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Trip Report: Low-Cost Airline Arajet Connects North and South America
A first-hand experience of Arajet, the newest low-cost airline from the Dominican Republic.
In 2021, as the airline sector was busy recovering from the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and restoring international connectivity to what it used to be, a small airline in the Dominican Republic was trying to reinvent itself as a low-cost airline with a Caribbean flavor, trying to capitalize on the large Dominican population living and working in neighboring countries in North America and also on the central position of its base at Las Americas Airport in Santo Domingo (SDQ) to connect North and South America.
The airline that was originally founded in 2014 as Dominican Wings transformed itself into Arajet just seven years later, and on Sept. 15, 2022, it started its operations with a flight from SDQ to the coastal city of Barranquilla, Colombia (BAQ) operated with a Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft configured with 185 seats (8 in First Class and 177 in Economy).
The Spirit of the Caribbean
Arajet is currently operating at 22 destinations in 16 countries from as far North as Toronto (YYZ) and Montreal (YUL), Canada to as far South as Sao Paulo, Brazil (GRU) Santiago, Chile (SCL), and Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE) with a fleet of eight Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft. These are some of the longest routes in the world operated with a Boeing 737.
The airline is planning on aggressively expanding the fleet with an order for 20 Boeing 737 MAX 8200 capable of carrying up to 200 passengers in a one-class configuration, just like the Irish low-cost giant Ryanair, and transform their SDQ hub into what Fort Lauderdale (FLL) has become for Spirit Airlines in the United States.
An integral part of Arajet’s business model is therefore to carry passengers through its SDQ hub offering a low-cost option for traveling via the Dominican Republic to a destination in the Caribbean or at the far ends of the continent. At the moment Arajet does not have permission to operate commercial flights into the United States, but in October 2023 it started operating into Canada with four weekly services to both Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ) and Montreal Trudeau International (YYZ).
The limited fleet still does not allow the Dominican carrier to develop a robust hub and spoke system, but with some clever scheduling, they are able to offer connecting itineraries to most of their network.
The Booking Process
During the month of October, a particularly aggressive flash sale saw Arajet offer tickets to some of their Caribbean destinations for an irresistible price: our attention was captured by the fares offered for the first weekend in December when temperatures in Canada start plummeting below zero (for those of you who believe that water boils at 100… otherwise we should probably say “in the mid-20s”). The island of Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles was our preferred destination, but promo fares had all but gone when we went to book, but they were still available for the island of St. Maarten (SXM), a true “mecca” for airline enthusiasts with the famous Maho Beach right underneath the approach path to Princess Juliana Airport.
The only option allowed would see a departure from YUL mid-morning on a Saturday and a return from SXM on a Wednesday: a five-day trip with three full days in the sun seemed to be a good deal for $153, so we went ahead and booked our flights. Arajet follows the ultra-low-cost model, with only a small personal item included in the standard fare, and all other luggage subject to an extra payment: with a 10kg (22 lbs) carry-on offered for $39.99 and a 20kg (44 lbs) checked bag offered at $24.99, we didn’t think twice to opt for the cheaper option, even if this means having to check-in at the airport and trusting that the bag would make the connection in SDQ. Anyway, with the total price of the trip, including bags, just above the $200 mark the deal was certainly too good to be passed on.
The Check-in Experience
Online check-in is available until three hours before the flight, after that it is necessary to go to the airport desk where a supplement may be requested. It is not possible to select a seat during the process without payment: for those who elect not to pay for a specific seat, a random one is assigned, without the possibility of changing it. The boarding pass is delivered as a PDF document that can be printed or stored on a smartphone.
We arrived at the airport well before 8 a.m. for an 11:10 a.m. departure, and the line was already quite long waiting for the check-in staff to open the three desks dedicated to the Arajet flight. Quite a few passengers had multiple bags, so the whole process was quite slow. Luckily, we had a few things to watch on the phone, so time flew by, but it took approximately an hour to check our bag. No self-service drop-off was available for Arajet, which was in its first month of operation at Montreal Airport. In the future, it would be a very welcome addition.
We swiftly went past security and decided to finish up on some work in the Air France Lounge. There are two lounges available for access through various programs in the International Departure section in Montreal. The Air France Lounge is probably the smaller of the two, but in the morning it is not busy at all since the three daily Air France flights to Paris are all scheduled after noon. The lounge serves all SkyTeam carriers, including the one or two daily Aeromexico flights to Mexico City, and in the winter the Air France service to Guadeloupe.
Boarding took place on time at Gate 60 after we witnessed the aircraft arrive at the gate. It was a Boeing 737 MAX 8 “Lago Enriquillo,” callsign HI1099, delivered to the airline just nine days earlier, and on its first commercial service from Santo Domingo. The unmistakable “new car smell” welcomed us inside the cabin configured in an all-economy configuration with new-generation leather seats and extra-spacious overhead bins.
The recline of the seat is very generous, probably too generous for someone who would prefer that economy seats did not have the option to recline so as not to bother the passenger sitting behind. Legroom is quite average but comfortable, even for someone close to 1.90m (or 6’3) tall.
There is no in-flight entertainment onboard, as well as no internet connection, but each seat is equipped with a standard USB port to recharge electronic devices, and there is a useful plastic holder that helps position tablets or smartphones to watch previously downloaded contents during the flight.
During our four-hour and 20-minute flight, two full trolley services were performed by the four cabin crew dressed in very smart but lively uniforms. The menu for the onboard service was in the “literature pocket” together with the safety card. It is possible to order sandwiches, snacks, hot and cold drinks, and alcohol (for passengers over 18), and some hot meals are available on longer flights to South America when flight time can approach eight hours.
No credit cards are accepted onboard, and payment is cash only either in Dominican Pesos or in U.S. dollars, but on the flights to and from Canada also Canadian dollars were accepted provided no change was required. We ordered a $3 fruit punch.
The Hub Airport is the Main Pain Point
The connection in Santo Domingo is probably the most underwhelming part of the entire trip: not all flights use jetways, some require the use of remote stands and passengers need to be bussed to the terminal. Connecting passengers need to go through a security screening before being allowed into the transit area: full metal detector, shoes off, all bags and jackets through the x-ray machine; those accustomed to the PreCheck soft touch will experience a trip back in time, and not a pleasant one.
It’s most definitely the biggest bottleneck that Arajet will have to eliminate if they are planning on scaling up their transit business. The line was painstakingly slow and it is not difficult to see how this could represent a problem with potentially hundreds of passengers and possibly tight connections due to late arrivals of the first flight. No representative for the airline was checking the line to see if there were passengers with flights departing imminently, and some inexperienced passengers looked like they were left to their own devices. It brought back to our memory a transit in Doha before the construction of the flashy new Hamad Airport when the old facility was quite clearly unsuitable for the hub-and-spoke operation Qatar Airways was trying to run.
The Connecting Flight
The flight to SXM was short and uneventful: just over 60 minutes on an older aircraft (it couldn’t possibly be younger) still with leather seats but without the screen holder for personal devices.
The arrival in SXM was at a temporary facility due to the extensive construction works underway at Princess Juliana Airport: it was essentially a series of outdoor tents, and only a small baggage carousel as well as customs and immigration were located inside the facility.
No trip to Sint Maarten is complete without the classic pictures at Maho Beach during aircraft landing. Here is a KLM Airbus A330-200 aircraft from Amsterdam and a Spirit Airlines Airbus A320-200 from Fort Lauderdale.
The Return Flight
Once again, dropping off my 20 kg luggage required a lot of patience and something to read or watch during the hour-long wait. The airport was empty, our flight was the only one departing except for some commuter turboprop flights to St. Barths or Antigua.
The aircraft performing our short flight between SXM and SDQ was the Boeing 737 MAX 8 “Jaragua,” callsign HI1081. It had a First Class section, unlike the aircraft used in our outbound trip. The connection experience at SDQ was still quite hit and miss, with a long line at the security check before entering the transit zone after being bussed to the terminal. Very few signs around and little help made it a less-than-stellar experience.
This time, however, our flight to Montreal was boarding at one of the gates equipped with a jetway. It was quite messy, the announcement was made without the assistance of a microphone, the screens do not provide any information at all and the entire process can be quite confusing if there are multiple flights boarding at the same time next to each other.
This aircraft was configured in an all-economy layout, but there were no charging points at all, which is inconvenient on a four-hour and 16-minute flight.
The inflight experience with Arajet is as good as can be expected considering the positioning of the airline: it’s a simple product and it does “what it says on the tin.” Consistency will probably improve when the newer aircraft start arriving in 2024 and 2025: the charging points are quite important given the length of some of the flights and the lack of IFE. The choice not to accept credit cards onboard and the absence of Duty-Free items, which could be a real hit on some of the international routes, may be reviewed in the future, provided they do not complicate the delivery of the product.
The non-flight aspects of the experience are the most concerning, and probably the least dependent on the airline’s will: the check-in process can be slow and chaotic at times, and the security checks in transit at SDQ are a real pain point that could cause serious headaches, especially if the number of transit passengers increases, and especially if they obtain the authorization to fly to the United States.
As it stands, the experience would not be very attractive to the average U.S. passenger, but while Arajet irons out the issues with connections, the point-to-point traffic between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic could be enough to make this airline a success. We look forward to trying them again in a few years (or even earlier if the price is right) to see how their product is evolving.
- Trip Report: Low-Cost Airline Arajet Connects North and South America - December 24, 2023
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