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TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History: PLUNA
Primeras Líneas Uruguayas de Navegación Aérea, also known as PLUNA, was formed in 1936 as the first carrier of Uruguay. The airline was founded by Englishman Sir Eugen Millington-Drake and started in Montevideo with de Havilland Dragonflys. The first routes started inside Uruguay with routes to Salto and Paysandú. Along with carrying passengers, PLUNA also focused on being able to haul mail, including 20,000 pieces of mail in their first year.
Early success as a airline led to the Uruguayan government taking an 80% stake in the carrier as a fleet renewal started. The Dragonflys were replaced with Douglas DC-2s in the 1940s. However, PLUNA suspended all routes in 1942 through 1944 as World War II led to an increase and lack of spare parts for the Douglas DC-2s. Once the war concluded, new routes started as PLUNA started routes outside of Uruguay with Brazil and Bolivia being added to the route map.
The airline stabilized until the start of the jet age, starting with replacing the short haul fleet of Dougas DC-2s with Vickers Viscounts 700s while waiting the arrival of the first jet aircraft. When their first aircraft arrived in 1958, the aircraft were placed on long haul routes with service to New York and Miami operated with Boeing 707s and eventually Boeing 737s.
Routes to Europe didn’t appear until 1980, with the only city served directly being Madrid. Although long haul flights were possible, the return was small, so when fuel prices soared in the 1980s, the long haul flights suffered. Flights to North America were quickly suspended as the airline started to lose money. The Uruguayan government, who owned 100% of the airline at the time, started to look for investors to help relieve the problems in the routes as the airline continued to suffer. The search for an investor came to a conclusion in 1995, when Brazilian carrier Varig bought a 49% stake in the carrier. The airline consolidated their fleet at the time too, with only six Boeing 737s flying the intra-continental routes and one Douglas DC-10 flying the Madrid route.
PLUNA managed to slow its losses as the 21st century started, however, problems once again accelerated when Varig filed for bankruptcy in 2005. The Uruguayan government contacted Venezualen carrier Conviasa and offered a stake in the carrier to the state run airline, however, the deal soured over time and the offered was declined in 2006. The airline was proposed to multiple investors, but none wanted a part of the national carrier. The Madrid-Montevideo route was also suspended due to the monetary losses on the route.
As a way to hopefully improve the public appearance of PLUNA, the airline announced that they would be rebranded as well as take hold of a new fleet of aircraft. The airline purchased seven Bombardier CRJ-900s to replace the very aged Boeing 737-200s. The new aircraft would receive the new branding, which focused on Uruguay’s meaning of “a river of colorful birds”. The new livery focused on a white forward fuselage transitioning to a colorful tail of birds. The aircraft had various different tail colors including blue-green, purple, and magenta. This was a massive upgrade from the previous Varig-inspired livery with a navy tail and the words PLUNA being written above the windows on the forward fuselage. The addition of the CRJ-900 allowed for more frequencies of flights around Uruguay.
Despite the rebranding, PLUNA continued to suffer and on July 5, 2012 PLUNA officially collapsed into bankruptcy. At the time PLUNA still owned 100% of the airline and no investors were interested in the carrier. PLUNA’s fleet of Bombardier CRJ-900s and the routes they flew were auctioned off. Since the collapse of PLUNA other airlines have moved in to replace the lost routes, especially the carriers from Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. To date, no airline has replaced PLUNA as the national carrier of Uruguay.
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