Fort Lauderdale eyes first Brazil flights through Azul

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Fort Lauderdale International airport hopes that it will be the first port of call for Brazilian carrier Azul's first US flights, after the carrier said last month it had discussed launching service with the south Florida airport.

Potential service by Azul will give the airport its first non-stop flights to Brazil, says Doug Webster, deputy director at the Broward County Aviation Department, which operates and owns the airport.

The southernmost service to Latin America out of Fort Lauderdale today is to Lima, offered by both Spirit Airlines and JetBlue Airways. Brazil, says Webster, is a market that the Fort Lauderdale airport has courted for a long time.

Azul said in April that it had started talks with the airport, and also plans to approach Miami International airport. Webster tells Flightglobal that the airline had conversations with the airport that began as far back as two to three years ago.

"But honestly, this only became more serious relative to when the announcement related to the widebodies became public," he says.

Azul has announced plans to acquire five Airbus A350s and six Airbus A330s on leases to begin its first international flights to the USA by early 2015.

The airline told Flightglobal in April that any potential incentives offered by the airport will "obviously move the needle". Webster declines to discuss any specific incentives the airport could offer Azul, but adds that incentive programmes in place include credits on landing fees, terminal rents and other airport-associated fees.

Fort Lauderdale airport is known for being the airport of choice for US low cost carriers. Webster believes that this will make it more appealing to Azul even though Miami International airport is traditionally viewed as the gateway to Latin America from the USA.

New York-based JetBlue Airways is expanding its operations at the airport, while Southwest Airlines is managing a makeover of the airport's terminal one to enable it to handle international flights.

Webster acknowledges that Miami "has better name recognition" but believes that Fort Lauderdale is more attractive to airlines who "are sensitive to operating costs in the long term".

"We fit much more what Azul is looking for," he says. "Our clientele and catchment area help us to balance out that name recognition."

Azul has said that the sizeable number of Brazilians living in south Florida makes the region attractive to the airline, a view echoed by Webster.

He cites the airport's proximity to the Sawgrass Mills outlet shopping mall, which is popular with Brazilian tourists visiting their families and friends in south Florida. "It's straight down the freeway adjacent to the airport," says Webster.

Infrastructure-wise, Webster says at least five of the airport's existing gates are equipped to handle the A350. The airport's terminal four is currently being expanded, and will result in a new 14-gate facility to be completed by early 2017.

This new terminal will add another five gates that will be equipped to handle widebodies like the A350 and Boeing 787, says Webster.

Norwegian is the only carrier today that operates widebody aircraft to Fort Lauderdale, with 787 service from Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen. The airline plans to begin service from London Gatwick in July, also with the 787.