Business Aviation Destination Guide: San Jose, Costa Rica
ALERT: New GAT at MROC now open
Costa Rica’s first-ever general aviation terminal, exclusively available to international private operations at Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO/MROC), will officially open in December 2019. Visit GAT-SJO.com for more details.
For business aircraft operators, setting up a flight to San Jose (SJO/MROC) is not a difficult proposition, and there’s nothing onerous from the regulatory perspective. With the opening of Costa Rica’s first-ever general aviation terminal in December 2019, the experience and security for business aviation operators is now significantly enhanced. It’s essential to work with your trip support provider and the local ground handler in advance to understand all documentation and prior permission required (PPR) lead-time considerations.
Here is what you need to know when operating to MROC:
1. Airport Information
MROC is the main airport for San Jose and is located in Alajuela, about 30 kilometers (km) (19 miles) outside San Jose. Drive time to the San Jose city center ranges from 30 minutes to more than one to two hours, depending on traffic. Peak hours for road traffic congestion are 0600-0800 and 1600-1800 local, and these periods should be avoided. Be aware that there are few options available for helicopter transfers within the country, due to lack of helicopters in the country.
Airport slots are not usually required in Costa Rica for private non-revenue and charter (non-scheduled commercial) GA operations. Costa Rican Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) views both private non-revenue and charter flights as GA and makes no distinction between the two. Only scheduled commercial airlines require airport slots for Costa Rica. The exception is that during high-traffic events, airport slots may be implemented for GA, but this is very rare.
A PPR for MROC is required for all arrivals/departures, including tech stops, with minimum 48 hours’ advance notification. The exception is medevac flights, as they do not require a PPR. PPR requests should be submitted by a local ground handler, like Universal Aviation Costa Rica, as a specific request format is used to submit it to the airport authorities.
The primary reason for a PPR at this location is due to aircraft parking limitations. Short-notice PPR requests are often entertained but will depend on aircraft parking availability.
Once the PPR is approved, you will receive a confirmation ID, which will be your tail number and date of operation. Confirmation reference does not need to be placed in flight planning remarks. For a delayed arrival, your ground handler will need to advise airport authorities for aircraft parking availability to be reconfirmed.
GA parking is relatively limited at all AOEs in Costa Rica. MROC has only eight GA parking spots. Hangar facilities are not available for transient business aviation operations.
Late November to early April is the high season and when overnight parking often becomes unavailable. During busy periods MROC will issue NOTAMs barring overnight parking for GA. Be aware that you’ll still require parking permission to drop off/pick up passengers. At this time there are no plans to increase GA parking capacity, and remote parking areas are reserved for scheduled commercial aviation.
There have been cases at MROC where parking has been denied after it’s been approved. This may happen during a high-traffic event period, such as a presidential election. Airport authorities make these decisions, and ground handlers are unable to control this.
There may be cases where you’ll need to drop passengers and reposition aircraft/crew elsewhere in the country or outside Costa Rica.
2. FBOs and Ground Handling
The Ground Handling Process
Ground handling quality is high at major airports, and most services are readily available. A full schedule – along with aircraft, crew, and passenger information – is needed to set up ground handling in Costa Rica. You should itemize required services – such as catering and lav/water service – at the time a ground handling request is made. The ground handler will use your itinerary to obtain parking. Be aware that standard aircraft documentation – including airworthiness and registration certificates and worldwide insurance – must be onboard and available, upon request by airport authorities, when you land.
At least 48 hours’ notice is recommended when requesting ground handling at MROC. Authorities may impose restrictions, however, on short-notice operations. Air ambulance flights are always permitted to operate on short notice.
Once a handling request is received, your ground handler contacts the airport operations department – usually via email, but occasionally by phone – to coordinate a parking permit. Meanwhile, other required services – such as fuel, lav/water, and catering – will be coordinated by your handler. A parking confirmation number will be provided by airport authorities. This confirmation number is the tail number plus the date of operation (e.g., NXXXdatemonth). It’s not necessary to place this confirmation in the remarks section of your flight plan. Be aware that your actual parking spot location will not be provided until the day of arrival. All airport and 4th-party service charges may be settled on credit with advance notice to your ground handler.
Recommended Ground Handler
In December 2019, Costa Rica’s first-ever GAT exclusively available to international private operations will be opened. The new GAT, which operates under the name GAT SJO General Aviation Terminal, is managed by GAT SJO, a consortium composed of Universal Aviation Costa Rica and local partners.
The GAT is part of a new domestic terminal at MROC, an infrastructure project which includes 15,260 square-feet. Some of the features and benefits of the GAT include:
- Exclusive VIP experience for private operators, including beautiful, comfortable areas at departure and arrivals, to enjoy premium Costa Rican coffee
- Onsite Customs, Immigration, and Quarantine (CIQ)
- Reduced ground time from plane to car
- No co-mingling with commercial passengers
- Roof-covered access both roadside and rampside
Upon deplaning, private passengers will be shuttled by their handling agents from the parking area to the GAT, which will have a dedicated area for CIQ. All private aviation ground handlers, as well as home-based operators (independent owners traveling international) at MROC, will be allowed to operate through GAT SJO General Aviation Terminal.
There will be a charge per operation (according to the MTOW) and a charge per passenger. Operators are not required to use the GAT and may use the main terminal if they prefer to be co-mingled with commercial passengers for all the terminal processes, which a majority of business aviation fliers will not. Once the GAT is open, the airport’s procedure will not guarantee the preferential line at the commercial terminal. Private aviation passengers may be stuck behind the line of commercial passengers.
Ground handlers at MROC have a good supply of ground support equipment (GSE) and are usually able to rent any required additional equipment from other providers at the airport. It is recommended to review and confirm any GSE requirements with your ground handler before the day of operation.
Hotels in Costa Rica are generally of high standards, and business aircraft operators will typically have plenty of options to consider. Be aware, however, that during high-traffic seasons, preferred accommodations are often scarce and will be challenging to secure last minute.
There are many hotel choices in Costa Rica for crew accommodation. Most 4- and 5-star options are located in the San Jose and Liberia areas. These include many large international hotel chains. It’s recommended that crew members stay at 4-star and above hotels. If these are not available, there are also good 3-star accommodation options in Costa Rica. It’s recommended that you communicate with your ground handler for recommendations and the best possible options.
4. Ground transportation
Transportation vendors, in some special circumstances, can obtain permission to pick up/drop off passenger’s planeside. This is usually only possible for certain qualifying VIP flights. Your ground handler will advise you on available options. In cases of diplomatic and head of state flights, local ground handlers will service the aircraft; however, aircraft parking, CIQ clearance, and planeside pickup arrangements will be coordinated by airport and government authorities. Rental vehicles are available on-airport at MROC.
A car and driver is recommended for local transport. You should request an English-speaking driver (or a driver who speaks your language). A selection of vehicle types is usually available. During high season, however, there’s a more limited selection of available vehicle types. Public taxis are not recommended in Costa Rica due to language barriers.
You can get a free quote for ground transportation through Universal-Drivania Chauffeurs.
When operating to Costa Rica, it’s best to preplan aviation fuel uplifts well in advance, particularly during high season (end of November though the end of March). If you’re planning to depart during peak operating hours, it’s recommended to fuel on arrival or land with sufficient fuel to manage your next planned leg. Universal Aviation team is working with RECOPE the local provider in order to have dedicated trucks for GA during High Season.
There’s only one aviation fueler in Costa Rica, and it’s owned by the government. For fuel uplift requests, your ground handler will email the fueler (in Spanish) with your schedule, aircraft information, and operator information. The fueling company only accepts selected aviation fuel cards and certain consumer credit cards. Cash is never accepted. While fuel is regularly tested at all airports, the crew may request additional fuel testing prior to uplift. This request must be made in Spanish, and it’s best to have your ground handler involved.
Hydrant fuel is available at San Jose (MROC) and only on the commercial side. MROC has seven-to-eight fuel trucks, and sometimes there’s not enough manpower available for all the trucks. By regulation scheduled commercial operations have priority over general aviation for fueling.
Aviation fuel uplifts in Costa Rica, particularly for tech stops, are often accomplished very quickly. There are times, however, when significant fuel delays can occur, depending on arrival time, season, day of arrival, and aircraft type. During the high season – particularly during peak hours of 1300-1600 local – fuel uplift delays may be as long as several hours. If you’re operating to Costa Rica during high season, it’s best to schedule fuel uplifts outside the hours of 1300-1600 local.
There’s only one in-flight catering company approved by the government of Costa Rica. A catering menu is available for GA, but operators may request items off-menu. While Costa Rica has a wide range of produce, meat, fish, and wine available, some items such as Kosher foods may be difficult to source. It’s best to provide 24-48 hours’ lead time for in-flight catering requests. Note that your ability to source catering directly from restaurants/hotels may be limited. If you attempt to bring “unofficial” catering to the airport, there’s a possibility you’ll not be permitted to take it airside. As some airports are stricter than others, in terms of self-catering from off-airport facilities, it’s important to review available options with your ground handler. Due to language barriers, in-flight catering requests are usually given to the ground handler who relays it to the in-flight caterer.
MROC has airport security controlled by local law enforcement. MROC has adequate fencing, security camera coverage, and patrols. If you require additional security for your aircraft, unarmed security can be arranged via your ground handler or trip support provider. However according to AVSEC-FAL, if it’s a large commercial flight private / charter flight additional security is required.
At MROC, all personnel and vendors must have security badges to access the ramp airside. On day of departure, crew members must have their licenses and crew IDs with them to access the ramp, and they must be escorted by the ground handler. At all AOEs in Costa Rica, a ground handler must accompany crew members any time they’re on the ramp or within any secure area of the airport.
Personal security for passengers and crew members is not usually required in Costa Rica. The only exception is if you’re operating with a well-known celebrity or diplomatic/head of state passenger.
|Overflight||Not Required||*With the exception of experimental aircraft|
Overflight permits are never needed for GA unless an aircraft is operating on an experimental certificate. For experimental aircraft it’s recommended that the operator go through diplomatic channels to obtain the needed permission faster.
Landing permits are not required for either private non-revenue or charter operations. However, airports in Costa Rica require that all aircraft obtain prior parking permission. This applies to both Airports of Entry (AOEs) and domestic airfields. CAA does not need to be notified of any parking approvals as the airports are the governing authority regarding aircraft parking. MROC is run by a private company.
Cabotage is never an issue when operating between AOEs in Costa Rica. Aircraft operators are free to take onboard whomever they wish for these flights.
MROC is a 24-hour airport with full-time customs, immigration, and quarantine (CIQ). CIQ can now be completed within the new GAT (GAT regular operation hours 0600 LCL thru 2100 LCL) with overtime additional terminal fee. Your ground handler will direct passengers and luggage through customs and later will escort crew and their luggage through the terminal.
Passports and visas
Valid passports are required for all crew and passengers. Some nationalities, including crew, will need to have visas before arrival. Visas are not possible to arrange on arrival in Costa Rica. For this reason, it’s recommended to speak to your ground handler or trip support provider regarding visa requirements. Visit the GAT’s website for more information and pictures of the terminal.
Luggage will be screened with a quarantine screening device. Authorities are diligent in prohibiting fruits and vegetables into Costa Rica. Any plants and seeds you wish to bring into Costa Rica must be accompanied with specific documentation (check with your ground handler), or it will be confiscated and held at the airport until you go downtown to obtain approval to import the items. Be aware that leftover catering, by regulation, must be disposed of on landing. A local in-flight catering company may be able to store these food items for you, but this will be determined on a case-by-case basis.
If you bring into Costa Rica more than what is permitted, in terms of quantity or value of restricted items, you will be taxed at 40 percent on the cost of such items. It’s always best to confirm restricted items and limitations with your ground handler pre-trip. Import tax may be paid at the airport during regular business hours Monday-Friday. Outside these hours, the items will be held at the airport until you return to pay taxes owed during regular business hours. Be aware that you may only bring up to five liters of liquids into Costa Rica, but exceptions may be approved on a case-by-case basis. Customs is strict on import regulations and is looking to protect local commerce.
The ground handling company is responsible for notifying and transmitting for arrival and departure or tech stop flights, crew, and passenger information to the airport authorities including the Immigration and Law Enforcement Officer.
11. Flight planning
No special regulations exist when you travel through Costa Rican airspace, and air traffic controllers speak English.
Flight plan offices, known as “EROs,” are located at international airports with opening hours mirroring airport operational hours. Flight plans may be filed electronically, but a hard copy of your flight plan must be given to the ERO office. All flight plans must be signed by the captain or a dispatcher. If your flight plan is approved by the ERO office, it will be forwarded to ATC. If changes to your flight plan are needed, ERO will let the ground handler know so that the agent, along with the crew, can make the appropriate changes and re-file.
Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM) and Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) II are mandated for all operations to Costa Rica. Therefore, it’s essential to ensure that proper equipment designations are included in your flight plan. ERO, the flight plan office, will always check this information before confirming a flight plan filing with ATC. If you do not have the required equipment/certification, you’ll be restricted to certain flight levels. At some point, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) will become a requirement for operations through Costa Rican airspace, but details on this are unknown at this time.
Flight plans for Costa Rica should be filed four hours before departure. Your flight plan remains on file for one hour after the Estimated Time of Departure (ETD). Whenever a flight plan is generated via a trip support provider, the ground handler will confirm that the routing is on the flight plan, have the captain or a dispatcher sign it, and then take it to the ERO flight plan office for processing. Be mindful that the ERO flight plan office will review your filing to ensure that aeronautical fixed telecommunication network (AFTN) addresses, for downline legs and countries, are properly notified.
If you anticipate a flight delay, the ERO flight plan office must be notified. Be aware that you may only request two operational delays in Costa Rica. After that, you’ll need to file a new flight plan and start the process again. Some operators choose to file flight plans for an hour after ETD to maximize operating flexibility and avoid delay messages. When you’re ready for takeoff, call ATC to request clearance.
Weather is generally very good during the late November through early April high season. Expect potential for heavy rain during the traditional rainy season: August through November. In certain parts of the country, fog can be an issue. Fog here usually occurs at night but, occasionally, can be an issue during mornings.
13. Tech stops
At least 48 hours’ notice is recommended when requesting ground handling at MROC. Authorities may impose restrictions, however, on short-notice operations. Air ambulance flights are always allowed to operate on short notice.
Passengers and crew members will stay on board the aircraft during refueling. They don’t need to clear CIQ. If passengers and/ crew members for any reason need to go the GAT they must be escorted by the ground handling company employees always and comply with the AIC, airport MOA (airport operations manual), and GAT procedures established by Airport Authorities.
14. Peak season
Peak Season: November – Early April. Request parking by early September.
During the high season – late November until early April – it’s best to confirm hotel arrangements well in advance due to increased demand. The average price of 4- and 5-star crew accommodations during high season is 200 USD per night. During the peak of high season, particularly between Christmas and New Year, and when events such as fishing tournaments are in progress, rooms can go as high as 400 USD per night. For stays during high-demand periods, it’s often best to book crew accommodations at least three months in advance.
During peak season, operators should make their aircraft parking requests by early September. You will not, however, know the status of your parking request until November or December, and it’s at the discretion of airport authorities to approve/disapprove such requests. There are typically more parking issues with larger business aircraft, such as Gulfstream G550s and Bombardier Global 6000s.
At MROC, GA parking is separated by MTOW, but this is not the case at other Costa Rican airports. Officially, there are only eight GA parking slots at MROC. At the discretion of airport authorities, however, it may be possible for GA to park on the commercial ramp at MROC. During this period expect delays with aviation fuel uplifts, lav/water services, etc. due to increased activity on the ground and priority being given to scheduled commercial traffic.
15. Regulatory considerations
While not frequent occurrences, ramp checks do take place from time to time. Talk with your ground handler and understand all documentation requirements in advance. Have crew aircraft documents readily available. Be aware that crew licenses must be from the country in which the aircraft is registered.
Stage 2 aircraft are currently able to operate unrestricted within Costa Rica. While we expect to see some future restrictions put in place, such details are unknown at this time.
Be advised that when leaving Costa Rica, there’s a departure tax payable of about 30 USD per passenger. The best way to pay this is via your ground handler who’ll issue you departure tax receipts to show to customs and immigration at the airport. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay this tax at a bank office within the airport. Payment can be made either with cash or credit card, and you’ll show proof of payment of this at the security checkpoint. Be aware, however, that during high season and busy periods it may take 30-45 minutes to pay departure taxes at the airport. Best practice, to avoid any potential delays, is to have your handler take care of departure taxes in advance.
16. Other considerations
Be mindful that proof of yellow fever vaccination is needed when arriving in Costa Rica from regions considered endemic. If you do not have this vaccination, when it’s required, you’ll be denied entry. From time to time, when there are diseases in other countries that may spread, other applicable vaccination requirements may apply. It’s best to check on current requirements with your ground handler. More information can also be found on the San Jose Int’l Airport (SJO/MROC) website.
Be aware that onboard pets must have “pet passports” indicating vaccinations and dates of vaccinations. Additionally, you must provide proof of purchase of the pet.
Personal weapons, including any weapons that a bodyguard may have with them, may not be brought into Costa Rica without specific permission from authorities. Your ground handler will need at least eight business days to process such requests, as there are complex requirements to be met, and required documentation depends upon the specific request. Be aware that if weapons are discovered without appropriate licenses, the individual will be jailed.
For more information on customs, agriculture, immigration, and arrival and departure procedures, please see the following links: