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Brazilian Airlines Await Vaccine as Recovery Stalls
While the months that have followed the March and April 2020 demand depression have seen a steady recovery in air traffic in Brazil, the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has been razing most states’ health systems — has made passenger numbers collapse again, especially with several states imposing restrictions that are almost analogous to lockdowns.
Even though the drop doesn’t seem nearly as steep as 12 months ago — despite the health emergency now being arguably much more serious — the country’s major airlines have answered accordingly, slashing schedules.
In a conference with journalists, Azul Brazilian Airlines CEO John Rodgerson said that his airline, Brazil’s third-largest carrier and the most aggressive in the 2020 rebound, has canceled 50 daily flights between March and April, O Estado de São Paulo newspaper reported. As a comparison, before COVID-19, the airline operated 900 flights a day and in these two months will operate 600.
This is the continuation of a trend that, as data shows now, started in February, three months after the national case rate of COVID-19 began accelerating once again. According to ABEAR, the Brazilian Association of Airlines, aircraft capacity reached its peak in January, when capacity reached 74.9% of pre-crisis totals. In February, that number dropped to 61.2%.
LATAM Brasil confirmed to VEJA magazine that the airline started cutting capacity in February, lowering its domestic capacity from 63% to 57% of pre-crisis levels. It says the revisions for the next few months “are very focused on the new retreat of domestic flights,” signaling further cuts are on the way.
Azul confirmed the same to the outlet. In March, the airline’s total operational capacity will sit at 68% of pre-COVID-19 levels. In January, that same figure for Azul reached 91% and in February, it was below 90%. Specific February traffic data has still not been released, but the airline’s quarterly investor presentation confirmed the figures.
That move comes as a shock to industry analysts because, as late as an investor presentation earlier this week, Azul said it expected to surpass pre-COVID-19 capacity levels in March though executives were hesitant to confirm that at the time.
GOL Airlines is expected to announce its latest capacity figures in two weeks when it announces its quarterly results.
Out of Their Hands
Moving forward, airlines reckon the recovery in Brazil will depend directly on the speed of the country’s vaccine rollout. In Brazil, the federal government has thus far been relatively unsuccessful in closing contracts for the vaccines, delaying the rollout compared to other big economies. Still, from March on, vaccine output is expected to considerably pick up as millions of doses are delivered by the two national laboratories with in-house production of the Oxford and SinoVac vaccines.
By Azul’s accounts, this would enable all the priority groups to be vaccinated by May, at that point covering 40% of the population. The predicted retreat in COVID-19 cases that would follow would, in the airline’s eyes, unlock further capacity growth.
“Yes, we will have a couple of rough months,” Rodgerson told an analyst. “Brazil, we don’t want to be naive and say that Sao Paulo is not in the red phase right now. It is. But you’re looking with a lot of optimism as you get more and more people vaccinated throughout the country because Brazilians want to travel. Brazilians have proven that they want to travel.”
Abhi Shah, the airline’s Chief Revenue Officer, also added to the cautious optimism.
“As a whole, we’ll kind of have to see how this sort of peak phase, how long it takes to come down, and then we will see how 2Q looks overall,” he said. “But just given the data points that we saw in the first two months of the year, given the backdrop of COVID, given the fact that vaccines haven’t really kicked in yet, it’s really a very, very strong starting point. And then to have the vaccine impact like you’re seeing in the U.S. with the TSA numbers, like you’re seeing in the UK, it’s really, really a good position to be in.”
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