In an industry notoriously difficult in normal circumstances, aviation faced extraordinary challenges in 2020. As COVID-19 spread, the travel industry…
New World, New Missions: LATAM Brasil’s Widebodies Remain Active During COVID-19
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil brought demand for air travel down by a previously unimaginable amount. If during the first two months of the year airlines were experiencing a very healthy demand scenario with solid financial numbers, the month of March was disastrous. And it was only a prelude of the crisis that would come.
It all started with international traffic. As a result, the airline that suffered the most was one with the most exposure to that market: LATAM Airlines Brasil, by far the largest international carrier in the country. With the huge coronavirus outbreak in Italy, the company announced the halting of flights between São Paulo/Guarulhos and Milan on March 2. But even that wasn’t all. A quick succession of government announcements would see LATAM’s network implode, at first internationally and then domestically.
With domestic traffic dropping, all airlines suffered. However, as the type of recovery the industry will see starts to become clear, it is almost common sense between companies and analysts alike that the last passengers to return in financially sustainable levels will be the international ones. This affects specially LATAM Brasil that, according to Airfleets data, has a fleet of 31 widebody aircraft, much higher than Azul’s 10 — GOL has a full-narrowbody fleet.
While an international recovery is still not clear on the horizon, LATAM Brasil’s widebody fleet has been almost as active now as ever. In fact, it’s been more active than its narrowbody counterpart. According to data by FlightRadar24, 16 of the airline’s 31 widebodies have operated revenue flights in the past seven days, while only 30 of its 127 narrowbodies counterparts have done the same. It’s an impressive proportion of one active widebody to two narrowbodies, against a 1:4 ratio before the crisis.
Logically there is a reason for LATAM Brasil to deploy larger aircraft in a moment of retracted demand. And of the airline’s three widebody sub-fleets — Boeing 767-300, Boeing 777-300 and Airbus A350-900 — there is a reason why each one of these are being specifically deployed. By tracking the active aircraft, it is possible to better understand why and how. Data was gathered with FlightRadar24.
Labeled the “route opener,” the 767 played a pivotal role in LATAM’s pre-crisis network. It usually started new long-haul routes or maintained service to less dense markets, like São Paulo-Boston, São Paulo-Milan and non-hub routes to Miami.
With 221 seats — only one more than the A321 — there would be no reason to use the 767 domestically rather than to use the larger cargo hold. Before COVID-19, the 767 was deployed sporadically on domestic routes when more cargo space was needed. After the pandemic started, the much lower number of passenger flights and therefore less cargo capacity, attached to a spike in e-commerce figures, made the aircraft needed much more around the country.
Accordingly, in the week between June 7 and 13, LATAM’s seven active 767s — out of a total of 13 — operated 67 flights, all of which either originated or terminated at the airline’s hub in Guarulhos. The most frequent route connected São Paulo to Porto Alegre and vice-versa seven times. There was also a single flight from Barcelona, Spain, which may have been either a passenger charter or a light-load cargo flight, since the 767s didn’t have their passenger decks configured for cargo.
As a larger aircraft, before COVID-19 the A350-900 was mostly used by LATAM Brasil on matured and denser routes, like São Paulo-Paris and São Paulo-Orlando. With the crisis, the aircraft has not been as much requested as the 767 and 777, mostly because it is too large for the current needs both of passenger and cargo belly capacity.
The number of active A350 in LATAM’s fleet is four — of a total of eight — roughly the same proportion as the other widebodies of the fleet, but with considerably lower utilization.
Despite that, as of June 13, it is the only aircraft in the fleet to operate regular, long-haul operations for the airline. More specifically, two weekly flights connecting Guarulhos to Frankfurt, that were restarted weeks ago. The Airbus can also be used for charter operations if there is no availability between the other members of the fleet, as was seen in a single Guarulhos-Lima-Guarulhos flight, or when the cargo belly capacity of the 767 is not enough, for example when the A350 made a roundtrip to Fortaleza.
The A350 will also continue to be deployed in other passenger operations as LATAM Brasil timidly resumes its long-haul network. From next week, the airline will restart flights between São Paulo to London and Madrid with the A350. And as both will leave Guarulhos in the same day and in very similar times, the airline will need to deploy two aircraft for these rotations.
Before the coronavirus, the 777 served LATAM’s trunk long-haul sectors, connecting São Paulo to, among others, London, Miami and New York. The aircraft cabins were just remodeled, part of a multi-million dollar effort by the airline to improve the onboard experience.
With COVID-19, LATAM Brasil’s flagship has been put to the ultimate test. As the largest aircraft of the fleet, the airline removed most of the seats in five of the ten 777s, adding even more capacity to the already huge cargo belly of the airplane. The airline estimates this measure increases cargo capacity by 20%.
As such, Brazil’s Ministry of Infrastructure chartered LATAM for 44 roundtrips to China, in an effort to bring 240 million masks, a total of 960 tonnes of cargo. Besides the Federal Government, LATAM was also hired by other entities to bring similar cargo from the other side of the planet. All flights make a stop in Amsterdam.
Most times, during the first leg to the Netherlands, the aircraft also makes a stop in one of Brazil’s northeastern capitals — both Fortaleza or Recife. According to Contato Radar, this stop serves to load the aircraft with fresh fruits produced in the nearby São Francisco Valley, and from Amsterdam, they are distributed to the rest of Europe.
This job had previously been fulfilled by a Cargolux flight from Petrolina Airport and also by utilizing the cargo belly of flights leaving the Brazilian northeast, but was suspended as a result of the capacity drop caused by the pandemic.
The flights usually leave São Paulo, where the 777s are based, stop in the Northeast if there is any cargo, and then proceed to Amsterdam. There, they are directed nonstop to China. Last week, LATAM operated in Guangzhou and Xiamen. The return flight makes a fuel stop in Amsterdam, then proceeds to São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro/Galeão, depending on the contractor.
Given the larger cargo capacity of the 777, LATAM can also deploy the aircraft, when available, in missions too demanding for the A350s and 767s. The past week, PT-MUE made a rotation to Manaus, where an important industrial center of Brazil is located.
While passenger demand begins to make a rather sluggish return, an efficient usage of the assets such as this one by Latam may be a clever way for an airline to, if not turn profits, at least reduce the massive losses the industry will face for the next while.
It does not help that LATAM is so exposed to the international passenger demand. However, it seems that the airline found its way around travel restrictions of the COVID-19 times, redeploying its widebodies to maximize cargo flow. With e-commerce booming and a desperate need for medical material in Brazil, at least for now the airline can spread its wings and keep partially flying its widebodies. This helps to reduce cash bleed, although palliatively.
This will be fundamental to keep stakeholder confidence high as it negotiates the terms of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and as it prepares itself for what’s to come after the world returns to normal.
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