High-flying bargains in Latin America

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Travel to Latin America has been on the upswing as countries there look to tourism for economic growth, and tour operators in the United States and Canada offer exotic vacations to the south. But until recently, getting around within Latin America -- even in popular countries such as Mexico -- was a hassle often involving multiple plane changes or long bus rides over rough roads.

Now, thanks to an increase in low-cost airlines in Brazil and Mexico, which account for 60 percent of Latin America's air traffic, it's getting easier to jet around.

In the past two years, at least five new low-cost carriers, including Click Mexicana, InterJet and Volaris, have started service in Mexico, according to ALTA, the Latin American Air Transport Association. And the low-cost airlines GOL Linhas Aereas Inteligentes, BRA and WebJet now account for more than 40 percent of Brazil's domestic market.

Even some budget carriers from the United States have begun expanding to Latin America. Spirit Airlines started service to San Jose, Costa Rica, on April 5 and plans to serve Guatemala City from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Los Angeles beginning this week. It also has filed for service to Caracas, Venezuela, and to Lima and Chiclayo in Peru.

JetBlue, which flies to Cancun, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, hasn't announced plans for other routes to Latin America, but Sebastian White, a spokesman, wrote in an e-mail message that the airline is "constantly evaluating new routes," and Latin America "is certainly an attractive market."

In Baltimore, Mexicana Airlines suspended flights last week from BWI Marshall Airport to Mexico City, because of a "restructuring" that will redirect its fleet to "strengthen its domestic network." Jonathan Dean, BWI spokesman, said Mexicana faces heavy competition from new discount carriers in Mexico and needs to bolster service there.

In Mexico, said Alex de Gunten, executive director of ALTA, "the typical joke about two years ago was that everybody and their mother was starting a low-cost carrier." The jump in budget airlines, he said, "has meant more competition in a number of routes and translated to better deals for U.S. consumers."

Volaris, for example, has been advertising one-way domestic fares on its Web site, volaris.com.mx, at prices as low as 769 Mexican pesos, or about $70, between Toluca Airport, 40 miles from Mexico City, and Aguascalientes from April 16 to May 13 (for the San Marcos National Fair) and less than $25 between Puebla and Tijuana from May 18 to June 18. Alma de Mexico, which flies to 13 destinations in Mexico, has been advertising flights between San Jose del Cabo and Guadalajara for about $120 at alma.com.mx. And a recent search on Click Mexicana's Web site, clickmx.com, for flights in May from Mexico City to tourist cities such as Merida and Zihuatanejo, turned up one-way fares for less than $99, with taxes and fees.

There are also new direct flights replacing connections that previously required stops or plane changes. For example, vacationers planning to sightsee in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, and then hit the sand in Cancun, used to have to stop in Mexico City. Now Click, a subsidiary of Mexicana Airlines, which advertises leather seats with 35 inches of legroom as Coach Plus, flies nonstop between Guadalajara and Cancun.

The new nonstop routes "make it very attractive to travelers coming from cities, that otherwise would require a very long trip, to come to Cancun," said Arturo Escaip Manzur, chief executive of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau, which attributes an increase in domestic travelers to new direct flights from budget airlines and plans to promote the routes in marketing campaigns. "A stop in Mexico City," he said, "might make them choose another location."

Ben Gritzewsky, a travel agent who specializes in Mexico at Frosch Vacations in Houston, said he tended to book with major airlines such as Aeromexico or Mexicana because of their mileage program partnerships and ease of booking, but also noted that there were a few routes between second- and third-tier cities that the larger carriers don't cover.

Like most low-cost carriers in the United States, the Latin American budget airlines are generally of the no-frills variety, offering a single class of seats, serving snacks instead of meals, and keeping costs down with low maintenance and high efficiency.

Booking can be a challenge if you don't speak Spanish. Only a few have agreements with companies such as Worldspan and Sabre, which distribute fare information to United States travel agents or familiar discount Web sites such as Expedia. And since their business is primarily geared toward domestic travelers, few offer their own Web sites in English or take American Express credit cards.

Volaris, which offers flights to 14 destinations in Mexico including Cancun, Los Cabos and Morelia, is one of the few that does both. Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes, which serves 49 destinations in Brazil and also flies to Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and Peru, also offers booking in English (www.voegol.com.br). Outside Brazil, it accepts only American Express cards or, at a ticket counter, cash.

The Latin American carriers are regulated by civil aviation authorities in their own countries. "They've been very strict," said Alex de Gunten, of the Latin American Air Transport Association, in enforcing their regulations. Last month the Mexican government suspended operations of the low-cost carrier Lineas Aereas Azteca because it failed to comply with safety, administrative and technical rules, the Associated Press reported. Azteca, which has 90 days to correct the problems, is the second low-cost carrier to be grounded by the government in the past year. Aero California was suspended in April 2006 for failing to meet safety standards. It corrected its violations and has resumed some flights.

Last fall, a Boeing 737 operated by Gol crashed in the Amazon, killing all 154 people aboard. Investigations of the crash, which is believed to have been caused by a collision with a small business jet, are continuing.

As low-cost carriers continue to take off in Latin America, they are gaining a greater share of the overall market. In the fourth quarter of last year, Gol accounted for more than a third of the Brazilian air market. At the end of March, the company bought Varig, once Brazil's largest airline.

But as the low-cost carriers grow, the boundaries between them and older airlines are blurring. "Gol entered the market strong and with this idea of low cost," said Augusto Simas, managing director at Travel Place, a travel agency in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But as the company expanded, he said, its prices went up slightly, and its competitors' prices went down a little bit. "Now," he said, "they're kind of balanced."

Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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