Colombia: Reactivation of international flights will be 20% in the first phase
After the first “inaugural” flight from Cartagena, this will be the week of reactivation of international flights in Colombia, which finally received the green light from the National Government for their takeoff, after almost five months of border closures due to the spread of the Covid-19.
This first phase will begin with about 20% of the frequencies that were available before the pandemic, to evaluate the capacity of reaction of the different air terminals that have been approved for the resumption of flights: Bogota, Cartagena, Rionegro and Cali.
This was explained by the Minister of Transport, Angela Maria Orozco, in an interview with Colprensa, who highlighted the guidelines that these flights will have and announced a new phase for the development of domestic flights at the end of this month.
How is the reactivation of the sector progressing in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic?
During the first half of September, all activities were resumed with the respective biosafety protocols and this allowed the reestablishment of domestic air transport, as well as inter-municipal transport, no longer subject to pilot plans. During this time, 1,623 flights were made, carrying 136,973 passengers. As of September 15, the airports with the greatest movement are Bogotá, Rionegro, Cartagena and Cali, followed by San Andrés, Santa Marta, Bucaramanga and Pereira.
It is necessary to remember that in this first part there are 16 airports that have been enabled for the resumption of this gradual reactivation that has been developed with total normality, with strict compliance with the biosecurity protocols approved by the Ministry of Health. In fact, there have been reports of cases in which the protocols have had to be activated and this has operated fully.
How do you qualify this first phase of the flights, taking into account what you say about the cases in which the protocols have had to be activated?
Quite positively. The adoption of the biosafety protocol guarantees that the activity can be carried out, but it does not guarantee that there will not be cases of people with Covid, because there are people who are asymptomatic, so it must be stressed that it is important to use the mouthpiece, the antibacterial gel, everything that the protocol entails. We have to understand that we are in a moment of responsible individual distancing and it is not that there is no risk, but that if the proper protocols are taken, these risks are reduced and that is what we do, follow up on the way these protocols are carried out in order to act if a case occurs.
The message of the protocols is that when the Ministry of Health issues them, it is because it is confident that you can carry out the activity safely, obviously if you keep your distance in the waiting rooms, if you use your mask all the time, that is why a series of measures are dictated to comply fully within the air terminals and the planes, in order to minimize risks.
Considering that the reactivation has been positive and the protocols have been working in a successful way, when do you plan to move to a second phase of domestic flights?
There is a second phase that has already been mentioned by the Civil Aeronautics, where the 31 airports that are needed would be reactivated and it would be from September 26th. It is basically regional connectivity, direct routes between regions where there is no easy way to get there by land or where, even, only airlines such as Satena or EasyFly operate. This could not be done until all the necessary visits were made by the Aerocivil to ensure that the airfields and airports complied with biosafety protocols.
The green light has been given for international flights. How will this reopening take place?
The Ministry of Health issued the concept at the end of August and we are working to define this first gradual phase of connectivity. Several aspects were taken into account: first, the freedom of the other countries; second, the capacity of the airports to operate the flights with the biosecurity protocols; and third, the interest of the operators and airlines for this reestablishment. Bearing this in mind, Aerocivil asked the airlines on September 9th to operate international flights and they had until the 12th to present it and this week they are announcing how the concept of health slots is being distributed, which is what allows us to balance the capacity to operate airports with compliance with biosafety protocols.
When does this first phase of international flights finally start, on September 19th or 21st?
On September 19 in Cartagena we will have two return flights, but on Monday this first phase begins, involving four airports: Cali, Rionegro, Bogota and Cartagena, and flights can be made within the hemisphere, that is, to the United States, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Guatemala. At this time we continue to visit the other international airports with Migración Colombia, because the capacity of the slots also involves the ability to receive travelers, so as to avoid congestion; and we will continue to evaluate the other destinations as long as the conditions for opening the borders allow it.
It had been announced beforehand that flights could start, more or less, on September 1st. Why the delay?
The reason for the delay is because it was time to do this exercise at the airports and in the destination countries, and also because the Ministry of Health had to issue the biosafety protocol with the new guidelines for the entry of international travelers. That protocol was adopted last Monday and involves the requirement of negative test of Covid-19 PCR, maximum with 96 hours of anticipation of boarding. It also presents details on how Migration Colombia will operate, the recommendations before, during and after the flight. However, the most important thing there is the requirement of the test, that is the big difference with national flights, in the other cases they are operational.
Why was Cartagena chosen to start with international flights on September 19th?
Because the Mayor of Cartagena had been asking the National Government for two months to open international flights and obviously because of the importance of the tourist sector, that is what Cartagena lives on, so it was agreed to start in a symbolic way for this city and it is also the way to send a message about the importance of the gradual restoration of tourism with the proper biosecurity protocols.
How many flights and how many frequencies will there be in this first phase of reopening?
The exact information of airlines and routes will be given by the Civil Aeronautics these days, what I understand is that they are the airlines that had been operating flights as long as the slots allow it for the countries we are announcing. We will probably find the same airlines that were operating, unless the slots do not allow it. This has been a very judicious process and the idea is that on those routes where there is only one operator, connectivity is maintained and other destinations where there are several operators, competition is guaranteed, that is what it is all about.
How much will the number of frequencies be reduced?
The number will be much lower, the estimate we have is that it would be a maximum of 20% of the operation that was in place before the Covid, because what we are measuring is the capacity to process the flights without generating congestion, neither at the entrance nor at the exit or in the processing of people at the airport. It is going to be much less than what we traditionally have, we estimate that it will not be more than 20%.
What is your estimate of the recovery?
The truth is very difficult to estimate, I can only count what we see in the countries. There are many countries that never closed their flights, there are others that reactivated them and there are others that are reactivating them. What we have found is that in reality it does not go beyond a demand of 10 to 12%, that is what we are seeing, people travel more out of necessity or because they are going to study or because they are going to work, but in reality we are seeing is that it is a very gradual reactivation because of the same user demand.
For international flights, PCR tests will be requested. Will it be for those who leave as well as those who enter the country?
No. The only requirement in the protocol is the test for travelers entering Colombia. What airlines will demand for departing passengers, besides complying with the biosecurity protocols, will be what they demand in the destination country. There are countries in Latin America that demand Covid’s test, but this will be a requirement that the airline will have to verify, according to the demands of the other countries.
When do you think this first phase of reopening can take place?
What I can tell you is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is talking to some European countries to see how the connections would be. It did not estimate that before 15 days we could talk about new destinations, but it could be. The important thing, as I say, is that this first phase is going to be gradual and progressive, as is the reactivation in Colombia. With Covid’s negative test, the Ministry of Health is confident that international connectivity can be gradually reestablished, but as I say, it is a limited and gradual connectivity, looking at how we have the operational capacity to manage the flights safely and continue to comply with biosecurity protocols.
With this issue of flights, the issue of the National Government’s rescue of Avianca continues to haunt public opinion. What analysis do you make?
What I have reiterated in the media is that according to the Fedesarrollo public study 45% of Colombia’s internal connectivity is done by Avianca, which reflects that if Avianca disappeared it would take the country at least five years to reconnect that connectivity. Not only because of the number of planes but also because of the way the airline operates, picking up the demand in Bogotá. No low-cost airline has the capacity at this time to say that it buys its planes or leases its planes, starting with no liquidity resources for this sector.
Now, the position of the Ministry of Finance is that it was willing to support the airlines if they were willing to restructure as they are restructuring all over the world, so we are also in talks with EasyFly, which is also in a process of restructuring. Now we are waiting for the judge’s decision, we are putting in the necessary resources, because if Avianca Colombia is not there it would be at a similar level of connectivity as it was during the airline strike.
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