (Lineas Aereas Entre Rios). All this once again pushed AEP beyond its capacity.

The expansive growth and increased traffic prompted a second airport terminal expansion. In the wake of the massive privatizations that took place in the country during the mid-1990s, the airports were given in concession in 1998 to ‘Aeropuertos Argentina 2000’, a consortium formed by local and Italian investors. Despite the group’s original plans to move operations out of AEP to Ezeiza and close Aeroparque for good, AEP’s terminal facilities were actually expanded and, for the first time ever, equipped with four jetways (one for regional/international flights and three for domestic flights).

As the major economic crisis of 2001 shattered the economy of Argentina, many carriers that had come into being in the 1990s became history. Even AR and AU struggled to manage their debts. Traffic plunged from 6,187,563 passengers in 2000 to 3,891,699 in 2002. The challenge was to bounce back so that people could keep or get back their jobs. It took five years for the economy to recover and for the aviation industry to get passengers back on board. In 2009, with 6,449,344 passenger, the traffic returned to its 2000 levels, and has been growing ever since, reaching the 10-million mark in 2014.


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THE NEW PLAYERS ON THE BLOCK

Helping bring back the passenger flow was the entry of new operators: LAN Argentina in

2005; and Andes Lineas Aereas and Sol Lineas Aereas, in 2006, with financial subsidies from the provinces of Salta and Santa Fe, respectively. Also, in 2009, the Argentine Government invested heavily in AR and AU to reinstate proper service levels, which had been left in a shambles by prior private administrations. Resources were administered to help AR/AU to replace their aging MD-80s and Boeing 737-200/500s for new Embraer E190s and Boeing 737NGs. The modernization of AR’s fleet enabled AEP to operate 24 hours a day, as the new aircraft complied with noise reduction legislation.

The airport received another boost by being allowed, in March 2010, to operate, besides domestic traffic, international flights to adjacent countries beyond Uruguay, which, until then, had been the only international destination allowed; flights to Chile, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia had been forced to operate from EZE. This had made sense when jets had been less fuel efficient and had lacked the required performance to take off from short runways, like AEP’s. But the Boeing, Embraer and Airbus aircraft operating out of AEP were able to perform such missions.

In 2003, LAPA attempted to operate from AEP to Sao Paulo (GRU) via Puerto Iguazu (IGR) and to Santiago de Chile (SCL) via Mendoza. But customs and immigration controls had to take place at the intermediate stops, and the plans did not prosper.

In November 2010, as AEP was opening to more international service, new changes were made to enhance the airport’s operational safety as well as to cope with the expected growth. The airport closed for that month so that the runway surface could be improved, with flights being redirected to other airports. At the same time, the main apron parking positions were reconfigured to maximize the use of the area, the new Boeing 737’s wingspan being wider than that of its predecessors.

During 2014, Terminals 3 and 4 were expanded to the south, with a new arrival hall, the relocation of the check-in counters and an increased surface area for passenger services. A new jetway for international flights was also added, plus four domestic ones, taking the total to nine. Finally, AR moved its offices from downtown Buenos Aires to a new corporate building located in Terminal 4. This allowed AR’s management to stay closer to its day-to-day operations.

FUTURE PLANS

With increases in air traffic, the growing AR and AU fleets, and the arrival of the longer-wingspan 737NGs and A320s, the Aeroparque’s apron area is beginning to be a tight squeeze. Today, it is impossible to house the complete fleets at night, so some planes must ‘sleep’ abroad and operate night flights (departing around 23:00 and returning to the airport by 05:00).

To gain more space in the apron area, the airport’s managers plan to demolish the current control tower and construct a new one placed between the south parking lot and the new Terminal 4 and Corporate Building. Other plans call for relocating the Military Base to the south of the airfield. But there seems to be no solid timetable for making these changes.

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FLYING TO/FROM AEP: A PILOT’S PERSPECTIVE

As mentioned before, Pilots find operations in Aeroparque to be challenging, and many don’t like flying there. As this writer knows from first-hand experience, strong winds from the east/southeast, that are common in the wake of very active cold front systems, produce mechanical turbulence due to the buildings and obstacles close to the runway thresholds. Also, the 131ft (40m) wide runway falls short of current international standards, and, because it is so intensely used, it is coated with a thick layer of rubber, which can make landing quite tricky and slippery, particularly in wet conditions.

Besides the limited runway’s width, its 6,890ft (2,100m) length calls for a lot of caution when landing a fully loaded Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 on Runway 31 (non-precision approach). Fortunately, the airport is located in a flat area and it only occasionally experiences fog during winter. In 90% of cases, the prevailing east winds allow the use of Runway 13, which is ILS CAT II equipped.

When taxiing, a major concern for Pilots is the main apron parking area, which demands precise maneuvers, in part due to the Boeing 737s’ and Embraer E190s’ winglets. It is very common to taxi around with planes on both sides and very close together, with barely three meters of separation between wingtips. Even a slight deviation from the taxi line may have expensive consequences. As a matter of fact, there have been four ground collisions between 2012 and 2014.

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AIRPLANE-SPOTTING:AS GOOD AS IT GETS

Despite the love-hate relationship of users and operators with Aeroparque, airplane spotters just love the airport.

“Whenever I visit Buenos Aires, I like to spend an entire day taking aviation photos here,” says Ecuadorean spotter Sandro Rota. “What I like the most about the Aeroparque is perhaps the entire scenario and context: it is a small airport located along the Costanera waterfront that has a nice view of the Rio de la Plata and is full of trees. In this area, you can find people taking a walk, jogging, biking, fishing, eating a choripan (chorizo sanwdwich) or drinking some mate as they watch planes come and go. The Aeroparque really is an airpark where you can enjoy aviation up close.”

When taking photos, airplane spotters want the background to speak about the location and, in AEP, this is achieved at its best. The high-rise buildings of the Microcentro, Palermo and Belgrano districts can be seen from various spots and give a fantastic backdrop that just screams Buenos Aires. Depending on the time of year, sunlight can produce interesting effects, and, when the sun sets, you are able to get some amazing shots. Another bonus is that Aerolineas Argentinas and Austral have recently painted their aircraft with colorful liveries, adding even more contrast to an already beautiful scene. Finally, the recent agreements among the countries in the Mercosur, a regional South American common market, allow Brazilian operators such as TAM and GOL to fly in, making AEP’s traffic quite varied and interesting.

“I consider the Aeroparque to be one of the top 10 places in the world for aviation photography,” Rota says. The Aeroparque has become what the promoters originally devised it to be in the 1930s. Despite its operational constraints and given its large number of destinations and its proximity to downtown Buenos Aires, it offers passengers a great travel experience. The surroundings allow people to enjoy a lovely afternoon with their relatives or to work out while watching planes.

The plan to extend the runway length should help relieve some of the stress endured by both Pilots and Flight Dispatchers and ensure a safer environment, providing a winning scenario for all and a promising future ahead.