Amid all the speculation about the return to service of the 737 MAX, one country has quietly jumped into the lead. Today at 8:20am local time (6:20am EST time in the US), Brazilian airline GOL flew the world’s first revenue passenger service with the MAX since the plane was re-certified. Flight G34104 from Sao Paulo (GRU) to Porto Alegre (POA) went off without a hitch and it marks the start of many more for GOL if all goes to plan.
We’ve heard murmurs that commercial flight demand in Brazil has rebounded more quickly than many others in the Western Hemisphere, so we took a look at the Flightradar24 data for the country during October and November. Some intriguing information emerges.
Flights are down but the gap has been (mostly) closing
In October and November of this year we count 73,530 total flight departures from Brazilian airports. That’s compared to 126,945 departures in the same period a year ago – roughly a 42% drop overall. If we look at the trend, however, that gap has been closing. Through most of November, total flights from Brazilian airports were down just 37.5% from the same period in 2019.
It will be especially interesting to watch whether that gap continues to close or stabilizes from here, especially as daily COVID-19 case numbers appear to be on the rise in Brazil. Then again, they have been rising for some time now with no evident impact to flight traffic so far.
Domestic is especially strong
The majority of flights removed from the schedule in Brazil this year will have been international services. That’s no surprise. And domestic traffic in Brazil has done much better than cross-border flights, as has been the case in most other countries. But Brazil’s looks especially strong. No doubt giving domestic runs an added boost is the fact that many far-flung cities in Brazil are difficult to access by anything other than air.
Take the Amazonian city of Altamira (ATM) for example. In 2019 Azul operated 30 flights from there during October and November, while in 2020 during the same period, they ran 58 flights.
A 2020 winner emerges
A look at the three top airlines of Brazil: GOL (G3), Azul (AD) and LATAM (LA) shows a clear winner in Brazil over the past couple of months. In October and November, Azul operated 77% of the number of departures in the same period a year ago. Compare that to GOL which flew 53.2% and LATAM with 48.3%.
In many ways these are not surprising figures given the strength of domestic aviation. Azul is the most domestic-focused of the three. GOL is also heavily weighted towards domestic, but had built more of an international network than Azul in recent years. And LATAM would have been especially affected by shutdowns in neighboring countries where it has traditionally dominated, including Chile which only opened to non-residents a couple of weeks ago. In terms of total number of departures, in 2019 GOL had the most during this period with 41,281 flights. In 2020, Azul took the lead among the big three with 27,018 flights (GOL was down to 21,950).
Foreign airlines take different approaches
It’s also enlightening to take a look at foreign airlines and their approaches to Brazil flying in October and November. TAP Portugal has an extensive route map between Portugal and Brazil, for obvious reasons. In October and November of 2019, TAP flew 1300 departures out of Brazil, whereas in October and November 2020 they did about 40% of that with 515 flights. For the largest foreign carrier in Brazil that’s a big drop.
Then there’s another foreign airline with a traditionally large presence in Brazil: American Airlines. They registered one of the most severe drops in flights of all airlines during this time, operating just 25% of the service they did in the same period last year. It may not come as a surprise that the ever-aggressive Qatar Airways cut far fewer flights than most in Brazil during this time, flying 214 flights during October and November, or 71% of its 2019 schedule. But would you have guessed that KLM did even better? With 295 flights in October and November of this year (compared to 396 last year) the Dutch carrier maintained a full 74.5% of its pre-pandemic schedule in this period.
What about the Latin American airlines?
COPA (CM) of Panama saw an enormous drop in flights among international carriers serving Brazil, with 1,208 flights in October/November 2019 and just 182 in the same period in 2020. That’s 15% of what it operated before. COPA has been slowly ramping back up after many months shut down, so that number will likely go up from here.
But the most stark drop of all? Aerolineas Argentinas (AR). With Argentina mostly shut down now for months, the Buenos Aires-based carrier has all but disappeared in Brazil. October/November 2019 saw 1,245 Brazilian flights by Aerolineas Argentinas, while in 2020 that number was 82. Weekly flights have gone up somewhat in the second half of November, but it remains unclear just when we’ll see AR back in regular form.
It will be fascinating to see what happens to these numbers as we head into the next few months. Not to mention what GOL’s experience will be as the first to bring the 737 MAX back to passenger service. Brazil, as ever, is one to watch.
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