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Hey you all and welcome to the report of one of my favorite flights I've ever been in: Azul's first-ever operation in the Rio-São Paulo Ponte Aérea!
Before going to the flight, let me give you some insights on the "Ponte Aérea" operation.
The importance of the Ponte Aérea (Portuguese for "air bridge") in Brazil's economy is huge. Basically, it connects the two central airports of the largest corporate markets in the country; Santos Dumont Airport, in Rio, and Congonhas Airport, in São Paulo.
A wonderful article by Brazilian's Gianfranco "Panda" Beting, explains how the Ponte Aérea was born. You can read it (in Portuguese only) clicking HERE.
With less than nine years of operations, Real [Aerovias] was already the largest carrier in Brazil. It held the seventh position at IATA's ranking, the highest position a Brazilian airline has ever been. Only in the Rio-São Paulo route, the airline operated 15 daily flights in each direction. Some practices, such as paying a coffee to the luggage workers of the airports that could convince the passengers, in the way between the main hall and the airline counters, to change their airline tickets with other airlines for flights with Real.
More agressive actions like the ones practiced by Real didn't go unnoticed by the competitors. In the start of 1959, three managers at Congonhas, Carlos Ivan Siqueira (Varig), Juarez Xavier de Azevedo (Cruzeiro do Sul) and Antônio Deléo (Vasp) started to get worried with these and other tactics of Real. In the end of an afternoon they met at a table of the airport's restaurant, loosened ties, discussing Real's heterodox practices. They concluded they needed to work together to fight against Linneu's [Gomes, Real's founder] company advances.
Combined, Vasp, Cruzeiro and Varig operated more than 25 daily flights to Rio. The problem was many times the flights departed to the Cidade Maravilhosa simultaneously, with a low load-factor. Afterwards, two or three hours passed without any flights leaving to Rio. Wouldn't it make more sense to coordinate the departures avoiding the overlap? More: wouldn't it be possible to allow passengers to board at the first flight possible, without the need to change or to make [another] reservation, no matter what the airline was? Eureka: there was born such a genial concept that, some time later, it would be copied all over the world.
Well, since 1959, many things have changed, as you may imagine. Cruzeiro was sold to Varig, which went bankrupt in the start of the Century along with Vasp.
In 2019, Congonhas Airport is massively slot-restricted. Slot distribution is super rare there, and until 2014, Azul had only one weekly operation there – despite being the third largest carrier in Brazil.
In November 2014, the airline finally recieved some slots in Congonhas, starting flights to its Belo Horizonte/Confins hub and its focus cities Curitiba and Porto Alegre.
Back then, the slots were not considered enough for the airline to get competitively in the Ponte Aérea; Azul recieved 13 daily slots (26 if you consider arrival and departure). Some important hours for the corporate passengers were not covered, while some times of the day had a big gap between one flight and the other.
In the end of 2018, the Avianca Brasil crisis started. I won't get much into this question because it's super complicated and I'll surely miss many thing, but after trying to take-over the airline remains (and the Congonhas slots) twice, Azul finally won a sufficient amount of slots to start up its Ponte Aérea operations – and it opted to use its CGH-Porto Alegre/Confins/Curitiba slots on the new flights as well. While this mean my home airport would stop recieving Azul flights to São Paulo's downtown airport, I think this was for a good reason.
Thankfully I was invited to be at the first day of operations on behalf of a Brazilian website I write for!
Notice I would be at the "first day" of operations, not the "first flight". The PR guys from Azul put me in the third flight to Rio, because the first, inaugural one, was already full, as well as the second one. That made me incredibly upset because I love all things involving first flights: the speeches, the airline executives presence, the partying, the water salute… but I wasn't paying for it, so obviously I couldn't complain! Also I would be part of the celebrations at the gate in Congonhas, so I thought I could live with it.
Anyway I would arrive in Campinas, Azul's hub, the night before the flight, and then take the airline's bus to São Paulo. I would sleep at a friend's house in São Paulo and then head to Congonhas as early as possible.
I arrived at the airport before 6 in the morning, as requested by the guys from Azul.
I tried to get on the first flight at the check-in counter, unsuccesfully. I was already devastated and resigned.
In the exactly same time, Azul's executives arrived at the check-in hall. The airline CEO, John Rodgerson, greeted his employees, one by one, until he got to my counter.
A Brazilian never gives up, however. I tried my luck and asked him personally if it really wouldn't be possible for me to go on the first flight. He then told me one of the airline's directors would no-show, and then he asked the check-in agents to put me on the first flight. I just didn't believe it!!!
Every airport agent of Azul was using a special T-Shirt celebrating the new service. I really appreciate their help! For most of them, that was day 1 at Azul because of the expansion in Congonhas, so morale was up there.
The whole terminal also had several decorations and advertisements by Azul. This one was located at Azul's shop and says "#AzulinPonteAérea – this [Congonhas] is our place!".
After the scheduled time for the event, we headed to Congonhas' main hall, where a musical performance was taking place. Azul's CEO, John Rodgerson, also spoke some words about the new operation.
After that, everyone went to the airside. The special flight, numbered AZU1 as a one-off, would depart from gate 1.
The flight would be operated by PR-AXJ, an Embraer 195 delivered brand new to Azul in December 2012. The aircraft is named "O Sul é Azul" (The South is Blue) and had landed in Congonhas the night before from Campinas after a repositioning flight.
The mood at the gate was so nice to see. Lots of confraternization and lots of employees taking photos, celebrating the new flight.
After such a long wait, Azul's service between Congonhas and Santos Dumont was finally about to happen. On the other hand, it was really sad not to see Avianca Brasil on the departures board anymore…
Before boarding, another speech by the CEO, along with a ribbon cutting by the airline executives plus an invited flight attendant.
Boarding was started about half an hour before STD. Upon entering the cabin, passengers recieved a piece of cake and a gingerbread.
The Embraer is soooooo beautiful. Definitely my favorite narrowbody ever!
At 7:12AM boarding was ended and at 7:21 doors were closed, nine minutes before STD. Captain Lucas Pires talked a little bit about the operation and at 7:28 pushback was started, with taxi following five minutes later.
Cleared to go!
I love how Congonhas is close to the buildings. What an amazing airport!
Everyone wanted a photo from that moment!
We waited for a King Air to take-off and a Gol 737 to land. After that, at 7:43, we lined up on runway 35L; right after that, the Captain pulled the thrust levers to the max and we rocketed from Congonhas' short strip.
In a few moments the seat belt signs were turned off. Immediately John Rodgerson got out of his seat and went to the front of the cabin to talk to the passengers. After that, he passed by each seat to ask for suggestions or complaints, as he does in every flight.
After that, Azul's marketing director, Claudia Fernandes, drew three tickets for touristic places in Rio; she thought of a date, and the passenger who made the birthday closer to the day would win). In the last draw two passengers were tied, so one of them won a Ponte Aérea ticket as a courtesy of Azul.
Meanwhile, the flight attendants started the onboard service, given the short duration of this flight. First, as always, a FA asks each passenger what they want to drink, notes it, and then drinks and snacks are served.
However, the snack service was different this time. Instead of a free, all-you-can-eat service, the FAs gave us a little bag - one bag to each passenger - with the food. It's the first time I've ever seen them doing this. I asked the FA about this new system, and she told me it's something they only do in the Ponte Aérea, for the time being.
Oh, and there was also the piece of cake and gingerbread we had recieved upon boarding… but I had already eaten it.
The mood in the cabin was very relaxed, but again it's a really short flight; soon we started our descent. However, there was still time for a courtesy coffee service, once that was a morning flight.
The leader of the flight attendants group at Azul served us, despite not being in service.
Finally, one of the FAs distributed to all passengers a tag to celebrate the new operation. The passenger by my side didn't care too much about this historic moment for the airline, so he gave me his. I like having more than one of these souvenirs, so I obviously accepted it!
Little by little we approached the Cidade Maravilhosa. Over the PA system, someone had the brilliant idea of playing the "Samba do Avião" (the Airplane Samba), by the Brazilian music legend Tom Jobim.
“Minha alma canta
Vejo o Rio de Janeiro
Estou morrendo de saudade
Rio teu mar, praias sem fim
Rio você foi feito pra mim…”
The runway in use was the auxillary, shorter one – 02L, because the main one was closed for works. The approach, however, is basically the same as we would've made if 02R was open. I had never landed in Rio before, but I've always seen this landing in videos and already knew this was the most beautiful approach in the world.
Watching it with my eyes, I was sure about it. It was so beautiful – Rio is so beautiful!
At 8:30, ten minutes before STA, an Azul Ponte Aérea flight landed for the first time in Santos Dumont Airport. We were recieved by the water salute by the local Firefighters, as it's tradition.
Deboarding was quick and passengers were recieved by the local Azul team
To celebrate the new flight, another event in Rio. And more cake!
After that, we went to a lounge so we could interview Azul's CEO and have a coffee break. But first, a photo with Azul's executives and airport agents from Rio!
This was such an amazing day and I am proud I could be part of it. Flying the Ponte Aérea is really a milestone for any airline in Brazil and I will remember this moment for many years to come!
As always, thank you so much for reading this report! I hope you have liked it and stay tuned for the next ones! :-)
Cabin: as much as I love the E195, its cabin it's pretty outdated. Fortunately (or not), the E2s will replace all of them at Azul until 2023.
Cabin crew: they were all wonderful, as it should be in this kind of flight.
Entertainment: again, it's pretty outdated and the E2s should address this problem.
Catering: I prefer the self-service, all-you-can-eat service to be honest. There are even shorter flights where they use it so I don't get why they are distributing the snacks in bags at the most premium route in the whole country. Maybe they think this is a "smarter" product or whatever. Anyway, at least the bag was a good fit for my souvenirs collection!