New contributor Alex Robertson Textor recently took a pair of flights on little-known Portuguese airline Sevenair aboard the Dornier 228. What follows is his report on the experience.
At my hotel in Viseu last week, when I queried the receptionist how long a taxi to the airport would take she responded by asking if I meant the Porto Airport (OPO), 75 minutes away in light traffic. In fact I was heading to the tiny Viseu aerodrome (VSE). From the centre of Viseu it’s a 12-minute journey to VSE, away from the old city, through farmland and a thick wisp of a forest. As it turns out, VSE, cheerily outfitted with Viseu tourism slogans, is tiny and quiet. Security checks are conducted, just slightly apologetically, by hand. The guard who patted me down and politely rifled through my bag then followed me into the departure lounge to turn on a safety video produced for Aerovip, the former name of Sevenair prior to its rebranding.
I and just one other passenger boarded, joining a solitary passenger who was already on board. As soon as the plane’s door was shut, the 20-seater Dornier 228 took off, 15 minutes early. The last time I’d been on a Dornier 228 was in the Caribbean, island-hopping. The signature components felt so familiar: the door for passengers at the rear of the plane, the loudness of the engines (Sevenair thoughtfully place earplugs in seat-back pockets), the quick if not exactly powerful lift. I sat in the third row and watched morning fog stretch across low valleys until the Atlantic came to dominate the horizon.
That departure lounge video might have come in handy had something gone awry. There were no safety instructions on board; in fact, there was no communication from the pilot at all until we landed in Cascais and were asked to vacate the plane for a crew switch.
Headquartered in Cascais, an upscale beach resort town just west of Lisbon, Sevenair is a small Portuguese aviation company with its fingers in many pies: charter flights, a pilot training academy, aircraft maintenance, avionics, engineering services, handling services, and of course scheduled services.
Small planes flying low over the coastline are a common sight in Cascais. Open your Flightradar24 app to identify one of these, and, unless it is a private plane, it’s Sevenair on one of its circuits stretching the length of mainland Portugal.
The airline exclusively flies Dornier 228s for its scheduled services, and the circuit stretches from the Algarve town of Portimão (PRM) to Cascais (CAT), then on to Viseu, Vila Real, and Bragança, the last of these stops, tucked away in Portugal’s far northeast. (Note that Vila Real airport was closed for runway repairs in the summer of 2019 and has not yet reopened. A Sevenair rep told me that the airport should reopen in 2022.) These Dornier 228s are particularly useful given the short runways in Portimão and Vila Real.
As you might have guessed, this is a PSO circuit, benefiting from government subsidies coordinated through Portugal’s Ministry of Infrastructure and Housing. The circuit been guaranteed subsidies for the next several years at a minimum.
What makes this full route so interesting for visitors to Portugal is its obvious practicality. Viseu, Vila Real, and Bragança are all medium-sized Portuguese cities with broad catchment areas and extensive hinterlands for tourist exploration. They are all excluded from Portugal’s national train network, and their regional marginalization is further reinforced by subpar road connections to coastal hubs.
The Cascais-Portimão stretch, notably, is less essential backbone and more boutique splurge, an easy way to get from the Lisbon area to the Algarve, from one beach town dotted with pricey villas to another. Train service between Lisbon and Portimão takes almost four hours and requires a change of trains; TAP flies Lisbon-Faro multiple times a day, but check-in times and the hassle of Humberto Delgado Airport (LIS) reduce the appeal of that link, perhaps especially for people heading to the Algarve for a quick weekend of relaxation.
The Cascais airport, rather unlike the Viseu airport, is a hive of activity. There is a standard metal detector and loads of buzz. There’s no backwater airport vibe here. Most of the airplanes parked on the apron are private. Cascais has the air of a well-off private airport.
From Viseu to Portimão the flight spends most of its time over water, passing the Setúbal peninsula and the wider Alentejo before hitting land within spitting distance of the postcard-perfect Praia da Amália, empty on a late September morning. Portimão airport is a pleasing place. Its café spills out into the car park, a draw for locals after a mid-morning coffee and pastry. Portimão airport is known locally first as a skydiving hub and only secondarily as an airport with scheduled services.
What might be next for Sevenair? Chief Commercial Officer Alexandre Alves tells me the airline has been in discussions to add to the route map. Sevenair has deep experience with PSO routes (in Madeira, among other places) and have operated services in Guernsey for Aurigny Air Services and in Cape Verde for that country’s Coast Guard. So you never know – perhaps your local airport could be home to the buzz of a Dornier 228 next.
Alex Robertson Textor is a travel writer and the editor and publisher of Fields & Stations, a magazine featuring good writing for curious travellers. He splits his time between London and Lisbon.