Etihad and Ethiopian plan services to Sao Paulo as Latin America-Asia market prepares to grow

Etihad Airways and Ethiopian Airlines intend to launch services to Sao Paulo, the economic heart of the rapidly growing Latin American market. While Sao Paulo is seeing increased capacity from a number of carriers, services from Etihad and Ethiopian are notable for the considerable transfer traffic they will have, including from Asia. Linking the high-growth economies of Asia with their Latin American counterparts has been alluring for many carriers, but distances and aircraft range limitations necessitate all services be one-stop.

Asia-Latin America's traditional, if small time, transfer hubs in North America and Europe have increasingly seen competition from the Middle East. That will be complemented in the next few years with hubs from Africa, first from East Africa and potentially later from West Africa.

Etihad to serve Sao Paulo by mid-2013

Etihad Airways has previously stated its intention to expand into South America in the near future, and recently said it would do so by mid-2013. CEO James Hogan revealed at a recent event in Australia that Sao Paulo will be the carrier's first South American destination.

Etihad intends to open the route with a daily service. It has not disclosed aircraft type, but the route will be served by either a Boeing 777-300ER or Airbus A340-500/600, the carrier's only ultra-long-haul aircraft until A380s and later 787s and A350s are delivered.

Etihad will be the third and final Middle East network carrier to serve Sao Paulo and the larger Latin American market. Emirates opened its Dubai-Sao Paulo service in 2007 and earlier this year opened a service to Buenos Aires via Rio de Janeiro. Both Emirates routes to Latin America are served daily.

Qatar Airways in 2010 opened service to Buenos Aires via Sao Paulo, which is also served daily. Emirates, Qatar and soon Etihad are among a select group of carriers in the world that serve every inhabited continent, giving them bragging rights as truly globally carriers.

Seats between the Middle East and Latin America: 23-Apr-2012 to 29-Apr-2012

Rank Airline Total Seats
1 EK Emirates 10,416
2 QR Qatar Airways 3,626

Etihad's capacity based on a single point served daily would be 3360 to 5758 weekly seats depending on aircraft type used. In terms of all airlines operating in Latin America, Emirates places 57th by seats while Qatar places 74th, according to CAPA's Innovata data. Looking just at capacity in lower South America, Emirates places 17th with its 10,416 weekly seats for current schedules and Qatar 24th with its 3,626 weekly seats.

Turkish Airlines, while not based in the Middle East but nearby with strong global transfer traffic, also serves Sao Paulo. Its four-weekly services on the Istanbul-Sao Paulo route give it 2192 seats. Turkish plans to extend its only Latin American route to also include Buenos Aires, starting in Jun-2012.

Ethiopian plans Sao Paulo service, with Kenya Airways to follow

Ethiopian Airlines, in a message to frequent flyers, recently announced its expansion to Sao Paulo but without providing details. The carrier will soon take delivery of its first batch of Boeing 787s, allowing it to place 787s on some of its 777-200LR routes (such as Guangzhou) and potentially re-deploy 777-200LRs to Sao Paulo. It also plans to receive in 2013 two 777-300ERs, which are expected to replace the 777-200LRs now used for Washington Dulles, freeing up 777-200LRs potentially for Sao Paulo.

Only three carriers link Africa directly with Latin America: South African Airways, TAAG of Angola and TACV of Cape Verde. (Other carriers, like Malaysia Airlines, have pulled out in recent times.) But several carriers - not only African carriers but also Indian and Chinese carriers - have expressed interest in opening links between Africa and Latin America.

The China-South America market particularly has huge potential and in future will likely be served via Africa rather than via Europe. Air China now serves Sao Paulo with two weekly flights via Madrid. But as Air China and other Chinese carriers look at launching services to Africa to meet growing demand for China-Africa services, they are also looking at the option of China-Africa-South America services which would meet growing demand for services in all three markets - China-Africa, Africa-South America and China-South America

The most significant capacity currently in the Africa-Latin America market is from SAA and TAAG, both located in southern Africa. But transfer opportunities to the rest of Africa are relatively limited. Ethiopian by contrast is building a stronger intra-Africa network. It is also rapidly expanding services to Asia, where it could look to facilitate Asia-Latin America traffic through its Addis Ababa hub.

Seats between Africa and Latin America: 23-Apr-2012 to 29-Apr-2012

Rank Airline Total Seats
1 SA South African Airways 6,272
2 DT TAAG 4,612
3 VR TACV 594

Increasingly becoming a formidable force is Kenya Airways, which plans to not only serve every African nation by the end of next year but every inhabited continent by 2017. It intends to launch thrice-weekly Nairobi-Sao Paulo service with 787s in FY2014/2015.

See related article: Rapidly expanding Kenya Airways charts growth with plan to serve every inhabited continent by 2017

Kenya Airways could pursue a potential partnership with Brazil's GOL, which is increasingly favouring SkyTeam carriers. While Ethiopian currently has a Brazilian ally in fellow Star Alliance member TAM, the newly combined LAN-TAM are expected to choose oneworld as their alliance. That makes a potential partnership less straight forward, although there is no oneworld service between Africa and Latin America or any intra-Africa service outside of southern Africa, where British Airways franchise Comair operates. A partnership, even over alliance lines, could be advantageous to both.

A hinderance to Ethiopian and Kenya Airways is that they will be limited in pulling traffic from central, north and west Africa, where routing from there to Latin America via Addis Ababa or Nairobi would involve significant backtracking. West Africa is an emerging dynamic market, with Arik Air having long-haul routes and Air Nigeria due to resume its long-haul network next month. While the focus has been on traditional long-haul markets like London and New York, service to Latin America in the medium-term is a possibility, especially as carriers start building networks across west Africa, allowing for O&D but also transfer traffic to the world's next aviation hot spot of Latin America.

See related article: Air Nigeria to resume long-haul network as West African aviation grows