After years of being shut off to foreign competition, Argentina's aviation industry looks set to open up to foreign carriers as a new government moves away from decades of protectionist policies.
Despite diminished economic growth in many Latin American economies, the potential growth of the Argentinian aviation market has remained a bright spot for the region's airlines since the government of president Mauricio Macri took office in December 2015.
Latin American carriers had long complained about access to Argentina when the former Peronist administration was in charge.
Proposals to begin service to secondary cities in Argentina were particularly challenging, as the former government chose to shield state-owned Aerolineas Argentinas from competition. It was not uncommon for foreign carriers to apply to Argentinian authorities to launch new service, only to be kept waiting for years.
The tide started to turn after Macri took office. Within months, several Latin American carriers saw their route applications being approved.
Juan Irigoin, the head of Argentina's civil aviation authority ANAC, says the country now wants to encourage foreign carriers to connect its interior cities with Latin American capitals.
"It is clear that from the 12 years of closed policies, our aviation industry couldn't develop and compete," he tells FlightGlobal.
Latin America's largest airline group, LATAM Airlines, had its Peruvian subsidiary launch new service from Lima to both Salta and Rosario earlier this year. In February 2017, flights between Lima and Mendoza will begin.
Underlining the frustrations faced by airlines for a long time, LATAM chief executive Enrique Cueto said earlier this year that it took "six or seven years" before Argentina's government gave LATAM the green light for the Salta route.
"There's an absolute change in the Argentine government," he says. "We have noticed a change in attitude."
His sentiments are shared by other airlines. Panama's Copa Airlines began service to Rosario in July, and is awaiting rights for Mendoza flights. Copa's chief executive Pedro Heilbron says the airline is hoping for both countries to negotiate for more frequencies, as the maximum number of route frequencies under the bilateral agreement are being utilised.
Chile's Sky Airline began flights to Cordoba in July and will launch flights to Mendoza in January 2017.
Capstats, based on FlightGlobal schedules data, show that International capacity to Argentina will grow 7% in 2016 from 2015.
The encouraging signs from Argentina prompted former IATA director general Tony Tyler to say earlier this year: "We are confident that Argentina is on its way in joining Chile and Panama in taking a supportive view of how to maximise connectivity." Calling a meeting with Macri "open and warm", Tyler says: "It was reassuring to find a president who so clearly understands the business world."
With the changing conditions in Argentina, airlines are looking to invest in the country's aviation industry.
Latin American airline group Avianca's owner Synergy earlier this year acquired a Buenos Aires-based charter carrier, and plans to operate the airline as a feeder carrier within Argentina. Synergy's owner, German Efromovich, has said that the carrier plans to place an order for turboprops to expand its operations.
Even airlines that do not currently serve Argentina are taking note of the potential growth opportunity in the country. Irelandia Aviation, a shareholder in VivaColombia and Mexico's VivaAerobus, has expressed interest in launching a low-cost carrier in Argentina.
Irelandia's Declan Ryan was quoted as saying in Argentinian media that he believed there was plenty of room to stimulate demand in Argentina, where a low percentage of the population has ever flown.
LATAM's Cueto says Argentina has substantial growth potential when compared to the region's more developed aviation markets. "In Chile, you have one trip per inhabitant per year. In Argentina, it's half of that... And in Argentina, you have more tourists and more demand, so by right, it should be about the same."
Outside of the Americas, Norwegian also recently expressed interest in launching low-cost services to Argentina as it looks to expand to Latin America. Norwegian's chief executive Bjorn Kjos was quoted as saying in media reports that the airline was in touch with aviation authorities in Argentina and Chile.
For our coverage of the ALTA Airline Leaders Forum taking place in Mexico City on 13-15 November, visit www.flightglobal.com/alta