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Finding Pandemic Success In the Middle of the Amazon — Part Two
This is Part II of a series discussing Brazilian aviation in the more remote regions of the country and how it has fared amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Read Part I here.
The existence of demand itself does not mean, of course, that every citizen of Eirunepé has the ability to pay for a 1600 Brazilian real ($297) roundtrip ticket. In this regard, the local political and private powers usually come together to help those who need to go to Manaus.
In an interview with AirlineGeeks, Professor Tatiana Schor of the Federal University of Amazonas explains that “a lot of the public sector is [involved], and a significant share [of tickets] are paid for by the state,” in what she labels “a super game of a political exchange very constant in the Amazon — and especially in Amazonas. It’s a life or death dependence.”
“The Town Hall pays a lot of flights to people from the city,” agrees Marcos Vinícius Simão, Forestry Engineering Professor at the Eirunepé campus of Amazonas Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology (IFAM). “City Councilours also have this policy of helping some residents, but not everyone.”
Simão says it’s normal to see cars in the streets “raising money to send patients [to Manaus], internal chip-ins,” adding that “a lot of people ask me a 50 Reals, 100 Reals help to make the [chip-in] to buy tickets.” He also said that previously tickets were only sold with a card, “and people don’t have [them], so countless times I bought [tickets for others with my card].”
He believes that 20% of the traffic on the route would be for work reasons. Regarding the public sector, which in the rest of the country is a powerful customer for airlines, in Eirunepé they provide very limited traffic. Many of the federal agents in Eirunepé come from the rest of the country — including him, who comes from Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil and takes this flight eight times per year.
However, there are too few federal departments in town: besides the IFAM, the National Indian Foundation employs three people. There is also a very small unit of the Brazilian Air Force, part of the 4th Integrated Center of Air Defense and Air Traffic Control, and a tiny Fluvial Agency of the Brazilian Navy.
That means that in Eirunepé traffic relies massively on VFR — short for “visiting friends and relatives — demand.
“All the economy of inner Amazonas is induced by the government, whether it is by municipal participation funds, whether it is by federal, state and municipal public servants,” laments Átila Yurtsever, owner of Rico Táxi Aéreo and son of the legendary Comandante Mickey, Munur Yurtsever.
Founded in 1965, Rico operated regular flights in the Amazon between 1996 and 2010, when it returned to air taxi operations only. It is still a reference in Amazon air services. “Basically the entire economy of the cities comes from government resources. It’s like this practically in all Amazonas,” Yurtsever said.
“It [has been] the same economic model for the last 50 years; nothing changed here in Amazonas,” the businessman added, recalling Rico’s regular operation years. “In [other Amazon states] the tendencies are very different, with a more pulverized wealth, and this directly reflects in sales, with a very lower dependency in my point of view. [The state of] Acre is an intermediary [level in terms of] dependency.”
Lack of Infrastructure
In the inner Brazilian Amazon, the problem of lack of infrastructure is not confined to specialized healthcare. This also extends to most sectors, and this includes, of course, aviation. And this, as a consequence, pushes costs and fares up.
Even though Regional Airport Amaury Feitoza Tomaz, which serves Eirunepé, is suited for aircraft as big as the ATR 42 and has a “special operations authorization” for the ATR 72 — which VoePass/MAP effectively operates in the city — the first impression of someone who arrives at the terminal for the first time is different, to say the least.
Having flown to regional airports several times in the past years, I knew I would see no VIP lounges when arriving in Eirunepé. The structure of the terminal, though, was impressively precarious. It reminded me more, as someone else recalled to me, of a small bus station in inland Brazil. This was an interesting reminder, as the same person said, of the “real Brazil” that most of the time passes unnoticed: a poor country, with little structure and few opportunities, especially for those who live far from the big metropolitan centers.
Plastic chairs replaced the “airport chair” sets seen in the rest of the world. Instead of brickwork, some of the walls were covered in PVC ceiling tiles, a common scene in many Brazilian residences.
This is not to say that the operation was unsafe. In Brazil, commercial aviation safety standards are rigorously observed by the Civil Aviation National Agency. As far as was seen, the airport complied with every element necessary for the smoothness and safety of the operation, as humble as the terminal was.
However, some aspects of this flight made clear why operating in this part of Brazil is so difficult, challenging and expensive for airlines. First and most importantly was the route itself. Manaus-Eirunepé could be easily operated nonstop by the versatile ATR 72-500. However, it had to make a refueling stop in Tefé because Eirunepé, given the difficulty of supplying fuel to the region, does not come with jet fuel facilities.
This meant that PR-MPW took off from Tefé with an astonishing five hours of fuel for a flight of one and a half hours, much heavier than would be needed if Eirunepé had a fueling station. By carrying more weight, the aircraft consumes even more fuel, bringing costs up.
Still, Eirunepé was considered by all aviators and managers interviewed by AirlineGeeks as a top of the class airport, at least according to Amazon standards. “Eirunepé is one of the good runways,” Yurtsever said. “Despite having no fueling, it is well paved and offers [ground] support. [In] many cities, [there is] deteriorating asphalt, lack of communication, [lack of] navigational aids and so on.”
Moreover, VoePass faces heavyweight competition in the route to Tefé. Azul operates this route daily, with more frequencies and with a more competitive product abord its Embraer 195. Additionally, both flights leave Manaus basically at the same time in the morning.
With this, on the day AirlineGeeks took this flight, only one passenger deboarded in Tefé. On the inverse route, one went from Eirunepé to Tefé and three from Tefé to Manaus, certainly a suboptimal performance.
Arriving in Eirunepé, there were still more peculiarities. Some isolated regions in Brazil still face difficulties of internet connection, and there, it was no different. VoePass/MAP’s airport workers had to make all check-in and boarding processes manually, as the airport had been without internet “for some days,” as they said then.
Still, the process seemed to be completed as quickly as possible, with the flight back to Manaus — relatively full — departing on time.
Despite efforts from all sides, operational interruptions of flights are still a reality in Amazonas. Last year, MAP interrupted flights to four destinations — Coari, Eirunepé, Porto Trombetas and Tefé — citing a lack of airport safety. The airline had just been bought by VoePass, and critics said this was a maneuver for the airline to reshuffle its aircraft to new, more profitable flights from São Paulo/Congonhas Airport.
In March this year, when flights were interrupted in the city of Parintins, VoePass CEO Eduardo Busch said to outlet A Crítica that, “When we took over MAP, we found hundreds of fines made by irregular operations in the previous administration. [These] are situations that would have passed unnoticed previously, but our number one is with flight safety.”
As these isolated cities need air transport, someone has needed to fill the void whenever an airline has dropped out. In the case of Eirunepé, Rico Táxi Aéreo accepted this mission, connecting Manaus to the city with their 30-seater Embraer Brasília.
“We were searched for by Mr. Amaurilio Tomaz, son of Mr. Amaury Tomaz, who was our agent and also agent of TABA [an airline bankrupt years ago] to supply the pent-up demand,” Yurtsever said. “I commented I was not interested in resuming regular flights, but that I would accept to charter the aircraft for him to commercialize the fractionation and that I would give support to perform the operation.”
Between October and December, the flight operated with varying frequency of one to three times weekly, according to the demand, and as soon as VoePass returned serving the city, Rico ceased its operations on the route.
Ultimately, this fact goes to show another layer of the relation of close dependency between public actors, who maintain influence over local trade, and citizens in inner Amazonas. As mentioned by Yurtsever, Eirunepé’s sole travel agency is owned by Amaurilio Tomaz, who is a city councilor at the end of his term. He ran for mayor in this year’s election, eventually losing the race.
Son of ex-Mayor Dissica Tomaz and grandson of the late Mayor Amaury Tomaz, who was a local agent for multiple airlines and whose name currently adorns the city’s airport, Amaurilio was present on the flight back to Manaus upon the writing of this article. Talking to AirlineGeeks, Amaurilio stressed multiple times the need that his fellow citizens have for the airplane. He said that Rico’s chartered flights to Manaus were always full.
Why Be Optimistic?
Available information seems to suggest that flights indeed have recently been full between Manaus and Eirunepé. On both legs of the round trip taken by AirlineGeeks, the loads surpassed 50 passengers, even during a pandemic like COVID-19. Actually, VoePass’s management workers seemed more optimistic with the results in the Amazon than with the results in the rest of the country.
The overall impression is that there is more potential to unleash in the region, providing more opportunities for the local operators, both regular and non-regular.
The situation is also more positive on VoePass’s end. Eirunepé managed to sort out its lack of fueling, and now the trip from the city to Manaus does not stop in Tefé anymore — although the hop in the inverse direction still stops in the city.
Still, Tefé is not a deadweight stop anymore. As GOL and VoePass resumed their interlining in the Amazon, with tickets also sold by GOL’s powerhouse distribution channels, the sales to the city “increased considerably, [and Tefé] left being only a technical stop for fueling,” a source told AirlineGeeks.
And even if VFR demand eventually recedes, opportunities for aviation will not cease to exist. Opportunities in the Amazon are as vast and diverse as the region is large. And as a result, there are destinations that rely on very different sources of demand.
A flight attendant mentioned to AirlineGeeks that the flight to Barcelos, for instance, has almost only Japanese tourists for some periods of the year, as hundreds come every year seeking to go fishing in the waters of Rio Negro. The same type of demand applies to Parintins, which has an economy boosted by its massive Folklore Festival.
Commodities exploration also takes its place, with very profitable contracts for workers’ transport. VoePass/MAP serves Petrobras in the route connecting Manaus and the isolated Porto Urucu oil exploration base, while Total Linhas Aéreas serves Rio do Norte Mining Company, which explores large reserves of bauxite in Porto Trombetas.
Even so, it is highly unlikely that VFR demand will ever recede to an extent that interrupts regular flights in Amazonas, for as long as such cities are that isolated from metropolitan centers, a fast connection to Manaus will be a prime necessity for the population.
And it has been like this for decades. No matter how dire the economic situation in Brazil has been, air transport to isolated communities in the Amazon has been there. Whether it was undertaken by the robust amphibious Consolidated Catalinas in the 1950s, by the Embraer 110 Bandeirantes in the 1970s or by the modern ATRs in the 2020s, cities like Eirunepé have needed —and will always need — to keep flying.
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