February 26, 2015

Rio Hato's refurbished old airport opens again


The Scarlet Martínez Airport won't be fully operational until several months from now.

The Scarlett Martínez Airport won’t be fully operational until several months from now. Photo by the Presidencia

Rio Hato airport opens with no regularly scheduled flights

by Eric Jackson

Vitriolic words from the president about how the opposition is a bunch of sticky fingered bums? Check. Promises of more jobs for Cocle Province? Check. Different numbers about the cost? Check those too.

Scarlett Martiínez was a young and inexperienced commercial small plane pilot who crashed her aircraft into a forested hillside in Guna Yala, leaving no survivors. Those are good enough credentials to get an airport named after a person these days in Panama. The Scarlett Martínez Airport is the old Rio Hato airstrip, of World War II US Army vintage, extended and made over.

Some of the security facilities that are supposed to be going in nearby have not yet opened, but although government officials have made the linkage, the party line is that it’s not part of the contract. Actually, most of the costs for this job were not on the airport contract. For the airport, there is a terminal, a control tower and an expanded runway that will accomodate Boeing 757-200 passenger jets.Those things officially add up to a bit more than $17 million, but the bigger part of the cost is the tunnel through which the Pan-American Highway passes under the runway. Add that and the cost tops $50 million, but should the coming Anton security center also be added, and how much will that be? And has the moving of part of the road to Farallon been included in the price tag? The compartmentalization of costs is classic deceptive practice of overspending governments everywhere and it is much in evidence in Panama, most spectacularly with the Panama Canal expansion.

Safety issues may be critical to the airport’s success and a reason why there are not a lot of airlines announcing Rio Hato as a destination. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, a United Nations agency) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) put ratings on airports and recent years have insisted on tougher anti-terrorist precautions everywhere. While the US government may impose restrictions on landing rights in the USA for aircraft from countries with airports that the FAA considers unsafe, the main enforcers of ICAO and FAA standards tend to be insurance companies. One question that will have to await further construction and inspections is whether ICAO and others will find a security center that’s several miles away adequate to meet the airport’s safety needs.

Thus the facility, whose formal opening was delayed for several weeks, is still not running normal operations. At the inauguration ceremony civil aviation director Rafael Bárcenas promised that within six months the facility would have a workforce entirely from Cocle Province.

It is expected that although some of the nearby upscale areas will be subjected to annoying aviation noise, the general area will receive an economic boost. The charter flights discussed so far would mainly be linked to the all-included beach resorts, but the airport’s eventual success may be built on seafood exports, or as a domestic commuter flight center. Various real estate sellers are touting the facility as a more convenient international air passenger connection to the beach communities of Panama Oeste and Cocle than is Tocumen Airport and that is the government’s hope for the future.



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