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Regional air travel: industry update

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Central American countries, as well as Colombia, are stepping up efforts towards increased air connectivity, both within the region and to international destinations.

El Salvador will be the first country to offer cheap interregional flights through VECA Airlines, a company partly funded by Venezuelan aid funds.

The move is part of the Central American Parliament's open skies initiative, which wants regional governments to reduce the cost of domestic and interregional flights.

El Salvador last December announced its intention to become the region's air hub.

Plans include investing some $500 million to revamp its international airport.

Honduran airline Sosa (only in Spanish) began operating direct flights last month between the Honduran cities of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, and the capital of Guatemala.

The airline previously only operated within Honduras, and to the Cayman Islands.

For international markets, the region's leaders are Panama's Copa and Colombia's Avianca.

Copa has been adding more flights since 2013, when it launched direct services to Tampa, Boston and Las Vegas.

In January this year, the company announced three more: Montreal, Canada; Georgetown, Guyana; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

It was named best Central American and Caribbean airline for the sixth time by UK consultancy firm SkyTrax.

The airline's passenger traffic grew 14 percent in the second half of 2013.

Last year, Colombian carrier Avianca started an aggressive expansion campaign to connect not only Colombia to international destinations, but also connectivity for Central American passengers.

In the second half of 2013, Avianca launched flights from El Salvador to Chicago and from Honduras to New Jersey, as well as starting direct flights from Bogotá to Guatemala and adding more Nicaragua services. In November, the airline launched a campaign to promote tourism to Central America, offering discounted tickets to El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

Avianca's other big move was to the start next July of direct flights from Bogotá to London.

With a free trade agreement with the European Union, and Colombia and Mexico's influence through the Pacific Alliance, air connectivity in the region is set to continue to grow.

But there will be bumps along the way.

Guatemala recently approved a $15 fee on air journeys entering or leaving the country, taking the tourism sector by surprise.

The new tax aims to reinforce security by investing in more modern equipment, said the Government.

In a similar move, the Honduran government approved an 18 percent tax on first-class air tickets, causing some 10,000 Canadian and Italian passengers to cancel their holidays to Roatán.