Analysis: Colombian Startup Ultra Air Faces Tough Domestic Competition

Credit: José María Córdova International Airport

Ultra Air will become Latin America’s newest carrier on Feb. 23 when it launches commercial flights, offering routes to seven destinations across Colombia.

The move comes less than a week after civil aviation authority Aerocivil authorized the ULCC to start operations, saying the startup's entry would increase connectivity, enhance competitiveness and help to spur economic growth.

“We will continue working to reactivate air transport, open new markets and offer the best conditions for more air operators to enter and offer more alternatives to users,” Aerocivil director general Jair Orlando Fajardo Fajardo said.

Founded by William Shaw, who launched Viva Air Colombia and was more recently CEO of Mexico’s Interjet, Ultra Air will initially fly a total of nine domestic routes, five of which will originate in Bogota (BOG).

The airline has been recognized as the first "mega-investment project" in Colombia's aviation sector, enabling it to access tax incentives. To qualify as a mega-investment project, it has pledged to invest $30 million and agreed to job creation targets.

Alongside the flights from Colombia’s capital Bogota, Ultra Air will also serve Cali (CLO), Cartagena (CTG), Medellin (MDE), Pereira (PEI), San Andres (ADZ) and Santa Marta (SMR) using Airbus A320s.

Analysis of data provided by OAG Schedules Analyser shows the airline will face strong competition across its network, with fellow ULCC Viva Air and Colombia’s flag-carrier Avianca operating all nine of the routes being launched. LATAM Airlines Group also flies eight of the nine.

The fiercest rivalry will come in the Bogota-Medellin market where there are currently 82,000 two-way weekly seats in operation, about 14,000 of which are low-cost. Bogota-Cartagena and Bogota-Cali are also large markets, with 78,000 and 71,000 two-way weekly seats respectively.

Ultra Air’s launch comes as traffic in Colombia continues to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. According to Aerocivil, there were 22.5 million domestic passengers during 2021—equivalent to 83% of the number handled during 2019. International traffic totaled almost 8 million passengers, or 56% of pre-pandemic levels.

“It is important to highlight that the best month was December during which 4,020,754 users were mobilized and the recovery achieved 106% in relation to the same month of 2019,” transport minister Angela María Orozco said.

Bogota handled 22.1 million passengers last year, while Medellin handled 7.9 million. Cali was the third largest airport in the country at 5.2 million passengers.

In terms of capacity, there are 3.7 million available departure seats from and within Colombia scheduled during February 2022, up by 0.8% on February 2020 before coronavirus had spread to Latin America. Domestic capacity this month accounts for about 3 million seats—up by 5.3% on February 2020.

Shaw previously told Routes that Ultra Air aims to operate a network of 29 domestic and 15 international routes, saying that Colombia is an attractive market because of the tax breaks being offered and the restructure of national carrier Avianca.

That restructuring has seen Rionegro-based Viva Air expand its market share since the onset of the pandemic, as well as international ULCCs Viva Aerobus and Volaris begin their first routes to Colombia.

Although Avianca remains Colombia’s largest airline by domestic capacity, this month it is operating 17% fewer domestic seats than in February 2020. However, Viva Air’s domestic capacity is up by 49% on this time two years ago, while LATAM Airlines Group’s is up by 41%.…

David Casey

David Casey is Editor in Chief of Routes, the global route development community's trusted source for news and information.