A new operator readies Rio de Janeiro’s airport for 2016 Olympics

Odebrecht, the Brazilian conglomerate whose U.S. division helped build the North and South terminals at Miami International Airport, has another airport under its wing.

Odebrecht’s TransPort subsidiary and Singapore’s Changi Airports International took over operations of Rio de Janeiro’s Tom Jobim International Airport, also known as Galeão, in mid-August. Under a 25-year concession, the partners will run the airport and make $2.2 billion in improvements, including $890 million in upgrades before Rio hosts the 2016 Summer Olympics.

It will be Odebrecht’s first foray into airport management, but Changi is a subsidiary of Changi Airport Group, which runs the fifth-largest airport in the world — Singapore’s Changi Airport — and has developed and consulted at airports around the globe.

A previous contractor had hoped to complete a major overhaul of one of the Rio airport’s two terminals prior to the recently concluded World Cup in Brazil. It didn’t happen. Galeão is still a lackluster airport.

Rio Galeão, the new partnership, is determined to change that. Infraero, the state-run airport-management company that previously operated the airport, still has a 49 percent stake in the enterprise, but Rio Galeão is now in the driver’s seat.

During the transition period since the concession contract was signed in April, Rio Galeão has added 250 new signs to an airport that had confusing signage, begun offering 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi access to airport customers, improved parking, streamlined check-in services, installed two new customer-service desks in the arrivals area, upgraded safety and training and added a 24-hour hotline staffed by bilingual agents.

In a nod to families, the airport has partnered with Granado baby products and Pampers to provide free baby supplies and disposable diapers in nursing rooms that also have been equipped with breast-feeding chairs, baby bathtubs, changing tables and microwave ovens.

“This is something that we were able to do quickly,” Renata Pinheiro, communications and marketing director for Rio Galeão, said in a telephone interview from Rio. “They are small things, but people notice them as part of their overall airport experience.”

Rio Galeão also has signed up 365 Deli, Cafe Suplicy and Espaço Sushi as new food and beverage tenants. Some new eateries are already operating, and the rest are expected to be by the end of the year. New retailers that reflect the flavor of Rio also have been added.

“Rio Galeão will offer new shopping concepts and brands to the airport. Passengers can look forward to a unique and exciting shopping experience,” said Luiz Rocha, Rio Galeão’s president.

Even bigger changes are in the works at the airport, which handles about 17.5 million passengers annually, compared to 40 million for Miami International Airport last year and 23.5 million for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, also last year.

“Our objective is to create a whole new experience at the airport by 2016,” said Pinheiro.

By December 2015, four new floors are expected to be added to the three-level parking garage, new traffic flows will be implemented and surface parking will be covered.

Among the other projects slated to be completed by April 2016 are a new 26-gate concourse, which will more than double the number of gates; 68 new check-in counters, and a reconfiguration of the airport apron that will increase the number of airplane parking slots to 97.

In recent years, Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo has become Brazil’s international hub. For a number of international routes, residents of Rio — a city of 6.35 million people — must fly to São Paulo to travel abroad.

Rio Galeão wants to increase the number of international flights and their frequencies. The partnership has already gone on road shows in Asia and Europe, and would like to beef up international routes prior to the Olympics.

In June, Aeromexico started a Mexico City-Rio route, and Air Canada will begin flying from Toronto to Rio in December.

“We definitely could use more flights to Miami,” Pinheiro said. “Why not direct flights from Rio to Orlando?” Currently both American Airlines and TAM offer daily flights from Miami International Airport.

With more flights to Brazil than any other U.S. airport, MIA considers itself the Gateway to Brazil. During the World Cup, it offered special merchandise, surprise Brazilian music and dance performances and a soccer-themed art exhibition. MIA officials say they are planning similar activities to capitalize on the Olympics.

Meanwhile, Odebrecht’s big plans for MIA appear to have derailed. At this point, it hoped to be building Airport City, a 33.5-acre business park, convenience center and hotel complex on county-owned land at the airport.

The project, which has been in the works for more than six years, stalled after some Cuban American politicians learned that a subsidiary of Odebrecht USA’s parent company had done work in Cuba. Now Airport Director Emilio Gonzalez says the project no longer makes business sense and has recommended that Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez reject it.

But at Tom Jobim International Airport, named after the Brazilian musical icon, Rio Galeão sees plenty of potential. For the 25-year concession, it paid 19.02 billion reais ($8.4 billion) — almost four times the minimum required bid and 31 percent more than the runner-up bidder.

“The Latin American aviation market presents many growth opportunities, which we are excited and optimistic about,” said Lee Seow Hiang, chief executive of Changi Airport Group.

“The projection of the volume of passengers was the main value-driver,” said Pinheiro. By the end of the concession, Rio Galeão hopes to increase airport capacity to more than 60 million passengers annually.

The partners’ interest also was piqued by the potential to increase non-aeronautic revenue. The airport now gets only about 30 percent of its revenue from parking, food and beverage sales, shops and other commercial activities, Pinheiro said.

“There is also a lot of room for the airport to grow,” she said. “We have plenty of space to add a third runway if needed.”