Colombia's domestic market grew 13% in 2009 as fast growth at low-cost carrier Aires drove big traffic gains on the country's trunk routes in the second half of the year.

Data just released by Colombia's CAA show in 2009 the country's carriers transported a combined 12.1 million domestic passengers. This represents a 13% increase over the 10.7 million passengers transported in 2008.

The industry registered year-over-year growth in 10 of the 12 months of 2009 but the figures really took off in the second half, reaching an all-time high at the end of the year. In December for the first time in Colombian airline industry history carriers transported over 1.2 million domestic passengers in a single month, representing 29% growth over the same month in 2008.

Aires chalked up 60% growth for the full year, ending 2009 with 1.8 million domestic passengers. Aires started 2009 as a regional carrier operating Bombardier Dash 8 turboprops on niche routes but early in the year began operating Boeing 737-700s on trunk routes following a new low-cost model. It ended the year with seven 737-700s competing against legacy carriers Avianca and AeroRepublica in nearly every major domestic market.

Avianca and its subsidiary SAM carried 6.8 million domestic passengers in 2009, a 5% increase compared with 2008. Aero Republica, a subsidiary of Panama's Copa, recorded 10% growth to 2 million passengers.

Satena, an air force owned regional carrier which codeshares with Avianca, carried just under 1 million passengers in 2009, representing a small decrease compared with 2008. Easyfly, a fast-growing Jetstream 41 turboprop operator which launched in late 2007, recorded 55% growth to just under 300,000 passengers. Colombia's third and smallest regional carrier, Antioquia, recorded 9% growth in 2009 to just under 200,000 passengers.

On an RPK basis Colombia's domestic market grew by 15% in 2009 to over 5 billion. ASKs were up 12% to 7.1 billion, translating in an average load factor of 71% in 2009 compared to 69% in 2008.

Aires had the industry's lowest load factor in 2009 - 58% - as the fast-growing carrier struggled to fill all the seats it added to the market. Aires also ended 2008 with a 58% load factor but back then the carrier was only operating regional routes, which typically suffer from lower load factors than trunk routes.

Avianca's domestic load factor was much higher than Aires at 75%, a slight improvement over the 72% it recorded in 2008. This figure excludes its SAM unit, which recorded a 77% load factor for the second consecutive year. Aero Republica recorded a 72% load factor, a major improvement over the 63% from 2008.

The Colombian CAA data shows Aires in particular struggled to fill its new 737-700s on the country's two largest routes - Bogota-Cali and Bogota-Medellin. Aires' average load factor on Bogota-Cali was only 48%, compared to 72% at Avianca, 77% at SAM and 68% at Aero Republica. On Bogota-Medellin, Aires' load factor for the year was 52% compared to 74% at Avianca, 82% at SAM and 66% at Aero Republica.

The impact of Aires' entrance on these key routes, however, was significant. Traffic overall on Bogota-Cali surged 22% to 1.7 million passengers while Bogota-Medellin grew 21% to 1.6 million passengers. Traffic on Colombia's third and fourth largest routes, Bogota-Cartagena and Bogota-Barranquilla, also grew 25% and 24%, respectively to 1.1 million and 900,000 passengers

While Colombia's domestic market has been chalking up big growth over the last several months, the country's international market is relatively stagnant. In total 6.2 million passengers were transported on flights in and out of Colombia last year, a 2% increase compared with 2008.

Avianca remains by far the largest international carrier in Colombia, recording flat international traffic last year with 2.7 million passengers carried. Aero Republica recorded 6% growth on international routes with 467,000 passengers carried.

American Airlines remained the largest foreign carrier serving Colombia but saw its traffic drop 15% to 450,000 passengers in 2009. Of the major foreign carriers serving Colombia, LAN had the biggest growth, recording an 83% increase last year to 177,000 passengers.

On the cargo side Colombian CAA data shows a 11% drop in international traffic and an 19% decline in domestic traffic last year. Avianca subsidiary Tampa, the largest carrier in the Colombian cargo market, recorded an 18% drop on its international routes.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news