Eduardo Iglesias has spent his first year at ALTA's helm getting closer to members and industry stakeholders to gain a fuller understanding of the issues and challenges facing the airlines of Latin America and the Caribbean – and it is the latter region's carriers that have been subject to particular attention during the last 12 months.

The performance of ALTA's members during his first year underlines the vital contribution that the region's airlines make within the global aviation scene, Iglesias explains: "We'll close this year at 200 million passengers in Latin America and the Caribbean. That has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and that number could go up to 500 million passengers in the next 20 years," he says.

With that staggering growth prospect in mind, Iglesias is in no doubt about how vital it is to understand and help address the challenges his members face to enable those growth prospects to be realised.

Iglesias took over as ALTA's executive director in September 2013, having previously gained a solid background in the aviation industry working for Grupo TACA and Avianca. But he is the first to admit there is always much to learn in the airline world, even for an old hand: "Coming from the industry doesn't mean you know everything," he says. "You really need to get closer to your stakeholders – that's everyone related to the airline business across this vast region with all its different cultures and languages. And that takes time."

So over the past year Iglesias and his team have dedicated a lot of time getting closer to the regulators and other industry players to create "a clearer map of what's out there and what has to be tackled looking to the future".

The region is particular in ALTA's spotlight as its annual Airline Leaders Forum, which is taking place in the Bahamas.

"We've been focusing our energy on the Caribbean," Iglesias says. "The airlines here are an important part of our association and, during this past year, we have been participating in and promoting several activities in the region."

These include ALTA's Caribbean aviation day – which took place in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands – and the aviation safety summit in Curacao. These events examined the barriers local airlines face to growth, along with some of the opportunities of which they could take advantage.

"We want to give some visibility to the issues. For example, sometimes to hop from one island to another you need a visa. You can hire a boat, go there, have lunch and come back on the same day and no one will care. But if you want to fly there, you must get a visa," Iglesias says.

"These are the sorts of nonsense situations in the region that really limit the growth of traffic."

Beyond the issues facing local carriers, Iglesias is determined to use this year's forum to highlight and seek solutions to the multitude of issues that hinder airlines across the Latin American continent in achieving their long-term growth potential. And they are the usual suspects: insufficient investment in infrastructure, air traffic management reform and regulatory issues.

"A lot of time will be dedicated here to discuss these topics," he says.

One of the focus areas at the summit this year is processes around customs and immigration. The time it can take to process cargo shipments in certain parts of the region is an ongoing frustration, which is why FedEx will present on best practice worldwide.

"In several Latin American and Caribbean countries, this process takes weeks, whereas elsewhere in the world they are doing that in hours," says Iglesias.

"You cannot manage the growth of a country and its industry with those limitations. So we have to work around them to make sure we can copy the best practices in other parts of the world," he adds.

Another subject to be explored is the rapidly changing world of payments. "There are so many new methods coming – virtual currencies like bitcoins, PayPal, Facebook, cellular phone payments, the Apple app [Apple Pay] and so on," Iglesias says. "So we've asked MasterCard to share its views on what's coming in terms of forms of payment and how we can facilitate people accessing and paying for travel tickets."

Insufficient investment in ATM infrastructure and a general failure to tackle airspace management remain major bugbears: "We've been investing in Ferraris and we are driving them on dirt roads. We are having a lot of gridlock caused by a failure to invest in radars for air traffic control."

Iglesias highlights the Central American air navigation provider COCESNA, which is responsible for the provision of ATM in airspace over five Central American states, as a shining example for other parts of the region of how airspace zones can be unified and operated efficiently.

So this year's summit, it is promised, will address all the region's critical issues – issues that must be tackled if the region's airlines are to realise their full growth potential. "A lot of time will be spent here examining how we can be more efficient with the current infrastructure and resources," Iglesias says. And he warns: "When you compare the investment numbers with the rest of the world, Latin America is really falling behind."

With passenger traffic forecast to more than double in the next 20 years, it is clearly vital that Latin America keeps pace with its peers.

Source: Flight Daily News