Piarco International, located outside Port of Spain, has been Trinidad and Tobago’s main airport since 1931. It is the third-largest airport in the English-speaking Caribbean in terms of passenger movement, and the seventh-largest if all Caribbean countries are considered. It is currently configured as two main terminals: North and South. The South Terminal was the location of the original airport. In 2001 the North Terminal was launched and it has become the site for all major passenger services, with 29 gates served by 14 mechanical bridges. Following that, the Airports Authority of T&T (AATT) subsequently focused on the redevelopment of the South Terminal and its surrounding area, a wider plan known as the Piarco AeroPark project.
The authorities describe the AeroPark plan as a deliberate attempt to build an “aerotropolis”, a term coined by John Kasarda of the University of North Carolina. According to Kasarda, modern airports have developed beyond just the simple provision of aviation services to become zones that attract other economic activities that can benefit from proximity to an air transport hub. Phase one of the AeroPark development covers 168 acres near the main highway. It is designed to house several different dedicated zones, including one for a four-star international hotel and conference centre and others for retail, shopping, offices, warehousing and light manufacturing. Space is also being allocated for an aviation-focused maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility.
The AATT has been seeking to attract a range of international companies to the AeroPark, emphasising features such as low energy costs and proximity to a 24-hour import/export and Customs handling operation at the airport itself. The AATT is particularly focused on attracting investment from foreign light manufacturing companies wanting to use the AeroPark as a base for any processing and re-export to other Latin American and Caribbean destinations. There is also interest in companies operating in the health care and pharmaceuticals sectors, as well as ICT companies.
Shopping Mall Tender
In March 2015 AATT reissued a tender for companies to build a shopping mall and entertainment centre at the AeroPark. Launching the tender, Maria Gonsalves, director of the AATT, said that the AeroPark would make a significant contribution to national GDP and employment levels. “There will also be training opportunities for staff in new industries such as MRO and new revenue streams from foreign investment in T&T,” Gonsalves said.
The minister of transport, Stephen Cadiz, told OBG that one of the key aims of the Piarco AeroPark project is to develop commercial freight and service facilities, given that they represent around 60% of total airport income globally. Discussions were in progress to make the AeroPark a regional helicopter services hub serving the oil and gas industry. Discussing the airports’ developments, the minister told OBG, “Broadly speaking, there are three core investments. First, the current terminals in Piarco and ANR Robinson International airports will be upgraded, with an investment of TT$100m ($15.4m). Second, we spent TT$75m ($11.6m) setting up Piarco AeroPark infrastructure and we are leasing the land to private investors. Third, the South Terminal will be promoted for hosting private aircraft. To make this possible, some Customs and immigration legislation will be amended.”
Emmanuel Baah, marketing manager at AATT, is enthusiastic about the potential for developing airfreight business in the AeroPark. Speaking to OBG he cited a report by US aircraft manufacturer Boeing that projects significant regional air cargo growth over the next 20 years. “Investors have recognised this projected growth. They have been approaching us to lease additional land for cargo space. The year 2015 is a year in which we will see our operations expand,” Baah told OBG. While he believed existing infrastructure in the South Terminal was adequate, it was possible that lease holding firms might want additional warehousing space.
From a business point of view, T&T could be described as the “un-Caribbean Caribbean” Baah said, stressing the scope of its commercial operations. Piarco is seeing significant growth in two-way air cargo movements, along with a jump in internet shopping and related courier movements. In addition to these trends, the energy sector continued to provide strong demand for the shipment of tools, spare parts, and other key supplies. T&T also served as something of a Caribbean hub for retail shopping, resulting in related flows in car parts, and food and beverage items.
Also significant to the development of the AeroPark was the fact that many South Caribbean islands have fairly limited runway sizes. Larger freight aircraft, like the Russian-made Antonovs – that can carry some of the world’s largest airfreight loads – are able to land on Piarco’s runway, but not at any of the smaller island airports. As a result, the AeroPark is perfectly positioned as a break bulk centre, where large loads are brought in, broken down into smaller units and repacked for onward delivery through smaller aircraft. Piarco is already regarded as an important freight hub, allowing for rapid importation of equipment, machinery or spare parts, despite potential congestion. Meanwhile, Baah said discussions on the construction of a heliport east of the South Terminal were progressing and developing the proposal would be a priority during the course of 2015. Also under discussion was the creation of an executive jet maintenance centre.
Deepwater Airlift Opportunity
A potentially key issue for the development of the AeroPark concept is whether T&T is able to become a centre for deepwater oil and gas development. Energy industry specialists have indicated that there is an important opportunity to develop deepwater fields in offshore waters belonging not only to T&T itself, but also to Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana. T&T is already the logical supply and maintenance base for these areas and airlift through Piarco would be a significant component of supply and support services. Nonetheless, higher levels of logistical support and excellence are needed for deepwater exploration and development.
At the annual Energy Conference held in Port of Spain in January 2015 Chris García, a deepwater specialist for Schlumberger, explained that a typical deepwater field might be four days sailing time from Trinidad by supply boat. Deepwater exploration and drilling vessels can cost $1.5m a day to operate.
In these circumstances priority has to be placed on logistics and timely support services. A breakdown could be extremely costly, since resupplying a missing or key spare part could take eight days by sea (with a potential loss of $1.5m per day, or $12m). For this reason, airlifts are essential: equipment can be flown into Piarco and moved to the offshore site by helicopter. Trinidad is currently the primary option for international firms developing deepwater because Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana lack the necessary infrastructure. Trinidad has basic multimodal logistics capacity, including the airlift component, though other requirements have yet to be developed. For the Piarco AeroPark, then, it will be important to time capacity expansions with the launch of deepwater exploration operations.
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