INSIGHT: A change in focus for aviation in Puerto Rico

For over thirty years Puerto Rico was an integral part of the American Airlines network. Airline deregulation in the 1970s led to many US carriers setting up hubs abroad or off the mainland, with American Airlines choosing Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, as its base for travel between the US and the Caribbean.

However, the airline decided to phase out its San Juan hub three years ago and its Caribbean and Latin American operation is now focused on Miami – a significant blow for Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and the Puerto Rican economy.

Despite these challenges the future is looking positive for Puerto Rico’s aviation market. Last year passenger numbers increased by 3.1 percent to 8.6 million and JetBlue is now the island’s largest carrier, taking over a large proportion of American Airlines’ former network in the Caribbean and US (Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines have also picked up some of the traffic). Norwegian recently added Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo and London Gatwick to San Juan’s network and Iberia will re-introduce direct flights from Madrid next year.

Route development consultants, ASM, supported Puerto Rico’s efforts to secure the new routes from Norwegian and Iberia. Nigel Mayes, Senior Vice President Consulting and Product Development, said: “San Juan’s European passengers have increased by 24 per cent in the last year to 187,925. Most of them (79 percent) have been travelling indirectly, connecting through American airports, so the new routes were clearly needed. There’s a great deal of scope for more direct routes to Europe which will connect San Juan to new markets.”

The indirect nature of San Juan’s network is also reflected in the lack of services to Central and South America. There are only three direct routes – a Volaris service to Cancun, a Copa Airlines service to Panama City and an Avianca service to Bogota. Three quarters of the 188,418 passengers who travel from San Juan to Central and South America every year do so indirectly, with 87 percent of the connecting traffic travelling through Panama City, Miami or Bogota.

The majority of San Juan’s traffic is from North America – 6.4 million passengers a year. This is mainly direct but over two million passengers (32 percent) connect through Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte and New York JFK. Los Angeles is the largest indirect market with 92,438 passengers travelling to San Juan every year, and 79 percent of Canadian passengers also travel indirectly. These figures show that there is room to develop San Juan’s traditional North American market as well as the other regions of the world.

San Juan is unlike any other Caribbean market because it has significant outbound travel. With an estimated five million Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland, there is a thriving ‘visiting friends and family’ market. Puerto Rico has the most competitive economy in Latin America and the pharmaceutical and aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) industries generate substantial outbound traffic. A strong cruise industry means that Puerto Rico benefits from a year-round aviation market with very little seasonal variation.

With Routes Americas opening this week, Puerto Rico is in a unique position to add more direct services to its network. Over 700 people will attend the event, including representatives from American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Air Canada, JetBlue, British Airways and Iberia. There will also be around 280 airports, 40 tourism authorities and 75 more airlines at this highly influential event for route development in the Americas.

Speaking to Routesonline after arriving in San Juan, Nigel Mayes commented: “It will be interesting to see which new routes come out of Routes Americas. The event is an unparalleled opportunity for Puerto Rico to show what it has to offer to airlines and tour operators from around the globe.”

Richard Maslen

Richard Maslen has travelled across the globe to report on developments in the aviation sector as airlines and airports have continued to evolve and…