Brazil's Gol is planning to expand its network into the Caribbean for the first time with flights initially to Aruba, Curacao and Punta Cana, and potentially Santo Domingo and St Maarten.

Gol CEO Constantino de Oliveira Junior says the low-cost carrier plans to launch in July flights to three Caribbean destinations - the Dutch islands of Aruba and Curacao and the Dominican Republican resort of Punta Cana. The services will initially operate twice per week for the Northern Hemisphere summer season but could be expanded to a more frequent year-round service.

"We'll start during the [peak] season and we'll check out the demand," Oliveira told ATI today during an interview in New York. "We'll test the market and see."

Oliveira says tour operators have committed to large blocks of seats on the new Caribbean flights, but Gol intends to seek scheduled rather than charter traffic rights where possible. This will allow Gol to sell through its website and other distribution channels those seats that are not sold as part of packages by the tour operators.

"For some of them we'll apply for scheduled flights, but it is a kind of tourist flight," Constantino says. "There will be a lot of tour operators."

He says Aruba and Curacao will be served from Brasilia on a single flight operating twice weekly following a circle routing. Gol has not yet decided on the origin for the Punta Cana flight, which will also be operated twice weekly.

"[For Punta Cana] we're still dealing with some tour operators to decide whether to go from Sao Paulo or Brasilia or Manaus. There are three possibilities," Constantino says.

The Caribbean is a new market for Gol, which currently serves 49 destinations in Brazil and 10 destinations in other South American countries. Constantino says the Caribbean has a lot of potential not only for tourist flights but some destinations, such as Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, also have strong year-round business demand.

"Santo Domingo is another destination we're looking at for sure. They have nine million people living there. It's a great destination," Constantino says.

He adds "St Maarten is a potential market" Gol is also currently evaluating.

Currently there are very few flights connecting the Caribbean and South America except for Venezuela and virtually none between the Caribbean and Brazil. According to Innovata, there are no scheduled flights from Brazil to Aruba, Curacao or St Maarten, and there is only one weekly link between Brazil and the Dominican Republic. This is a flight from Santo Domingo to Belem in northern Brazil with intermediate stops in other Caribbean islands operated by regional carrier Air Caraibes.

Despite the lack of scheduled services connecting the Caribbean and South America, business ties between the two regions are increasing, and the number of South Americans holidaying in the Caribbean is also rising. In response to this demand, earlier this year Taca Peru launched service to Santo Domingo and Havana.

Panama's Copa, which offers convenient connections throughout South America via Panama City, also has been expanding its Caribbean network with services launched last year to Aruba and Trinidad.

Gol is interested in expanding its network to the Caribbean as it looks for new international markets within a five-hour flight time of Brazil's major cities. Last year the carrier dropped all of its long-haul services, which were operated by a now grounded fleet of Boeing 767s. That leaves the carrier with an all-737 fleet, which by year end will consist exclusively of -700s and -800s.

"In terms of international flights our limit is the range of the 737," Constantino says.

But he points out with all-narrowbody fleets Latin carriers are able to cover all of Latin America and the Caribbean. "Look at Copa and TACA. They cover all of the Americas."

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news