Europeans wanting to visit Brazil can now save up to eight hours in travel time through the new international transit hub of Fortaleza in the country’s north-east.
In early May, Air France/KLM and its Brazilian partner airline GOL, the domestic market leader, inaugurated the new Fortaleza hub for European/Brazilian connections. The city, with 2.6m inhabitants, is the capital of the state of Ceará.
To celebrate the new hub, KLM arrived with an A330 and Air France’s new Joon brand with an A340 almost at the same time on the same day. The flight time from both Paris and Amsterdam is about nine hours and in regular service both airlines take turns, with KLM offering three flights a week and Joon two, increasing to three in the winter season.
“This is the first time that Air France and KLM simultaneously opened a hub in cooperation with a local partner,” said KLM CEO Pieter Elbers in Fortaleza.
There wasn’t pure happiness during the inauguration ceremonies with Air France facing an on-going series of strike actions. Group CEO Jean-Marc Janaillac, who was supposed to be part of the delegation, stayed behind in Paris and then announced his resignation after losing an employee vote.
Brazil, with 210 million inhabitants, ranks fifth globally in terms of its size and population.
Contrary to other countries of this size, the huge majority of international airline traffic utilizes only one airport, Guarulhos in Sao Paulo.
With 37.8m passengers in 2017, GRU (its three letter code) ranked far ahead of Galeao airport in Rio de Janeiro, which handled 16.2m passengers.
About three-fifths of Brazil’s international air traffic is handled in Sao Paulo, despite the metropolis being located far in the south of the country, thousands of kilometres and many flight hours away from the big cities of the north and east that are closer to Europe.
European passengers are mostly forced to do extreme detours via Sao Paulo, the exception being those flying with TAP Air Portugal.
TAP offers by far the widest spectrum of Brazilian destinations among all international airlines and before the 2016 economic crisis in Brazil, TAP served twelve Brazilian cities non-stop from Lisbon.
Currently, it flies to 10, among them all major cities on the northeast coast such as Salvador, Recife, Natal and Belem.
Anyone who didn’t want to use the TAP’s monopoly and its often hefty fares had to first to do fly up to 12 hours from Frankfurt, Paris or London to Sao Paulo. This was only to change planes there and then fly for hours on almost the same route back to the north.
“If you want to travel say from Hamburg or Torino to Manaus, the new connection via Fortaleza saves a passenger at least eight hours of travel time,” Elbers says. “Brazil is currently our biggest growth market, but we would have never opened this hub without our partner GOL.”
Former low-cost carrier GOL has evolved into a hybrid airline and has become the country’s biggest operator of domestic flights with a market share of 38 percent in January, 2018.
Instead of no-frills, GOL offers free basic inflight service plus buy-on-board options.
The forward seat rows boast a 34-inch pitch and the whole cabin offers high-speed wifi and live TV.
After big setbacks during the economic crisis in 2016 GOL, in which Air France/KLM own 1.5 percent and Delta Air Lines 9.5 percent, is back in expansion mode.
“We see potential for up to 7 percent growth per year in the coming seven years,” CEO Paulo Kakinoff tells airlineratings.
Currently, GOL operates 120 Boeing 737-700s and 800s, from June onwards the first of 120 Boeing 737 MAX 8s ordered are being delivered.
“We are now basing six aircraft in Fortaleza and opening our fourth-largest hub in Brazil here,” says Kakinoff. “We offer 50 daily flights to eleven destinations, among them Salvador, Recife, Natal, Manaus and Belem. A third of all international passenger to Brazil doesn’t want to go to the Rio/Sao Paulo area, for them this is a major improvement.”
For this year Air France and KLM expect 80,000 passengers on their Fortaleza flights, increasing in 2019 to 140,000.
“About 40 percent of all Joon passengers will be transferring to GOL flights in Fortaleza,” estimates Air France EVP Commercial Patrick Alexandre, who says at KLM it is already a fifth of its Brazil passengers.
Fortaleza itself offers the potential for business traffic, as the city has a cooperation project on a new harbor with Rotterdam in the Netherlands, as well as tourist traffic, as the region with its endless beaches is a favorite destination for kite surfers.
“In contrast to low-cost carriers we offer a seamless travel experience with baggage checked through from/to Europe, we combine low fares with a higher level of service,” Kakinoff says. “Initially we offer 60,000 seats weekly from Fortaleza, up to 30 percent will be used by transfer traffic from Air France/KLM.
“In the coming 18 months, we might increase our hub with bringing the number of aircraft based here up to ten.”
A major prerequisite for a functioning hub, of course, is adequate ground infrastructure. Currently, Fortaleza airport is still tiny and handled 5.9m passengers in 2017.
The airport has been owned and operated since January by Fraport from Frankfurt in Germany, which also took over Porto Alegre airport in Brazil by state operator Infraaero.
Before the football world championship in Brazil in 2014, Infraaero had started to construct a new terminal which was then abandoned, while the traffic for the games was handled in a tent.
“Now we have the obligation to erect a new building on the existing foundations by September 2019,” airport CEO Sabine Trenk explains to airlineratings.
So far the influence of Frankfurt airport can be spotted in identical signage typo as at home, also in the upgraded wi-fi service and cleaner toilets.
“They have also promised us to provide a lounge soon,” says Patrick Alexandre, commenting on the lack of that facility for premium passengers.