Pluna to buy three more CRJ900s, looks at CRJ200s

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Uruguay's Pluna has announced an order of three additional Bombardier CRJ900s and is looking at also acquiring CRJ200s as part of the next phase of its expansion strategy.

The carrier in a brief statement says it will add three CRJ900s this year and has the option of adding four more of the type. Speaking to ATI today, Pluna CEO Matias Campiani confirms the carrier is placing a firm order for three CRJ900s plus four options.

He adds all the firm aircraft "will arrive before the end of the year". All four of the options cover delivery slots in 2011.

Campiani says Pluna has secured a bank loan of $75 million to cover the three additional firm aircraft.

Pluna currently owns eight CRJ900s but one of these aircraft is subleased to Argentinean sister carrier AeroVIP. Investment firm Leadgate, which acquired a 75% stake in Pluna from the Uruguayan government in 2007, has a 60% stake in AeroVIP.

Bombardier has not yet included the new Pluna deal in its order book. A Bombardier spokesman says the manufacturer is "only confirming discussions with our customer, but not a firm order".

Pluna, which at one point was looking at adding Bombardier Q400 turboprops, is now evaluating the 50-seat CRJ200 as a possible second aircraft type. Campiani says Pluna is now considering a proposal to lease up to eight second-hand CRJ200s but no final decision has been made on whether to go ahead with the deal.

Campiani says while the additional CRJ900s will be used to reinforce existing markets which are "all very well performing," the CRJ200s could be used to open new thin routes to Bolivia, southern Brazil and Chile, particularly from Asuncion in Paraguay. All of Pluna's CRJ900s are now based in Montevideo, although the carrier is operating a couple of fifth-freedom routes including Asuncion-Santiago and Florianopolis-Santiago.

The carrier also launched late last year a domestic route in Chile in partnership with Sky Airline connecting Santiago with Punta Arenas. Campiani says the route was halted after an earthquake struck Chile in late February but may be resumed "soon".

"Pluna is the reference airline of Uruguay, but the growth potential which will consolidate us as the principal regional airline of the Southern Cone area lays within the region as a whole, particularly in countries with which Uruguay has full Open Skies agreements such as Paraguay and Chile," Campiani says.

Leadgate's acquisition last year of a controlling stake in AeroVIP further allows Pluna to tap into the region's potential. "This strategy has allowed us to overcome the natural limitations of Uruguay's very limited home market for international flights and enter operational efficiencies and economies of scale which allow us to enter profitability this year," Campiani says, adding that average aircraft utilisation has been increased from a little over 6h in 2008 to its current level of around 11 hours per day.

While he admits that Aerolineas Argentinas' decision to shift its regional international flights last month from Buenos Aires Ezeiza international to Aeroparque downtown airport "increases competition on some routes" offered by Pluna via Montevideo, he believes that Aerolineas' move poses no further challenge to Pluna's strategy.

"Pluna will offer an increasing number of new markets and compete with higher frequencies and better service while keeping costs and fares down," Campiani says.

Pluna is "not positioning itself against major carriers such as Aerolineas Argentinas, but to cooperate and complement their network".

Asked about reports that Canada's Jazz is close to acquiring a minority stake in Pluna, Campiani confirms that "the negotiations may come soon to a successful conclusion". He describes an eventual Jazz involvement as a "financial investment" combined with a "unique opportunity" to apply to Pluna Jazz's highly efficient operational know-how which could, eventually, prepare Pluna for a future IPO.

ATI reported in February that talks with Jazz, which began over one year ago, were continuing and a deal could be concluded by early March.