Saturday, April 26, 2014

Brazil's Azul airlines eyes South Florida airports as part of U.S. launch in 2015: Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood has long wished for nonstop Brazil service

For South Floridians with ties to Brazil, a new avenue for traveling to the country known for its samba dance, Rio Carnival showcase and strong U.S. trade relations could soon open up.

Azul Brazilian Airlines announced Wednesday it plans to launch flights to the U.S. by early 2015 from a new $1.5 billion terminal at Sao Paulo/Campinas Airport, operating an initial fleet of six Airbus A330-200 aircraft.

"Our customers have been asking for this," Azul CEO and founder David Neeleman said in a statement. "We're excited to share the Azul experience with new customers internationally and expand the airline's success story beyond Brazil's borders."

The Brazilian low-cost carrier is eyeing international airports in Fort Lauderdale or Miami as well as Orlando to begin flights to America, the Wall Street Journal reported. And flights to New York, probably John F. Kennedy International Airport could be added by spring 2015.

Neeleman also founded New York-based JetBlue Airways in 1998 and served as its CEO until early 2007. Today JetBlue is the top carrier at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, with 18.9 percent passenger traffic in February, the most recent data available.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood officials welcomed news of Azul's interest, having long wished to add nonstop Brazil service to its international route network.

"We've had Brazil on the radar for many, many years," said Steve Belleme, the airport's business development manager, noting its joint efforts with local tourism officials to establish this direct link.

Brazilians are already visiting Broward in droves for its shopping, entertainment and vacation, and many are purchasing second homes here.

In 2013, the county welcomed 852,000 visitors from Latin America, the majority coming from Brazil, according to data from tourism bureau.

Belleme said research shows there are significantly more Brazilians living in Broward than in Miami-Dade County, which illustrates the potential of the Fort Lauderdale gateways for carriers like Azul.

"If they fly from here, there's no competition," said Belleme, noting that a handful of carriers already serve cities in Brazil from Miami. "There aren't any negatives to [Azul] coming here."

Although Azul's plans aren't yet finalized, "the outlook is very positive," added airport spokesman Greg Meyer. "We're optimistic we can make this work."

No carrier currently flies nonstop from the Fort Lauderdale airport to the South American country. However, American, TAM and Gol airlines operate flights from Miami to several Brazilian cities.

Officials at Miami International Airport however aren't saying no to more Brazil service.

"As the U.S. airport serving the most destinations in Brazil with more than 140 weekly flights to Brazil, we are more than able to accommodate Azul should they choose to begin operations at MIA," spokesman Greg Chin said. "The three passenger airlines that currently operate flights between Miami and Brazil continue to add routes and increase frequencies to our top international market, which in itself demonstrates the efficiency and profitability of Brazil air service at MIA."

Azul's U.S. launch announcement comes days before the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau hosts its "Beach Looks Good on You" consumer promotion in São Paulo on Tuesday.

"We welcome all new flights to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport with open arms, especially from Brazil, one of our largest and fastest growing international markets," said Nicki E. Grossman, bureau president. "With our new office in São Paulo soon to be announced, direct service on Azul would greatly enhance our growing presence in Brazil."