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An Azul ATR 72-600 takes-off from Porto Alegre, Brazil. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

After 29 Years, South America’s Most Important Air Route Goes Jet-Free

Over its 70 years of history, the route that connects Congonhas-São Paulo Airport to Rio de Janeiro-Santos Dumont Airport has become the most important single air route not only in Brazil, but in Latin America. Linking the two largest metropolises in the country the ‘Ponte Aérea’ — which translates to “Air Bridge” in Brazil’s native Portuguese — was always a cash cow for any airline, given its high importance among high-paying business travelers.

Such huge importance brings airlines to prioritize the Ponte Aérea as much as they can. Last year, for instance, Azul Brazilian Airlines opened a public war with competitors GOL Airlines and LATAM Brasil over slots at Congonhas owned at the time by the then-stalling Avianca Brasil.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic on air travel, however, broke this long-standing pattern. For some weeks in April, Congonhas Airport, the most important airport for corporate travelers in Brazil, had no regular flights whatsoever. While the following months saw a considerable increase in traffic, this surge will be temporarily interrupted by Infraero, operator of the airport.

Benefitting from the vastly reduced schedules, the state-owned company has changed its work schedules to recondition Congonhas’s main runway, which will be closed between Aug. 5 and Sept. 5. With this, only the executive aviation-focused auxillary runway will be available, and therefore only smaller aircraft will be able to operate in the airport for this timeframe.

While the main runway is suited for aircraft like the Boeing 737-800 and the Airbus A320, the secondary is only suited for aircraft up to the 3C category under ICAO reference numbers, which excludes the 737 and A320 family. With GOL’s smallest aircraft being the 737-700 and LATAM Brasil’s being the A319, they will not be able to operate to Congonhas during the construction.

Of the other companies that operate in the airport, however, Azul and VoePass — the former Passaredo — own aircraft of the ATR family and have decided to maintain operations there with the turboprops. Both are selling tickets for the Ponte Aérea to Rio.

On the last Monday before the runway work starts, the Ponte has 16 flights on sale: GOL with six operated by the 737-700, LATAM Brasil with the same number by the A319 and Azul with four, operated by the Embraer 195.

The following week, with the main runway closed, the scenario changes drastically. For August 10, Azul is selling seven flights, all operated by the ATR 72-600, while VoePass is offering two flights with the same aircraft.

“Thanks to our mixed fleet, we have flexibility to plan the network and to adapt to different operation scenarios,” Vitor Silva, Azul’s Network Planning Manager, has said, adding that “with this adjusted network between August and September, we will maintain assistance to customers of the largest city in the country and increase the connection possibilities to the locals, one of Azul’s cornerstones and differentials.”

Even though GOL will not operate in Congonhas with its own aircraft, it will benefit from its codeshare partnership with VoePass. And while LATAM also has a partnership with the same airline — it has also announced a partnership with Azul, although it should only take effect from August — it has decided not to sell tickets on the route, leaving the airline as the only one not to sell tickets of the Ponte Aérea during the month of construction.

While the fact that the Ponte Aérea will be solely operated by turboprops may appear ordinary at first sight, it represents a massive throwback to the “golden” years of aviation to aviation enthusiasts in Brazil, from a time where aviation was much “classier.” This will be the first time since 1991 that the most important route in Brazil will not at all be operated by jets.

History: the Lockheed Electras in the Ponte Aérea

It may appear strange that until the end of 1991, a passenger could not fly between Rio (Santos Dumont) and São Paulo (Congonhas) onboard a jet-powered aircraft. And it may seem even odder that, up until that year, the only aircraft allowed to connect these cities was a project from the 1950s. But that way it was. Between 1975 and 1989, a fleet of 14 Lockheed L-188 Electras owned by VARIG operated the route.

According to Flap Internacional, sales were consolidated and the profits were then divided between the four airlines that took part in the “pool”: Transbrasil, VARIG/Cruzeiro and VASP. Nowadays, this would effectively be called a cartel, for the market was overregulated and came with a number of barriers to new entrants.

A VARIG Lockheed L-188 Electra II, which operated the Ponte Aérea for years. (Photo: Pedro Aragão, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Regardless of any anti-trust concerns, over the years the Electra became a legendary aircraft for Brazilian passengers and enthusiasts alike; it was a symbiosis between machine and route that had few to no parallels in the rest of the world.

“The Electra was not only a commercial aircraft, of a fascinating and dramatic history,” said Gianfranco Beting, one of Brazil’s foremost aviation enthusiasts, to JETSITE. “It was a myth that united the two largest cities of the country in its golden age. It was the link, the lifeline, the Ponte Aérea that connected Rio to São Paulo”.

It was another time for travel. Onboard service was generous, with alcoholic drinks and hot food served to all during the 50-minute flight. Space between seats was huge, and smoking was allowed. Indeed, there was even a lounge in the back at the plane with seven seats where passengers could socialize.

From the end of 1989, the monopoly was broken as Rio-Sul, with the Embraer 120, and TAM, with the Fokker F-27, entered the market. But it was only in the end of 1991 that the Electras started giving place to the jet age, as Transbrasil, VARIG and VASP started replacing them with owned 737-300s.

A VARIG 737-300. (Photo: Aero Icarus, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

On Jan. 6, 1992, VARIG phased out its last pair of Electras, in a day of commotion for travelers, with media outlets of the time bidding farewell to the turboprop on national television.

The Ponte Aérea, after that, was never the same.

“What’s the point of gaining 15 minutes of flight if I’ll lose 15 centimeters of space in the seat?” famously stated comedian Jô Soares to Veja magazine upon the retiring of the Electras, according to Folha de São Paulo.

Twenty-nine years later, the Ponte Aérea will once again be operated by turboprops only. And while the modern, silent and economical ATR 72-600 may not be as memorable and legendary as the mighty Electras, its smaller size and speed harkens back to a time where air travel was slower — but much more exquisite and glamorous — carried aboard the wings of the Electra.

João Machado
João Machado
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