First of all, do not expect huge airline traffic and considerable airlines variety in South America. Aviation transport on the continent is on a moderate level of development comparing to Europe or Asia due to economic, political and other reasons. Flights to South America from other parts of the world are relatively rare and expensive, and intra-continental flights are also not a cheap deal. Airline industry in South America is dominated by couple of big players - LATAM and Avianca who assimilated a lot of smaller companies. Very few countries are still able to maintain their own national flag carriers, while low-cost segment is on very early stage being represented by few small airlines.
None of the continent’s airports is present in the list of top-50 largest airports in the world by passenger traffic. The busiest South American airport, Guarulhos in Sao Paulo, with its 37.8 mln passengers in 2017, is on 54 position in this ranking. I compiled a list of the 20 busiest airports of the continent (see table). Only 10 largest airports in South America exceeded 10 mln passengers mark, while the entry point to the top 20 is around 5 mln passengers annually. For comparison, there are more than 100 airports with the annual number of passengers above 5 mln in Asia, 76 in Europe, and 42 in the US.
South America’s busiest airports by passenger traffic (mln, 2017)
Airports visited during my trip are in bold.
During my one-months spotting trip I have visited 13 South American airports - 4 out of top-5, 7 out of top-10 and 9 out of top-20. Good and representative sample, I suppose. See map for locations of the airports. Blue ones are the airports where I have photographed while gray ones are the rest of top-20 continental airports.
In order to compare the spotting capabilities of the airports I have ranked them in a simple but illustrative system using 3 major criteria most important for successful spotting – intensity of air traffic, variety of the airlines, and availability and comfort of spotting locations. The score for each criterion is ranged from 1 to 5 points, so the maximal cumulative score is 15.
Please note that air traffic score takes into account not only the nominal traffic (number of flights) but relative traffic for spotting location. For instance, if the 2 airports have equal nominal traffic, but one of them use a single runway while the other use two, the air traffic score for the first airport will be higher because of more airline operations (take offs and landings) per runway, i.e. per spotting location in the vicinity of a runway.
The airline variety score is also based not only on the number of airlines present at the airport, but rather represent the estimate of relative airline diversity which takes into accounts the frequency of flights. For instance, if 2 airports have equal number of flights by equal number of airlines, say10 flights a day of two different airlines, but the proportion of flights between airlines is different, say 5/5 in airport 1 and 9/1 in airport 2, the relative variety score in airport 1 will be 0.5, while only around 0.2 in airport 2. You may simply interpret this score as the probability to spot a new airline on the next flight in relation to the previous one. If you wish estimate the airline variety exactly, the calculations will be a little bit more complicated (airline diversity = 1 – [sum of squares of flights proportion for each airline]), but for the reasons of ranking I use my approximate “expert” estimation instead of rigorous statistical calculation.
And the third criterion scores, the availability and comfort of spotting locations, are completely subjective based on my own experience and on site reconnaissance.
Please see the table below for my spotting ranking of South American airports.
Airports plane spotting ranking
None of these airports has a special location allotted for spotters – no observation decks, no viewing platforms. Maybe the exceptions, in some extent, are the observation area on the top level in the Montevideo Carrasco airport terminal and open terrace on the roof of the terminal at Asuncion International Airport. Both of these locations are not intended for spotting, but may be used for this purpose with some restrictions.
In general, one can find spotting locations in South American airports, as in the air harbors of the other parts of the world, either within the terminals or in the areas around the airport perimeter. The latter in South America sometimes may be dangerous.
For instance, in Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão or in Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos there is only one location in the landside zone of the terminals where spotting is possible. On the other hand, in city’s airports like Santos Dumont in Rio or Aeroparque in Buenos Aires there are excellent and safe positions on the airport’s perimeter. But headed for spotting to Santos Dumont or Congonhas in Sao Paulo, keep in mind that their quite heavy traffic may be boring because of very limited number of airlines flying to these airports.
One of the best spotting destination on the continent definitely is the Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport at Santiago de Chile with the considerable variety of air companies and lot of comfortable and safe spotting locations around the airport. On the other hand, plane spotting capacities in airports of Lima and Quito, where the diversity is also good, are rather limited due to bad access to the vicinity of runways. Smaller airports like Asuncion or Montevideo may provide better options in terms of spotting locations inside and outside the terminals, but their major limitation is the low traffic.
So, as you can see in my airports ranking table, no one destination on the continent is ideal for spotting. In terms of spotting locations my favorites are Santiago de Chile, Aeroparque, and Santos Dumont. With the respect to traffic, both Sao Paulo’s airports – Guarulhos and Congonhas, as well as Jorge Chavez Airport in Lima, Peru are among the leaders. Most diverse composition of airlines can be found in Guarulhos, Ezeiza, Lima and Santiago.
But despite all restrictions and limitations every airport in the list is worth to visit. Even such tiny places like Cataratas in Foz du Iguacu and El Palomar in Buenos Aires. Remember that South American airlines represent the unique part of the world’s air traffic. It is not possible to catch the majority of them outside the continent, and even within the South America the company from particular country can be the rarity outside the borders of its homeland.
Here you can find brief spotting photo reports from each of 13 South American airports I’ve visited, plus reports from Frankfurt am Mein airport where my trip was started and finished. Please click on the small picture to move to the particular page. Texts in the links are in Russian, but there are not many words there, mainly photos.
Spotting in the South America
Compiling South American airports spotting overview it’s necessary to say a few words on dangers and safety, because these are always the issues on the continent. In general, the dangers awaiting the traveler in South America as described on pages of guidebooks or on some travelers websites are considerably overestimated. And dangers of spotting around the airport with the big camera are not the exclusion. Of course, I do not want to say that there are no dangers at all. Definitely, there are. But keep calm, listen to your intuition and be guided by the common sense. Check the local situation before going to unknown places, consult with the locals and make some reconnaissance with the map. And, of course, use this guide as well. In the following postings I will provide more safety details in relation to each particular airport. In every of the 13 airports where I’ve been I have managed to find locations for spotting. I’ve visited all these places, including areas considered as dangerous, being alone with a big camera and the set of lenses, and I’ve spent several hours of spotting at each airport. And I have returned home with all my equipment, alive and in good mood. Believe me, it’s possible.
Airlines overview of the continent and the brief spotting guides for all 13 airports will follow in the next posts – sooner or later. Happy spotting.