QUITO: One of the world's most spectacular and stomach-churning aircraft descents will be consigned to history next week when Quito closes an airport wedged between volcanoes and tower blocks high in the windswept Andes. The Mariscal Sucre international airport, which serves the Ecuadorean capital, has long been notorious for difficult flight paths and treacherous weather that have contributed to nine fatal accidents in the past 30 years.
The current airport is probably among the five most difficult airports to fly into in Latin America. Stephano Rota, pilot To land, pilots have to bank around heavily populated mountain slopes and then dip down onto a three-kilometre airstrip that is boxed inside the city centre. To clear the ridges after take-off, they have to pull up sharply, which strains engines that cannot run at full capacity because of the thin air at this 2800 metres altitude.
Such challenges have become familiar to airline crews in Latin America that serve this busy airport, which opened in 1960 and now has an average of 220 flights a day and about 10 million passenger movements a year.
As the city has grown to surround it, neighbouring residents have to endure the roar of jets from 5.30am to 2am, as well as the risk of accidents. Aircraft have clipped or crashed into nearby buildings four times since 1984, killing 135 people. Other disasters have been caused by navigation errors that led planes to plunge into the sides of volcanoes.
However, the closure has as much to do with business as safety. Having grown to maximum capacity, the operators will expand by moving to a new airport at Tababela, 20 kilometres outside the city centre. But this too has been bedeviled by controversy. It has been built to handle 290 flights a day despite road links being poor; with congestion, the journey from the city centre can take 90 minutes. It will have a runway more than 1000 metres longer than the old airport, which should reduce the problem of over-runs which have been a major cause of accidents. It is also 400 metres lower, which will slightly improve engine performance.
City officials say this will allow the new airport to handle transcontinental flights and an easier approach would make for safer flights, but this has been disputed by many pilots who doubt the new facility will bring significant safety benefits. "Pilots don't approve. The microclimate in the valley where the airport is located is very complicated and there is low visibility for 80 per cent of the year," said Stephano Rota, a corporate pilot. "The current airport is probably among the five most difficult airports to fly into in Latin America. The new one could be even more challenging." The shift is part of a global trend to move airports out of city centres. Among the famous white-knuckle landings that no longer exist is that of Kai Tak, in Hong Kong. But thrill-seekers and flight simulators who want to experience difficult landings can still fly into airports at Cuzco, Innsbruck, Kathmandu, St Barts and elsewhere.
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