Aires plans to acquire at least seven additional Q400s

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Colombia's Aires plans to replace its entire fleet of 11 Bombardier Dash 8 Q200s with larger Q400s over the next five years.

Aires earlier this year acquired four used Dash 8 Q400s, which the carrier plans to begin operating next month to supplement its fleet of 11 Dash 8 Q200s and 10 Boeing 737-700s. Aires chairman Pedro Nino says for the short-term Aires plans to operate a fleet of four to six Q400s but its medium-term fleet plan envisions operating within five years at least 11 Q400s and phasing out its Q200s.

"The -200s are old and the aircraft isn't being produced any more. We need to replace that airplane. We don't want to get stuck with old aircraft," Nino told ATI on the sidelines of last week's Low Cost Airlines World Americas conference in Miami.

Nino says Aires is not interested in switching to ATR 42s and ATR 72s, both of which are still manufactured. "We're not thinking of any other kind of aircraft," he says.

Aires' initial fleet of four Q400s are all used aircraft which Nino says were previously operated by South Korea's Jeju Air. But he says as Aires looks to bolster its Q400 fleet, including the possible addition of two aircraft by the end of this year, it will also consider acquiring new aircraft.

He says a decision on whether to acquire second-hand aircraft, a strategy Aires also has followed in leasing 10 737-700s over the last 18 months, or new aircraft, will depend on aircraft availability and market conditions. Nino says Aires is also open to placing orders for new Q400s directly with Bombardier although the carrier has not ordered any aircraft since it purchased Embraer EMB-110s.

Nino concedes Aires will likely have to drop some of its thinner regional routes as the carrier phases out 37-seat aircraft for 70-seaters. "That's OK. We're not the airline for every market," he says, pointing out Aires dropped some routes when it replaced EMB-110s with Dash 8s. He also points out smaller Colombian carriers continue to operate small turboprops.

But Nino says a large portion of Aires' Dash 8 Q200 routes can support the Q400 as the Colombian market is growing fast. In fact Aires is planning to upgrade several of its Dash 8 Q200 frequencies to the Q400 this summer as it introduces the larger type.

Nino says the plan is to use the initial fleet of four Q400s during peak hours to up-gauge Q200 frequencies and during off-peak hours to down-gauge 737-700 frequencies. He adds the four aircraft will generally help Aires "recover" some regional markets where it has shrunk capacity as it has reduced the size of its Dash 8 fleet. Aires previously had 16 Dash 8s in its fleet - a mix of 37-seat and 50-seat models.

Nino says Aires also plans to launch new routes using the Q400, particularly to Caribbean destinations from the northern Colombian cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena. "We're thinking of having a hub in the Caribbean," Nino says, but adding new Q400 routes would be launched later and not immediately after the aircraft type is introduced.

Aires for the last year had been looking at acquiring four Q400s. ATI reported last month that the carrier had finally acquired four Q400s and was preparing to place them into service in late May and June. Nino says Aires now expects its first Q400 to enter service in July with the other three aircraft entering service shortly after the initial aircraft.

He says the aircraft are now en route to Colombia but it will take roughly one month before revenue operations can begin because the Q400 first needs to be certified by Colombia's CAA. The Q400 is a new aircraft type for Colombia.

According to Flightglobal's ACAS database, the four aircraft destined for Aires were ordered by Jeju Air in 2005 and delivered to the South Korean carrier in 2006. Jeju Air last year put all four of its Q400s up for sale after deciding to transition to an all-737 fleet.