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PS-SPJ in Natal. (Photo: Ricardo Mujalli)

Brazil’s Newest Startup Receives First Aircraft

After a year of planning, the first aircraft of the newest Brazilian airline has arrived on home soil. On the afternoon of Feb. 20, the first Airbus A320 belonging to Itapemirim Transportes Aéreos arrived in Natal on a delivery flight.

The aircraft, registered PS-SPJ in honor of the new airline’s group owner Sidnei Piva de Jesus, was received at the airport with a water salute by the local firefighters, after a flight from Madrid with a stop at Sal, in Cape Verde. The A320 still has the basic colors of its previous operator, Spanish carrier Vueling, albeit with non-stylized “Itapemirim” names near the door.

After registration procedures in Natal with Brazil’s civil aviation authority, the A320 is expected to head to São José dos Campos, Brazil, where it will receive its paint and have its cabin reworked at a maintenance center.

According to Planespotters.net, PS-SPJ, a 15-year old frame, served Spanair from November 2005 to January 2012 and Vueling from March 2012 to March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Europe, before being delivered to Itapemirim — nicknamed “Ita.”

Itapemirim first hit the airline industry headlines in February 2020, when in an entourage to the United Arab Emirates led by São Paulo governor João Doria, group owner Sidnei Piva claimed to have agreed with an Abu Dhabi sovereign fund on a $500 million investment for a new airline in Brazil.

Grupo Itapemirim is one of the most renowned bus companies in Brazil, although for years already it had been facing financial troubles, even undertaking a recuperação judicial — judicial recovery — process, similar to the U.S.’s Chapter 11 Bankruptcy reorganization. Piva said the money would also help the group escape the process with its creditors.

Although the funding seems to be solid enough, it is yet to be confirmed, and the new airline’s business plan is still raising eyebrows. Itapemirim wants to begin on routes that are already occupied by the existing major airlines — Azul Brazilian Airlines, GOL Airlines and LATAM Brasil — in a scenario of depressed demand. Even considering a post-pandemic market, the company will face heavy competition as the stabilized companies fight for the returning passengers, especially the valuable corporate ones.

Funnily enough, the A320s will have only 162 seats onboard, according to Aeroflap. Meanwhile, Azul has 174 seats on its A320neos, while LATAM Brasil sells 168 seats on its A320s. This number echoes a formula that was already utilized by the late Avianca Brasil, which operated with a less dense cabin but could not manage to charge premium fares to compensate and went bust in early 2019.

The new airline also promises to offer a premium onboard service — as did Avianca Brasil — all while serving the same saturated routes as Avianca Brazil. It remains to be seen how Itapemirim, with a much smaller network operating an unknown brand to corporate and premium travelers, will manage to charge more than its competitors.

Still, Itapemirim management seems very optimistic about the project. To VEJA’s Radar Econômico electronic column, Sidnei Piva said that, although the pandemic has been a challenge for the incorporation of the new aircraft, he still hopes all ten aircraft will be in Brazil when the company expects to sell the first tickets in March.

Itapemirim has not yet been certified by the National Civil Aviation Agency of Brazil (ANAC) as a regular operator, although it bought the certificate of ASTA Táxi Aéreo air taxi to speed up the process.

“The aggravation of the pandemic in Europe caused several delays of documentation and aircraft delivery,” he told VEJA, “but we are within the delivery timeline. We will operate the inaugural flight between the 17th and the 30th of March.”

The column mentions as initial destinations Belo Horizonte, Brasília, São Paulo and Vitória. Piva says the first revenue flight will be in Vitória — located in the home state of Itapemirim Group — with a presentation in Brasília before, with the national capital being one of the airline’s hubs.

Piva also mentions he has hopes of transforming the new airline into an important cargo operator with “five large cargo airplanes” joining the fleet from July. The growth is expected to culminate in an IPO in 2024, with an expected valuation of $2 billion. As a comparison, Azul’s IPO in 2017 raised $643 million.

João Machado
João Machado
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