The way it was and the way it is now
Sea travel helped define Madeira in the past. Trawlers, cruises and sailing boats were the connection to the outside world. But just like the way those sea-faring vessels represented slow paced travel the same could be said for the pace of development of the island. It seemed it was doomed to be something of a backwater of a colonial Portuguese possession unless it moved dramatically to allow better communication with the outside world. Its remoteness and detachment from any nearby European port stymied the growth and development of the population and the island. Since the installation of the airport at Santa Catarina, in Santa Cruz, the insularity of the island decreased significantly from the 1970’s through to the 1980’s. Since the most recent extension (in 2003) the island has enjoyed in moving up in rank as being one of the poorest regions of Europe into being up there amongst the top 25% of wealthy regions of Europe, such was the impact that airport had on the island.
The new International Airport of Madeira revolutionised travel to the island since its inauguration in 1964 as a serious airport - replacing what had been an experimental and rudimentary landing field since 1957. At that time the airport runway had had a length of 1600 metres. Between 1982 and 1986 the runway was extended to about 1800 metres. This extension was almost cosmetic and the introduction of larger and wider bodied planes on the international aeronautical field forced the regional authorities to consider extending the airport’s landing capabilities even further. With hefty funding from both the European Union, the National government and loans raised by the regional government, the airport inaugurates a much needed and remarkable (for its engineering feat) extension in 2003. This this time the airport runway measures 2781 metres in length and large planes start flying to the island. (The airport has jokingly been assessed as one of the “largest in the world” – that is, since it starts in the city of Santa Cruz and ends in the City of Machico. Indeed, the nearly three kilometres that the airport stretches does sit across the boundary between the two neighbouring municipalities.)
The airport has the capability to support a turnover of 3,5 million travellers annually. Moreover, and more importantly, it is capable of supporting a much wider spectrum of types of planes and as such accommodate more airlines than ever before, including various types of cargo planes.
The airport infrastructure includes a modern terminal building, a recent and well organised cargo terminal, and logistical support facilities.
With the vastly improved infrastructure of the airport the island is now seeing the possibility of intercontinental flights with regular schedules to Venezuela, for example, and summer tour operators traveling direct to Brazil, the Canary Islands, and even the odd flight to places in North America. Attempts were made by the local authorities to have flights operated by South African Airways, from South Africa, on their refueling stops to Europe, land in Madeira. This just went to show how much the airport had developed and provided testimony to the support that the airport can facilitate for intercontinental travel.