Home CENTRAL AMERICA From aviation backwaters to major hubs: A quick guide to Central America’s international airports

From aviation backwaters to major hubs: A quick guide to Central America’s international airports

by yang

A guide to the bustling main airports in Central America that serve as vital links, connecting travellers from around the world to this vibrant region and beyond.

Central America is well connected by a network of international airports. Gone are the days of multiple layovers to reach this part of the world. Once considered an aviation backwater, Central American airports often serve as vital hubs, connecting travellers from around the world to various countries within the region and elsewhere in Latin America. Panama City, San Salvador and, to a lesser extent, San José are all travel hubs to one degree or another.

When considering the passenger numbers for each airport, we’ve looked at 2019, the last normal year before the pandemic. Some tourist markets weren’t back to normal in 2021 and 2022, so it seems unfair to include those years. However, where possible, we’ve included either 2021 or 2022 to compare with 2019. I hope that makes sense.

Let’s take a look at Central America’s international airports in order of their 2019 passenger numbers, from busiest to least busy:

1. Tocumen Airport (PTY), Panama City, Panama

Tocumen Airport in Panama is by far the busiest airport in the region, the headquarters of Copa Airlines and a hub connecting North, Central and South America with the Caribbean and Europe. It offers direct flights to almost every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, eliminating the need for travellers to go through Miami.

Most North and South American airlines use Tocumen, as well as airlines serving Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey and more. Quite simply, Tocumen offers the easiest connections in Central America. In 2019, approximately 16.8 million passengers will pass through Tocumen, and 15.7 million in 2022.

2. Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), Alajuela, Costa Rica

It says something about how far Tocumen has come that Central America’s second busiest airport receives around a third of its passengers. In 2019, Juan Santamaria welcomed 5.1 million passengers, its busiest year to date. Some 4.6 million passengers passed through SJO in 2022, and 2023 could well beat 2019 as travel to Costa Rica returns with a post-pandemic bang. But that’s still nothing compared to Tocumen, even though Costa Rica receives far more tourists than Panama. That says a lot about Tocumen’s status as a transit hub.

3. La Aurora International Airport (GUA), Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guatemala has Central America’s largest economy, population and city. This makes its airport, for all its faults, the third busiest in Central America, with 3.2 million visitors in 2019 and around 3 million in 2022. La Aurora is an Avianca hub, serving numerous cities in the United States, Colombia, Mexico, Canada and the other six Central American countries. It’s also connected to Madrid, Spain.

4. Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport (SAL), San Luis Talpa, El Salvador

El Salvador is a tiny country, which means its international airport is as close to the coast as it is to the capital, San Salvador. It’s the fourth busiest airport in the region (it’s now the third), serving around 3.1 million passengers in 2019 and 3.4 million in 2022, the only airport in the region to see an increase since Covid. A testament, perhaps, to El Salvador’s growing status as a tourist destination.

Like Tocumen, SAL is a regional hub, although more for Central America than Latin America as a whole. Many travellers to and from other Central American countries and the United States pass through SAL. The airport also has direct flights to and from Mexico, Canada, Colombia and Spain.

5. Guanacaste Airport (LIR), Liberia, Costa Rica

The multi-award winning Guanacaste Airport serves the northern province of Guanacaste in Costa Rica, home to most of the country’s beach resorts. Once a small backwater of an airport in the dry scrubland outside the town of Liberia, LIR is now Central America’s fifth busiest airport, with regular flights from Canada, the United States and Europe.

There are no Central or South American destinations from Guanacaste. You’ll need to use SJO if you’re travelling to and from other parts of Latin America and then take a domestic flight. This is one of the nicest and most comfortable airports in the region. In 2019, LIR will receive around 1.5 million passengers and is on track to exceed this figure in 2022.

6. Augusto C. Sandino International Airport (MGA), Managua, Nicaragua

Sandino Airport in Managua, Nicaragua is the next airport on our list, the sixth busiest in Central America, receiving some 1.4 million passengers in 2019, a figure that hasn’t changed much year-on-year since the turn of the century, only seeing massive drops during Covid and the 2018 protests.

MGA serves destinations in the United States, Central America, Cuba, some South American countries and Mexico.

7. Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport (SAP), San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Honduras’ busiest airport serves the second city of San Pedro Sula, the country’s business and industrial centre, rather than the capital Tegucigalpa. With its long runway and flat terrain, Ramón Villeda is also considered safer for larger aircraft than Tegucigalpa’s airports – which is why Tegucigalpa no longer has an international airport.

In 2019, SAP will receive around 1.1 million passengers, making it the seventh busiest airport in Central America. It’s another airport that has improved its numbers post-pandemic, with 1.2 million passengers passing through in 2022. Direct flights to and from SAP include destinations in the United States, Spain, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.

8. Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport (BZE), Belize City, Belize

Philip S.W. Goldson is Belize’s international airport and is expected to handle over 500,000 passengers in 2019 and approximately 370,000 in 2022. The vast majority of flights to Belize come from the United States and Canada. Other international destinations include Mexico, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

9. Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport (RTB), Roatán, Honduras

Juan Manuel Gálvez serves the bay island of Roatán, Honduras. Aside from its status as a domestic hub within Honduras, this airport makes our list because it also serves numerous cities in the United States and Canada, bringing tourists down for the Caribbean sun and beaches, especially during the northern winter months. There are also direct flights between Roatán and Belize, El Salvador and Guatemala.This airport received around 330,000 passengers in 2019. In general, around 23% of all air traffic entering Honduras arrives at RTB.

This concludes our quick guide to the main international airports in Central America.

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