South America has become a great place to fly. This is a bit of a change.
The first time I came to South America from the US was in 1992. Boarding Air Paraguay in Miami, I realised I had never before encountered a jet that smelled musty. Passengers shoved and argued as they boarded, cramming oversized bundles of carry-on luggage into every nook. The plane creaked on takeoff and landing. It was like the caricature of a Peruvian bus. I was just waiting for someone to put a cage full of chickens in the aisle.
Now, things have changed. Airlines here may not be as luxurious as some of the Asian carriers, but the food is fine and it’s free. Meals even come with metal silverware. Unfortunately, nowadays, such basics are remarkable. There are also plenty of seats available. Capacity within central and South America is up 12 per cent year-over-year according to figures released this week by the consultancy OAG Aviation.
Part of the reason for this growth is that South America is starting from a very low baseline. Air traffic in the region is scant compared to Europe, North America or the Middle East. I recently took a two-day hike in the Andes and saw only one plane fly by.
But the change has more to do with a lot of local investors trying to put their money to work. Governments privatised national airlines across most of South America in recent decades. Locals keep investing in the companies. That gives the airlines plenty of cash to buy planes. There are now record numbers of flights to places like Santiago and Bogota.
LAN, which was Chile’s national airline, just this week created a new subsidiary in Colombia. Up next, it’s awaiting approval to buy the Brazilian carrier TAM. If the deal goes through, the new airline will be the first Latin American group to enter the top 15 airlines worldwide for both passengers and sales. Meanwhile, other airlines such as Sky and Taca are expanding code-sharing deals.
Now, I just worry about South Americans who travel to the US. I hope they aren’t too shocked by planes that smell musty and passengers who shove and argue as they stuff oversized carry-on bags into every nook.