Having being recognised as the World’s Leading Airline to South America in 2012 by the World Travel Awards, TAP Portugal has continued to build upon its strengths in the UK market.
Here Breaking Travel News catches up with UK general manager Rui Lemos to see what the airline is doing to stay ahead of its competitors in 2013.
Breaking Travel News: We are half way through 2013 now, perhaps we could begin with a quick update on how TAP Portugal has been performing so far?
Rui Lemos: Last year was a very good year for TAP, in the sense that we grew by 25.6 per cent in revenue here in the UK, with a similar number in passenger numbers. This is substantial growth in a difficult market.
Major growth areas included our online sales, selling our flights between the UK and destinations in Portugal, and Africa and Brazil which saw growth of 20 per cent and 16.5 per cent out of the UK.
Brazil has been a major market for us for a long time. In this market, British travellers are still very focused on Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, but we have been trying to broaden the understanding of the opportunities in Brazil.
We fly to ten airports, nine destinations, in Brazil. The north-east of the country has a relatively small slice of the market out of the UK, but we have been growing it as much as possible. Places like Recife and Salvador da Bahia are becoming very important destinations for us.
This year, we are once again growing very fast – up around 17 per cent on this time last year.
BTN: How do you explain this growth, when others have been struggling?
RL: We have been investing a lot of time communicating with the market, explaining that we fly to these destinations.
We have the best product – 74 flights a week to Brazil. Nobody comes even close to this figure. This has been our main message in the UK market.
There have been problems here in the UK, and in Portugal, but: we grew! The overall market did not perform at the same pace, so we saw more demand for our destinations than the overall trend in the market.
I think other economies in Europe suffered substantially more than the UK. If you look at the south of the EU, they have a much worse performance, with a much deeper recession.
BTN: How about politically here in the UK, do you feel the government is supportive of aviation?
RL: It is difficult to say. I have been out of this market for a number of years, returning last year.
What we have today, departure taxes, overall airport charges, what passengers have to pay to travel, and will this have an impact on the number of people travelling? Then yes, I believe so.
It is not a positive situation.
However, if there are other alternatives I cannot tell you. We cannot look too deeply into that.
Heathrow Airport is becoming a more expensive airport. But our major area of growth is Manchester.
When I arrived here we had five frequencies a week to Manchester from Portugal, but this will now go up to ten a week. We were debating whether to keep ten frequencies a week right through the winter, but took a slightly more conservative approach, as we were unsure what was going to happen, keeping the flight daily. With the return of the summer schedule it will now return to ten.
From 2014 I would like to see ten flights a week after April, but then increase to 12. Almost doubling the capacity we have in Manchester over two years.
This is not just because of the point-to-point traffic, which is performing really well, but because it increases the chances of connecting to long-haul destinations. This creates connectivity through our network, to Brazil for example.
At present buyers are leisure travellers.
We are also working to improve our offering at Gatwick, connecting it to Lisbon. We are building the number of planes on the route, offering more long-haul connections out of that airport.
BTN: What role does Star Alliance play in this? Is this an important relationship for TAP?
RL: It is an important relationship for TAP; it allows us to become part of a global alliance. You stop being a niche carrier and up your game into a much larger environment.
From next year we will have a Heathrow terminal, the new Terminal 2, which will become the Star Alliance terminal. It gives a different projection of the airline.
In niche markets it is not going to attract many passengers, but overall, yes. In the corporate market, definitely.
BTN: TAP is seen as the leading carrier to South America in the UK market. Is this a fair reflection of the operation, or could the consumer be better informed?
RL: Not enough is known about TAP. We have been working hard to communicate with the consumer to say, yes, we are the major airline to Brazil, but we do more.
We are getting there, figures are improving, but there is a way to go.
It is not only to the consumer, we also have to create visibility in distribution networks. This is two-fold. Firstly telling travel agents, corporate agents and so forth what we do, and secondly, by creating consumer demand.
We also have work to do with ‘open jaw’ tickets, making consumers aware. This opens a lot of availability, people can fly into Rio, for example, but they do not have to backtrack on their itinerary to fly back out of there, they can travel and depart on another route.
This is something we must put across to people. Passengers see Rio and Sao Paulo as arrival and departure points, but forget they have other options.
BTN: What else is TAP presently doing to improve its service to consumers?
RL: Outside of Manchester, we are trying to improve some aspects of scheduling here in the UK to make it more user friendly.
We are also adding more routes. At the end of the year we are adding more flights on the Maputo route, capital of Mozambique. This will be a major destination for us.
This destination has huge potential, not just on the leisure side, but also for commercial traffic. At the moment the other options are to go through Johannesburg in South Africa or Dar es Salaam in Tanzania; we will put you right there!
Interview: Chris O’Toole