__Even routine flyers were jarred by the sudden appearance of high-rise buildings through common late-afternoon clouds as the plane plunged down over the city centre for a pinpoint landing. The experience has been less hair-raising since a new, suburban international airport opened in February. Now, the discomfort is on the ground.
At the president_s insistence the airport is still named Mariscal Sucre, after independence hero Antonio Jos__ de Sucre. Its 41m (135 foot) control tower is the tallest in Latin America after that of Canc__n in Mexico. New cargo facilities almost doubling the old airport_s capacity lie at the end of one of the few stretches of real motorway in the country. The runway, which at 4.1km (2.5 miles) is the longest of any international airport in Latin America, is nestled in a broad Andean valley just east of the capital.
The new facility would be big enough to accommodate the landing of an Airbus A380, the world_s biggest passenger aircraft, according to Freddy _g__ez, chief executive of the Quito Municipal Airport Services Company, which oversees Quiport, the Canadian-Brazilian-US consortium that built and runs Mariscal Sucre. Whether the terminal could cope with an Airbus_s 800 passengers boarding or disembarking at the same time is another question. Past the fa_ade, where nine sleek pylons hold up an elegant porte-coch__re spanning the entrance, the nondescript passenger terminal is rather small. At 38,000 square metres (410,000 square feet) it is 27% smaller than the six-year old terminal at Guayaquil on the coast, even though Quito handles more than two thirds of Ecuador_s international traffic.
Quiport quickly had to promise to buy more seating and better buses after complaints from passengers and airlines. Kinks in cargo and customs facilities still need to be worked out. Food prices have apparently dropped after initial anger over sky-high prices; construction of a new food court across from the terminal is under way, hopefully with more loos. With the state phone-company in charge of communications, the free private Wi-Fi has disappeared. There are 60 check-in counters, down from 72 at the old airport_too few, given that authorities and airlines haven_t yet got the hang of electronic ticketing. Passengers who check in on the terminal_s south side reach security from the side, where they are accused of queue-jumping. Andean diffidence helps to avoid conflict. But passengers_ patience is sometimes tested: ahead of a recent flight to Chile passengers became jumbled and half had to clear security again.
Domestic passengers fare the worst, having to board buses to get on or off planes, which previously wasn_t always necessary. I rode a new, bizarre vehicle that looked like a long-distance bus with most of its seats ripped out, with no way to get a passenger in a wheelchair on-board unless carried up. Including the time it takes the plane to taxi into position, the whole procedure can take as long as the flight.
Some of the new airport_s issues stem from the country_s beautiful but extreme geography, with three glacier-topped volcanoes near the breathtakingly high capital. Changeable mountain weather poses problems, and the approach is a little tight near the Antisana volcano to the east, pilots say. Fog is common, as Rafael Correa, the president, found out. A stickler for punctuality, Mr Correa arrived two hours late for the inauguration because his helicopter couldn_t make it. Another $3m could have paid for an advanced, category-II or -III instrument landing-system that would have enabled operations even in dense fog, according to a local commercial pilot. As if acknowledging the airport_s problems, the populist government is offering a whopping 40% fuel subsidy to airlines willing to launch new direct international routes. These will be limited to New York or Buenos Aires: the airport_s 2,400m altitude means that _one could fly directly to Madrid, but [only] with an empty plane,_ the pilot says.
Getting to the airport can also be tricky. In a straight line it_s only 13km from the north of Quito_just over three times the length of the runway_but the whole circuitous route there totals 42km through some of the city_s worst traffic. Although the route has been partially expanded, two new shopping malls have thoughtfully just opened along the way, joining several existing ones. The worst bottleneck is a rickety, mid-1970s Bailey bridge across a small river. Hopefully nobody will need an ambulance ride across to the nearest hospital before a wider bridge is finished in the second half of next year.