After nearly two decades of navigating its financial crisis through loans and increasing service fees, the National and International Airports Administration Company (EAAI) found in the thousands of migrants pursuing the so-called American dream the perfect mechanism to end its financial crisis.
In 2022, for the first time in decades, the balance sheet of the EAAI, which manages the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport (Managua Airport), reported profits of 150 million córdobas (about 4 million dollars).
These increased by 386 percent in 2023 when the Ortega regime decided to deepen its strategy of facilitating the arrival of migrants from all over the world to the United States border.
The financial balance for 2023 shows that EAAI ended the period with profits of 730 million córdobas (about 20 million dollars), so in the two years of using the Managua airport as a springboard to reach the United States, it generated 880 million córdobas (about 24 million dollars) for public finances.
The Daniel Ortega regime began weaving its migration strategy against the United States in 2021 when, in November of that year, it suspended the visa requirement for Cubans. The second step was taken in February 2022 when it ratified the decision made in December 2016 to include his son Laureano Ortega Murillo, his frontman José Mojica Mejía, and the chief of Police, Commissioner Francisco Díaz Madriz (who is an in-law of Ortega), on the Advisory Council of the EAAI, thereby ensuring control over decision-making.
Ortega capitalized on the migration crisis
Then, the Venezuelan airline Conviasa began offering flights between Havana and Managua, thus consolidating the Managua Airport as an air bridge that shortens the route to the United States border.
On the political side, the strategy helped exacerbate the migration crisis facing the United States, and economically, it helped to improve the finances of the EAAI, which had been experiencing annual losses for almost two decades. However, in November of last year, the United States announced that it would restrict visas for individuals involved in charter flights bringing migrants to Managua. This slowed down the arrival of flights from most Caribbean islands; however, those operated by the Venezuelan airlines Conviasa and Aruba Airlines continue to offer the service.
But the reduction in flights from the Caribbean islands increased flights from other routes. The arrival of aircraft that had never landed on the runway of the Managua Airport became more evident. For the first time, direct flights from Germany, France, and Morocco arrived in the country, carrying African and Asian migrants. Some even faced difficulties in covering the route; one of them was detained in France on suspicion of human trafficking, and another was canceled in the United Arab Emirates.
More than 600,000 left by land
Despite these obstacles, between 2022 and much of 2023, the airport in Managua served as an air bridge for more than 600,000 migrants to shorten the route to the United States. The small airport terminal, which traditionally received about 15 flights per day, reported up to fifty flights per day at times, and the number of travelers who arrived by plane but did not use that route to leave the country reached historic levels.
Between 2022 and November of last year, 1.43 million travelers arrived in Managua by air, but 601,800 did not leave by that route, and it is presumed that they continued their journey to the United States by land. In 2022, 634,800 passengers entered the country through the airport, but only 312,400 departed by this means, so it is presumed that 322,400 continued their journey to the United States by land. Last year, between January and November, 791,100 people entered through the Managua airport, but only 517,700 left by plane, so 273,400 would have left by land to the north, to reach the United States.
In September and October of 2023, the airport terminal set records for arrivals with 115,500 and 126,200 respectively. In those months, 66,500 and 80,700 respectively of the passengers who arrived did not fly back to their countries. That is to say, that only in those two months 147,200 people would have joined those who continue their journey by land towards the US border.
The EAAI made adjustments to tariffs
This flow of migrants significantly increased the revenues of the EAAI, which manages six airports: five domestic ones located in Puerto Cabezas, Bluefields, Corn Islands, Ometepe Island, and San Juan de Nicaragua, and the International Airport of Managua, which practically generates all of the income the EAAI receives.
Most of its income comes from aeronautical services, which represent 90 percent of the total and include terminal fees, landing fees, ground handling, and airport security fees. The remaining 10 percent comes from non-aeronautical services, including lease charges, own businesses (VIP lounge), and vehicle parking.
The EAAI, like the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS), has been a headache for the Ortega regime. According to the financial statements of the EAAI reviewed by LA PRENSA, between 2009 and 2021, it recorded annual losses ranging from 61 to 367 million córdobas. To try to stem this crisis, in 2012, it raised its tariffs, and in 2016, it made another adjustment that increased the terminal usage fee that each passenger pays in the airline ticket to 44.23 dollars. Despite these changes, in 2021, the EAAI accumulated 367 million córdobas in losses.
In 2022, CSR advised reducing expenses
In April 2022, the company reactivated approach fees, which had not been charged since 1999, as the service was provided free of charge to all aircraft landing and taking off from the airport terminal. Since then, approach aid fees are charged depending on the weight of the aircraft. It also established fees for the use of portable radios used by air operators during aircraft landing and takeoff activities.
In 2022, the Central American Risk Rating Society (SCR) recommended that it establish a savings plan to reduce expenses; seek payment agreements with the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute, the electricity distributor Dissur, and the General Directorate of Revenue (DGI); suspend the payment of institutional agreements and procurement processes; renegotiate credit terms, and adjust service fees.
However, it was not necessary to implement SCR’s recommendations, as that year the migrant business began operating, and the EAAI closed 2022 with 963 million córdobas in revenue, almost double compared to 2021 and a figure similar to the years before the outbreak of the sociopolitical crisis in 2018. This amount exceeded expenses, and for the first time in almost two decades, the EAAI made a profit, totaling 150 million córdobas.
The risk rating of the EAAI improved
In 2023, the air bridge was fully consolidated, no longer solely used by Cubans and Haitians, but also extended its services to Africans and Asians, which resulted in profits of 730 million córdobas (close to 20 million dollars at the official exchange rate), also the highest profit the company has ever recorded in its history. This amount represents a growth of 386 percent in profits compared to 2022.
Thanks to this performance, in December 2023, the Central American Risk Rating Society (SCR) praised the “consistency shown by the EAAI in achieving the various plans established to improve its financial situation.”