These days U.S. legacy carriers are vying for their piece of the Latin America cake. The latest in line – United Airlines. Brazil’s Azul Linhas Aéreas is reportedly in talks to join United, along with Avianca Holdings and Copa Holdings, in a partnership for flights between the U.S. and Latin America. With Delta’s newly acquired 20% stake in Chilean carrier LATAM and American Airlines’ alleged negotiations with Brazil’s GOL, pursuing a deal with Azul may be the best step for United in this forming web of to-be alliances. But is Azul a good fit for United to compete with Delta’s new partnership?

The third largest airline in Brazil, Azul, has confirmed on October 14, 2019, that it is in talks to form a joint venture with United, Colombian airline Avianca and Panama’s Copa Airlines, according to a report by Reuters. The three members of Star Alliance announced in November 2018 a planned joint business agreement (JBA) to coordinate routes on the U.S.-Latin America market, and now, apparently, want Azul to join the table.

"This agreement represents the next chapter in U.S.-Latin American air travel," United's president Scott Kirby said in an official statement back in November 2018. "We are excited to work with our Star Alliance partners Avianca and Copa to bring much-needed competition and growth to many underserved markets while providing a better overall experience for business and leisure customers traveling across the Western Hemisphere”.

With the proposed venture, the carriers aim to serve more than 275 destinations throughout 19 countries in Central and South America as well as the U.S. According to Hernan Rincon, Avianca’s executive president and CEO, comment in the press release: "We are certain that together we are stronger in the United States – Latin America market than any of the three airlines individually".

The deal, however, has been delayed due to the uncertainty regarding Avianca’s financial situation and is yet to receive regulatory approval, as is Delta’s strategic partnership with GOL. Delta, together with the Brazilian carrier aim higher – the two airlines plan to serve 435 destinations worldwide and carry more passengers between North America and Latin America than “any other joint venture”, according to an official press release by the U.S. carrier. 

With or without Azul in their midst, when considering the viability of the planned partnership between United, Avianca and Copa, the Colombian company raises concerns. Earlier this year, Avianca (separate company from the defunct Avianca Brasil) saw a management overhaul due to the non-payment of $456 million loan from United, one of the controlling shareholders in the company.

Despite having embarked on a new transformation strategy, in the second quarter 2019, the airline posted an operating loss of $36 million. Things may pick up, however, now that Avianca successfully exchanged $475 million in bonds and has been promised a further $200 million loan from United and Kingsland Holdings, as Reuters reports.

United and Azul vs. Delta and LATAM

Brazil is South America’s largest and most competitive market, hence, U.S. legacy carriers – Delta, United and American Airlines – are flocking to the country, courting the largest three airlines in the market – LATAM (represented by LATAM Brasil), GOL and Azul. For Delta’s new partner LATAM, the biggest threat is the rise of the two low-cost carriers. 

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After American Airlines’ proposed venture with Chile’s LATAM Airlines Group was stopped in its tracks, in a true soap opera style, the U.S. carrier may once again be courting Brazilian low-cost carrier GOL Linhas Aereas Inteligentes to counter rival Delta Air Lines’ deal and continue on its South America strategy.
 

The possibility of getting Azul into United’s alliance is certainly appealing: the carrier operates a third of Brazil's daily flight departures and has the largest domestic network, serving more than 100 cities in the country, which is almost twice as much as competitors GOL and LATAM Brasil, as Azul itself states. And if “underserved markets” is a focal point, then Azul fits in quite well, having limited route overlap with the other two carriers.

With a diverse fleet of 130 aircraft, clocking an average age of 6.3 years, according to planespotters.net data, Azul operates the Airbus A320neo, A330, as well as ATR, Embraer E-Jet and Boeing 737 Freighter planes. In May 2019, the carrier became the first airline from Latin America to fly the A330-900, when it took delivery of the first A330neo on lease from Avolon. The key driver of profitability in long-haul markets, as Azul stresses, has been the A320neo, of which the carrier currently has 28 in its fleet.

Following the bankruptcy of Avianca Brasil in December 2018, Azul not only gained the majority of Avianca’s slots at São Paulo’s Congonhas Airport (CGH), but also leased 12 former Avianca Brasil A320neos to accelerate its fleet transformation and takeover a few of the defunct airline’s markets. As part of its fleet transformation, Azul will also be replacing its E-Jets with E2s starting October 2019.

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Azul has entered a non-binding agreement with a bankrupt Avianca Brasil to “acquire certain assets”.
 

But while Azul’s fleet, configured with 70 to 174 seats, is well positioned to serve the carrier’s broad domestic network, it would not serve well for long haul flights. With the exception of the airline’s A330s, all other Azul’s planes are in one cabin configuration. Also, the carrier’s long haul flights from the U.S. do not go directly to Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, and its busiest airports Guarulhos (GRU) and Congonhas (CGH), but rather, through its main hub Viracopos International Airport (VCP) in Campinas, located 100 km north of São Paulo.

The fact that United may have its eyes set on Azul is not surprising, as the two have been in partnership since 2015. In 2018, United increased its stake in the Brazilian carrier from the initial 3.7% to an 8% share. In July 2019, Azul also entered a code-sharing agreement with Avianca Holdings. Azul’s other code-share partners include TAP Air Portugal, which takes up around 26% of traffic between Brazil and Europe, as well as JetBlue in the U.S. Azul was established by former JetBlue Airways founder and CEO David Neeleman (in 2008), who is also the co-owner of TAP.