Rio de Janeiro - Santos Dumont Airport

Friday 19th December 2014 at 10:49

Avianca Brasil Airbus A319
Avianca Brasil Airbus A319 turning final at Santos Dumont Airport

Rio de Janeiro, the wonderful city in southeast Brazil is known for its amazing geography, the Christ Redeemer, the beaches and the spectacular carnival parades. Built between the sea and the mountains, Rio de Janeiro's Santos Dumont Airport is one of the city's great wonders and it is not just restricted to aviation enthusiasts.

Located at a small peninsula into the waters of Guanabara Bay, right next to the downtown district and very close to the Sugar Loaf mountain and the Christ Redeemer, it provides not only a spot to admire the great wonders of mother nature who has blessed Rio de Janeiro with such unique geology but also the greatest wonder of mankind... flying!

One can stand there, metres from the threshold of Runway 02 and just watch and listen to these powerful jets landing and taking off from the tiny 1.332 by 45 meters (4.341 feet) runway which is just right for a Short Field Performance Boeing 737-800 with 156 passengers onboard or an unrestricted Airbus A319. There is also a secondary runway for smaller planes and it measures 1.260 by 30 meters (4.134 feet) both at, just about, sea level (3 meters or 11 feet).

The Hub of the Old Capital of Brazil

The Santos Dumont Airport (IATA: SDU/ICAO: SBRJ) started in 1930 when it was called Calabouço Seaplane Base and, as the name reveals, operated seaplanes of both domestic and international flights. Since Rio de Janeiro was the capital city and the other airports were too far away the need for a better, bigger and closer airport was apparent so, in 1934, a 400 metre runway was built and in 1936 it was expanded to 700 meters (2300 feet) which was just right to start commercial operations.

The first commercial flight, a VASP Junkers Ju-52 aircraft, landed from São Paulo-Congonhas on 30 November 1936. The passenger terminal building was inaugurated in 1947 and is still used to this day as the arrivals terminal.  For the Pan American Games in 2007, the new departures terminal was inaugurated doubling the passenger capacity of the airport which now stands at 8.2 million pax/year.   The total passenger terminal area was also extended and is 19,000 square meters.

The Success of the "Ponte Aérea" Operations

Since Brazil is not well served by railroads, the urge to link São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the two most important cities in Brazil, inspired VASP, VARIG and Cruzeiro do Sul airlines to create in 1959 an air shuttle service between the cities, known in Portuguese as Ponte Aérea, or "Air Bridge" on a free translation. One airline at a time, they lined up to load passengers as they arrived to the airport and only took off only when full capacity was reached. This service was an instant success with Transbrasil airlines also joining the system in 1968. Due to political issues at that time, it became an exclusive VARIG service in 1975, operating Lockheed L-188 Electras. Then in 1999, in the beginning of Varig's financial dire straits, it became a totally independent and scheduled service in 1999 with various airlines operating it.

Since the 1960s, with the fast growing services to Rio de Janeiro Galeão Airport and a much longer runway becoming the preference for international airlines, Santos Dumont operates only domestic services. Today, 4 airlines operate at SDU, being them GOL, TAM, Azul and Avianca Brasil (and via codeshares with GOL Airlines also Air France, Alitalia, Delta, Etihad and Qatar) and 26 destinations, but about half of the passengers into and out of São Paulo.

Small Runway, Large Planes, Almost Zero Accidents

Santos Dumont's runway is known as one of the shortest runways to operate Boeing and Airbus aircrafts. GOL operates Boeing 737-700s and 737-800s (the -800s are restricted to 156 passengers and are SFP version), TAM operates Airbus A319s, Avianca Brasil operates Airbus A318s and A319s and Azul operates Embraers E-190s and E-195s and now also ATRs 42 and 72 after the merger with TRIP Airlines. Fuel services are handled by Shell Aviation and Petrobras Aviation and Ground services are provided by Swissport and Orbital Serv.

Santos Dumont Airport
Overview of Santos Dumont Airport

The most amazing thing about Santos Dumont airport is definitely the Runway 02 approach which, since 2009, can only happen if absolutely necessary due to wind factor (if the wind is calm or slow, runway 20 is preferred) as it curves over the a dense populated area of the city, right under the Christ Redeemer statue and then over the waters of Guanabara Bay, with the postcard view of the Sugar Loaf Mountain and its world famous cable car to the right. The approach line resembles a lot the old Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong so, on your next flight into Santos Dumont, ask to sit on the right side!

Since the early 1970's, even with such dangerous approach (in case of runway 02 - too close to the mountains) and its breathtaking short runway,  Santos Dumont has seen only three fatal accidents.  A LET410 of TEAM Airlines crashed en route to Macaé Airport which killed its 19 occupants in 2006 and two corporate jets, being the latest one on 13 August 2014 in which the presidential candidate Eduardo Campos was onboard the Cessna Citation Excel that took off from SDU and crashed on a go around attempt near its destination in Santos just 30 minutes afterwards. None of them happened near the airport itself.

However, it is quite common for the airport to be closed, especially due to fog in the morning or heavy summer rain, not allowing landings and departures when the sugar loaf mountain is not visible which causes chaos on such an important airport in Brazil.

Present and Future

Nowadays, Santos Dumont has a series of restrictions, mostly because of environmental issues such as noise and pollution. Only 19 operations per hour can occur and the airport is closed between 23:00hs and 06:00hs.  The last movement must happen earlier than 22:30hs with a 30 minutes delay tolerance.  Runway 02 can only be operated if absolutely necessary and with a total of 30% per month otherwise the flight must be diverted to Galeão Airport.

Even with all the new restrictions, a tiny runway and only 15 aircraft parking positions, Santos Dumont continues to grow and it is, according to 2013 data, the 7th busiest airport in Brazil and 11th in South America (more than Buenos Aires International Airport), transporting 9,204,603 passengers. It is also, according to 2012 data, the #6 in Brazil with 135.373 aircraft movements and #20 in Brazil with 6.729.464kg of cargo handled.

For 2015, in order to improve operation capacity for the 2016 Olympic games, major renovation works involving the reconstruction of 73,800 square metres of apron has begun. Works involve the installation of a new drainage system and new pavement, as well as structural reinforcement. To minimise the impact of the current operations an old hangar was deactivated to temporarily give place to two remote parking areas to be used while others undergo its needed renovations. Unfortunately, there are no immediate plans for a runway extension in order to handle a fully loaded Boeing 737-800 or the Airbus A320, which has landed only once at SDU, with very few passengers onboard (an Avianca Brasil aircraft was substituted at the last minute as the regular Airbus A319 had to undergo maintenance).

Santos Dumont Airport is located at Praça Senador Salgado Filho S/N, Rio de Janeiro, RJ Brazil on an area of 833.703 square meters and an it has an apron size of 95.800 square meters. It has 1042 parking spaces for cars and no subway station.

Santos Dumont Airport photos

Report by Renato Serra Fonseca


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