The new airline Gran Colombia de Aviación, GCA, had to face a turbulent beginning, because a few months after starting operations in the country, a pandemic emerged that forced the closure of the airports and the grounding of the planes.
But this did not stop the company that today is resuming operations from Cali, connecting it to Barranquilla, on a first route to which others will be added in the coming days.
Andrés Felipe Botero, manager of this airline that has a Venezuelan businessman as investor, tells in an interview to El País that during the last months they have been prepared with the security protocols and that they start with the expectation of being an alternative to connect the passengers of the southwest of the country with destinations in the Atlantic Coast and the Colombian east.
When was Gran Colombia Airlines born?
It was founded in August 2017. Initially it was thought to have the city of Ibagué as its base of operations, but due to a commercial strategy of the company, it was considered that the best decision was to move the base of operations to Cali and we operated in the Alfonso Bonilla Aragon Airport.
We have only one shareholder, which is Jorge Áñez Dagger, also owner of the Venezuelan Avior Airlines, which has been in operation for more than 25 years, and who is passionate about the country and has made a huge investment in Colombia to put the airline in operation.
After more than two years of certification we obtained the operating permit on November 26th last year and made our first flight on November 29th between Cali-Cartagena. Later, we quickly incorporated additional routes to Barranquilla and Cartagena-Bucaramanga and during the months of December and January we had a good occupancy factor, but unfortunately the pandemic arrived.
Did you think about changing your plans when you had to stop operations a few months after starting because of the closure of the airports?
This is an atypical and unfortunate situation that no one can control or make specific projections. When in March the total cessation of national and international operations was decreed, we initially thought it would be for one month, and then the issue was postponed month by month.
In spite of the pressure and constant talks with the Civil Aeronautics and the Government, only until this month was the sale of tickets allowed. The effects are devastating because maintaining a company that is generating zero income in six months is very difficult.
However, on the part of the shareholders and the board of directors a very big effort was made and it was possible, in spite of the situation, to keep the airline afloat and reactivate us now.
What did you do during these months, what happened with the employees?
We currently have 101 employees. When the pandemic started there were 115 of us and we didn’t fire any of them, those who left for different reasons. But based on the legal provisions we suspended the work contracts because, in the event of a force majeure, it was impossible to sustain the payments for an undetermined time because there was no specific recovery date.
During this time, the ground and onboard personnel were trained in biosafety protocols, spaces were adapted, protection implements were acquired, and in general the company was ready to start flying.
What routes do you start with today?
It’s a big gamble and we’re ready to start flying. Considering the contraction of the market and the current situation that is being seen in the country, we want to start with an operation adjusted to the market, we will fly Mondays and Fridays in the routes Cali-Barranquilla-Cali, they are two weekly frequencies, in principle, and on October 15th we hope to incorporate other routes that have already been authorized by the Aerocivil as Cali-Cartagena, Cali-San Andres and Cali-Bucaramanga.
You are a small airline, it is an ambitious bet to compete in this business.
If you look at the market figures in Colombia before the pandemic, you can see that it was growing. Avianca has 51% and there is still a lot to catch and we bet to connect the southwest with the east and north of the country without passing through Bogota and that is what generates some advantages for the passenger because he will not lose connection time and will have affordable and adequate rates to the competition.
In Colombia there is a lot of market to exploit and explore and this can be seen with the growth that existed before the pandemic and with the appearance of several airlines like Viva Air and us.
What fleet do you start the operation with?
The company operates with Boing 737-400 aircraft, which have a capacity for 144 passengers, 12 in the plus cabin and 132 in the economy cabin.
We have a diversification with an offer of services adjusted to the needs of the passengers, with four fares that allow them to travel easily and peacefully. If you travel light, if you want to travel with luggage, if you want business class, our idea is to break the scheme of the air market and avoid that the passenger has to have so many inconveniences when changing their tickets, we want to be more flexible and friendly with the passengers.
How competitive are the fares?
We start with a mini fare of $139,800 per trip on the Cali-Barranquilla route or $250.00 round trip. But we are very flexible, depending on how the passenger wants to travel.
We launched the campaign ‘Alas a la Esperanza’ (Wings of Hope), which invites travelers to fly wherever their dreams take them, and to encourage the reunion they have surely been waiting for several months.
We also offer the possibility to book and pay for the ticket 72 hours before the flight departure.
What is the growth perspective of GCA Airlines?
To have a break-even point we have to have a minimum occupancy of 65%, that is to say that we have to have about 70 passengers on each flight to get ahead and we are betting on surpassing that. We hope that after the announcements of the National Government the market will react and we will start to see very soon the occupancy rates that we had before the pandemic.
In 2021 we expect to have four aircraft and reach about 200 monthly frequencies on direct flights from Cali.