Saturday, January 9, 2021

Jetsmart Argentina - Origins in 2018 to December 2020

Jetsmart Argentina A320, LV-HVT (c/n 8574) "Jaguar", at Cordoba (COR) after arriving from Buenos Aires El Palomar (EPA) on 18Dec19.  (Phil Perry Photo)

Jetsmart Argentina - Overview

Jetsmart Argentina (IATA two-letter code: WJ) is one of the airlines that started service in Argentina during the period of liberalized skies in the country known as the "Revolution of the Airplanes" brought about by Argentine President Mauricio Macri and his administration during their tenure between 2015 and 2019.   

WJ, an Ultra-Low Cost Carrier (ULCC), and Flybondi, an LCC (Low-Cost Carrier), are the only two surviving airlines to have started flying during this time period.  Several others, including Avianca Argentina, Flyest, LASA, and Norwegian Air Argentina, either shut down or were purchased by another carrier.

Jetsmart Argentina is owned by Indigo Partners, a private equity firm with ownership stakes in several LCC's, including Frontier Airlines (United States), Jetsmart Chile, Volaris (Mexico) and Wizz Air (Hungary).  

Beginnings - Purchase of Alas del Sur

Indigo gained a foothold in the Argentine air transportation market when it purchased Alas de Sur, a "paper" airline, through its Jetsmart Chile affiliate to form Jetsmart Argentina in June 2018.  Alas del Sur participated in the 27Dec16 Argentine national route hearings and was granted nearly all of the 36 routes it had requested, mostly from a proposed Cordoba (COR) hub, including to destinations as far away as Shanghai Pudong (PVG), China.

Many industry observers thought that the objective of Alas del Sur's previous ownership was to have an attractive airline operation ready to go on paper for sale to an airline coming into Argentina looking for a near-ready startup situation.  This was similar to what LAN Chile (now LATAM) did when they bought the paper airline Aero 2000 to come into the Argentine airline market in 2005.  Although Indigo purchased Alas del Sur, Jetsmart Argentina still needed to get an Air Operator's Certificate (AOC), which Alas never obtained because it never acquired the aircraft necessary to undergo the AOC authorization process.

One of Indigo's motivations for investing in Argentina was the low level of airline travel in the country compared to that of other Latin American nations, signaling strong potential for growth in the market.  For example, Argentina saw only 26 airline trips per 100 population in 2017 compared to 44 trips per 100 people in Brazil and 63 in Chile.

Indigo Partners placed an order with Airbus in 2017 for a total of 430 aircraft consisting of 273 A320neo and 157 A321neo for the four airlines in the group; Frontier (USA), Jetsmart Chile, Volaris (Mexico) and Wizz Air (Hungary).  70 of these were destined for Jetsmart Chile (56 A320 and 14 A321) with plans to make JetSmart the leading ULCC in South America.  The aircraft for Jetsmart divisions in other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, were to come from the Jetsmart Chile order.

Getting Established - AOC & 276 Route Requests

On 04Sep18, Jetsmart Argentina announced that it had started the process to obtain its Air Operator's Certificate (AOC) with an eye to commencing operations in mid-2019.  

Estuardo Ortiz, CEO of Jetsmart Chile (which owned Jetsmart Argentina), outlined the keys for WJ to succeed:

* Ultra Low-Cost Carrier (ULCC) including only "Point A to Point B" transportation in its basic airfares with food, drink, reserved seating and carry-on and checked baggage all available for extra fees.

* A digital reservations and operational platform to save costs

* Flying out of Buenos Aires El Palomar (EPA) instead of Aeroparque (AEP) or Ezeiza (EZE) that afforded 30% lower costs than these two other Buenos Aires facilities.      

Soon afterwards, it was revealed that participating airlines filed a record 792 route requests for the upcoming Argentine national route hearings on 05Oct18, including 199 requests by Andes Lineas Aereas, 248 by Flybondi and 276 by Jetsmart Argentina.     

WJ's requests were comprised of approx. 20 Argentine cities to several domestic destinations each plus international routes to southern South America extending north to Peru, including: 

* Bolivia - Cochabamba (CBB), La Paz (LPB) and Santa Cruz de la Sierra (VVI) 

* Brazil - Belo Horizonte (CNF), Brasilia (BSB), Curitiba (CWB), Florianopolis (FLN), Porto Alegre (POA), Rio de Janeiro Galeao (GIG), Sao Paulo Guarulhos (GRU) and Viracopos (VCP)

* Chile - Santiago (SCL) plus about another dozen cities 

* Paraguay - Asuncion (ASU)

* Peru - Lima (LIM) and Cuzco (CUZ)

* Uruguay - Montevideo (MVD)

These were to be in addition to routes obtained through the purchase of Alas del Sur.

First A320 Delivered

Jetsmart Argentina's first aircraft, A320-322, LV-HEK (msn 8599) "Huemul", arrived in Cordoba (COR) Argentina on 13Dec18 on delivery from the Airbus factory in Hamburg, Germany.  It was the first time that a brand new A320 was registered in Argentina, with all other A320's previously on the Argentine register (nearly all with LAN / LATAM Argentina) having flown elsewhere beforehand.  

LV-HEK featured a "Huemul" (South Andean Deer) on its tail, following the practice of Frontier Airlines and Jetsmart Chile, both also part of the Indigo Partners group of carriers, of placing wildlife images on their aircraft tails.   

The aircraft featured 186 seats with no recline possible although the factory-delivered seat position had some recline already built in.  No USB ports or Wi-Fi capability was offered. Operating for a ULCC offering no food service, the plane had no ovens, which allowed room for a second lavatory in the aircraft rear, adjacent to the galley.  

LV-HEK stayed in Cordoba (COR) for a few days to complete procedures for the granting of Jetsmart Argentina's AOC, which, once completed, saw the plane continue on to Chile, where it joined the Jetsmart Chile fleet on a temporary basis, operating its first revenue flight for the carrier from Santiago (SCL) to Puerto Montt (PMC) on 01Jan19, apparently still carrying an LV registration without being reregistered in Chile.    

Jetsmart Chile - Flying to Argentina

In mid-July 2018, the Argentina ANAC aviation administration authorized Jetsmart Chile to start flying between Chile and Argentina, presumably between Santiago and Buenos Aires El Palomar (EPA), with no designated start date.

The first operations by Jetsmart Chile to Argentina were as follows:

* 17Dec18 - Santiago (SCL) to Mendoza (MDZ)

* 21Dec18 - Santiago (SCL) to Cordoba (COR)

* 21Dec18 - Mendoza (MDZ) to La Serena (LSC) on a seasonal basis

* 27Dec18 - Santiago (SCL) to Buenos Aires El Palomar (EPA)

21Dec18 from Cordoba (COR) to La Serena (LSC) was also scheduled to happen but the editor of this blog was not able to confirm that it actually started.

The most important of these routes was from SCL to EPA linking the capitals of Chile and Argentina with a planned 11x/weekly flights between the two cities. 

Jetsmart Chile - Low Airfares

Jetsmart Chile offered very affordable airfares with the sample lowest fare between El Palomar (EPA) and Santiago (SCL) round-trip in January 2019 being approx. USD 90 with no carry-on or checked baggage (only a small personal item allowed for free).

Taxes / Fees for a typical ticket EPA to SCL or v.v. round-trip: 

* Carry-on Bag - approx. USD 15 RT

* Checked Bag - approx. USD 15 RT

* Seat choice - USD 5 OW

* Chile taxes - approx. USD 30 RT

* Argentina taxes - approx. USD 40 RT

Note that the Chilean and Argentine taxes added up to USD 70, much more than the base fare of only USD 20.  The same taxes applied to a 2-3 hour regional flight within South America as to a USD 1,000 ticket from Buenos Aires to Europe, which led Estuardo Ortiz, CEO of Jetsmart Chile, to complain that the taxes needed to be lowered to take into account the short distances being flown by his carrier.

Jetsmart Argentina - Route Approvals

Word came in January 2019 that the ANAC Argentine aviation authority approved nearly all of the 276 routes that Jetsmart Argentina requested at the 05Oct18 route hearings with the additional note that all of the approvals for routes out of Buenos Aires were valid for any of the city's three airports; Aeroparque (AEP), Ezeiza (EZE) and El Palomar (EPA).  The approvals were valid for fifteen years.  While WJ would likely never operate anywhere near 276 routes, having approvals on that many would give the carrier the option of choosing where to fly.  The carrier hoped to have five aircraft flying by mid-year with 25 routes operational by the end of 2019.    

Jetsmart Argentina - Three A320's & First Flights

Jetsmart Argentina aimed to start service in April 2019 and with that in mind, A320 LV-HEK, which had been flying for Jetsmart Chile, was ferried from Santiago (SCL) to El Palomar (EPA) on 01Apr19.  

The carrier's second A320, LV-IVO (c/n 8838) "Cardenal", sporting a colorful Cardinal on its tail was officially delivered to WJ on 01Apr19 and ferried from Santiago (SCL) to El Palomar (EPA) on 04Apr19.  

Jetsmart Argentina's very first revenue flight was flown by LV-IVO from El Palomar (EPA) to Mendoza (MDZ) on 10Apr19.  

LV-IVO also flew the inaugural from El Palomar (EPA) to Neuquen (NQN) on 11Apr19.

LV-HEK operated its first revenue flight for WJ from El Palomar (EPA) to Cordoba (COR) on 12Apr19, which was also the company's inaugural flight to COR. 

WJ's third A320, LV-HVT (c/n 8574) "Jaguar", was transferred from the Jetsmart Chile fleet to Jetsmart Argentina and ferried to El Palomar (EPA) on 15Apr19.  Its first revenue flight was from El Palomar (EPA) to Neuquen (NQN) on 18Apr19.

In addition to the El Palomar (EPA) to Mendoza (MDZ), Neuquen (NQN) and Cordoba (COR) routings mentioned above, tickets went on sale for nine other routes, including five directly between cities of the "Interior" without passing through Buenos Aires:   

* El Palomar (EPA) - Salta (SLA) - eff 23Apr19 - scheduled

* Cordoba (COR) - Salta (SLA) - eff 25Apr19 - scheduled

* Cordoba (COR) - Neuquen (NQN) - eff 30Apr19 - scheduled

* El Palomar (EPA) - Tucuman (TUC) - eff 07May19 - scheduled

* El Palomar (EPA) - Bariloche (BRC) - eff 23May19 - confirmed

* El Palomar (EPA) - Iguazu (IGR) - eff 18Jun19 - confirmed

* Cordoba (COR) - Bariloche (BRC) - eff 19Jun19 - scheduled

Cordoba (COR) - Mendoza (MDZ)

* Neuquen (NQN) - Tucuman (TUC)

Other routes that were scheduled to start in the first couple of months of service:

* Mendoza (MDZ) - Salta (SLA) - eff 23Apr19 - scheduled

* Cordoba (COR) - Tucuman (TUC) - eff 09May19 - scheduled

* Neuquen (NQN) - Mendoza (MDZ) - eff 09May19 - scheduled

* Neuquen (NQN) - Salta (SLA) - eff 09May19 - scheduled

* Mendoza (MDZ) - Bariloche (BRC) - eff 19Jun19 - scheduled                           

* Salta (SLA) - Iguazu (IGR) - eff 19Jun19 - confirmed

Note that eleven of WJ's first eighteen routes were set to bypass Buenos Aires, directly linking cities of the Argentine "Interior".

During its first month of service in April, Jetsmart Argentina operated 99 flights carrying over 13,000 passengers.  

By June, it had operated over 500 flights carrying 54,500 passengers with an on-time performance of 84.5%.

El Palomar (EPA) Curfew

A few months after starting service, Jetsmart Argentina, along with Flybondi, encountered a setback to its operations out of El Palomar (EPA) when a federal court ruled that commercial flights out of the facility had to adhere to a 10:00pm to 7:00am curfew.  This ruling interfered with WJ's flight schedules requiring extensive modifications, including an overall reduction in the number of systemwide flights, creating an additional challenge to achieving profitability. 

The restriction was intended to reduce the noise exposure to the residential communities surrounding EPA but there seemed to be political motivations too as some of the groups objecting to flights at the airport apparently included members with ties to Aerolineas Argentinas and to political opposition groups that did not favor an opening of Argentine skies.    

Fourth A320 & Continued Growth

Nonetheless, Jetsmart Argentina continued to grow with plans to add the following routes, including a heavy emphasis on Iguazu Waterfalls, one of Argentina's most popular tourist destinations: 

El Palomar (EPA) - Ushuaia (USH)

Cordoba (COR) - Iguazu (IGR) - eff 20Nov19 2x/weekly - scheduled

Mendoza (MDZ) - Iguazu (IGR) 

Rosario (ROS) - Iguazu (IGR) 

Rosario (ROS) - Mendoza (MDZ)    

These new flights were made possible by the addition of a fourth A320 to Jetsmart Argentina's fleet, LV-IVN (c/n 8730) "Zorro Culpeo", with a fox on its tail, on 15Nov19.  LV-IVN's first revenue flight was from El Palomar (EPA) to Salta (SLA) on 20Nov19.    

Purchase of Norwegian Air Argentina

Jetsmart Argentina announced on 04Dec19 that it would buy Norwegian Air Argentina.  This did not come as too much of a surprise because there had been  rumors to this effect and it was not possible to buy tickets on Norwegian's website for travel beyond 28Mar20.

WJ's main reasons for buying Norwegian Air Argentina appear to have been the following: 

* Acquire NAA's takeoff /landing slots at Buenos Aires Aeroparque (AEP). 

* Grow quickly by adding NAA's fully-trained employees and operational infrastructure all at once instead of through internal growth. 

* Keep NAA's operation out of the hands of competitors, such as Flybondi. 

* Another possible motivation was to eliminate a competitor by buying them, although this was probably a lesser goal since it was expected that Norwegian was going to shut down NAA anyway. 

Norwegian's main reasons for selling NAA were: 

* A need for profitability in the short term which appeared unlikely.

* Mounting debt of Norwegian Air (parent company). 

* Devaluation of the Argentine peso, which made NAA's USD-denominated operating costs a lot more expensive while the carrier could not increase airfares to its Argentine passengers who made peso salaries that did not grow in step with the airline's increase in costs.

* The Argentine economy was suffering from a deepening recession.

* Argentine presidential elections in October 2019 which were won by the opposition party that favored Aerolineas Argentinas and was not likely to be supportive of the "Revolution of the Airplanes" started by the Macri administration. 

Employees - Problems Incorporating NAA Staff to Jetsmart Argentina

WJ apparently intended to add all 200 of NAA's employees to its own payroll but the working conditions and compensation at WJ were not as generous as those of NAA so negotiations ran into difficulties.  WJ absorbed NAA's flights at Aeroparque and continued operations there even as it continued to negotiate with NAA's labor unions but no agreement had been reached by March 2020 when all activities were suspended due to COVID-19. 

NAA Slots at Aeroparque (AEP) - Problems Acquiring Authorizations

Probably the biggest reason for Jetsmart Argentina's purchase of Norwegian Air Argentina was to acquire NAA's slots at Buenos Aires Aeroparque (AEP), which is a congested airport, mostly on the ground due to insufficient space to park aircraft but also due to not having all of the most modern navigational aids for its single runway. 

There were differing viewpoints on whether WJ was entitled to NAA's former slots but to the editor of this blog it seems that WJ would have likely had a stronger argument had it kept the NAA organization as a separate operating entity with its own aircraft, employees and Air Operator's Certificate. 

The arrangement started that way with Jetsmart Argentina operating as Jetsmart Airlines out of El Palomar (EPA) with its A320's and the former Norwegian Air Argentina flying as Jetsmart Regional from Aeroparque (AEP) using its 737-800's (although one source had the new carrier names the other way around).

However, the ex-NAA 737-800's were operating on leases from the Norwegian parent carrier which were due to expire after a few months with the aircraft returning to Europe for the summer high season.  The departing aircraft were going to be replaced with additional A320's joining the Jetsmart Argentina fleet.  

WJ maintained the two carriers' reservations systems separate for travel up to 28Mar20 but all travel from 29Mar20 onwards was to be booked exclusively on the Jetsmart Argentina website.

With the Norwegian Air Argentina brand disappearing and most of its operating structure being dismantled, the remaining operation consisted of Jetsmart Argentina plus the former NAA employees and the one and only route that WJ inherited from NAA that it had not flown on its own, from Buenos Aires to Jujuy (JUJ).  

Those opposed to the "Revolution of the Airplanes", including Aerolineas Argentinas' labor unions and the ANAC aviation authority under the incoming President Alberto Fernandez administration (the previous opposition) argued that Jetsmart Argentina was only entitled to the route rights that it obtained when it purchased Alas del Sur but none of the former Norwegian Air Argentina routes (note that some of the routes awarded to WJ at the 05Oct18 hearings were from Aeroparque but that seems to have been overlooked).     

Those opposing NAA's Aeroparque slots going to Jetsmart Argentina were joined by the airlines that had given up slots at Aeroparque to NAA when it came onto the market; namely Andes, LATAM Argentina and Aerolíneas Argentinas, which now asked for their slots back.

These different interpretations of the Aeroparque slot rights and the controversies that resulted had not been resolved at the time that COVID-19 stopped all commercial flights to, from and within Argentina.  

Since then, a federal court ruled in July 2020 that Jetsmart Argentina could fly NAA's former routes out of Aeroparque with its own aircraft.

Aeroparque was closed in recent months for a widening and major extension of its only runway with all operations being transferred to Buenos Aires Ezeiza (EZE) when flying resumed in the country in late October 2020.  With AEP not expected to reopen until March 2021, the situation with Jetsmart Argentina's hoped-for Aeroparque rights will probably have to wait a couple of more months to be resolved.    

As a side note, all three ex-Norwegian Air Argentina's 737-800's are currently parked at Buenos Aires Ezeiza (EZE), apparently not having flown back to Europe where they were not needed this past northern hemisphere summer because of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Flights Resume in November 2020

After seven months with no regularly scheduled flights operating to/from airports in Argentina, Aerolineas Argentinas resumed the first such flights on 22Oct20, with Jetsmart Argentina following in November when it introduced the following service:      

* 19Nov20 - Buenos Aires Ezeiza (EZE) - Neuquen (NQN) - Bariloche (BRC) - 2x/weekly - Confirmed

* 20Nov20 - Buenos Aires Ezeiza (EZE) - Tucuman (TUC) - Salta (SLA) - 2x/weekly

* 20Nov20 - Buenos Aires Ezeiza (EZE) - Cordoba (COR) - Mendoza (MDZ) - 2x/weekly

More flights were added in December:

* 04Dec20 - Buenos Aires (Ezeiza) – Iguazú (IGR) - Confirmed
* 05Dec20 - 
Buenos Aires (Ezeiza) – Ushuaia (USH) – Confirmed 

* 14Dec20 - Salta (SLA) – Neuquén (NQN) - Confirmed 
* 17Dec20 - Córdoba (COR) – Bariloche (BRC) - Confirmed

* 22Dec20 - Neuquén (NQN) – Rosario (ROS) – Confirmed 

In January, WJ is scheduled to operate 502 flights with its four-strong A320 fleet. 

Further postings will follow on new developments with Jetsmart Argentina in the coming months.


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