Venezuela's SBA Airlines plans to launch service next month to Panama and is preparing to open new routes later this year to Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Peru.

SBA says in a statement that it has set 1 July as the launch date for twice daily Boeing 757 service from its Caracas hub to Panama City.

The carrier initially unveiled plans last year to serve Panama as part of an ambitious three-phase international expansion programme.

The first phase involved the expansion of services to Miami. In the second phase SBA launched flights earlier this month to Madrid and Funchal on the Portguese island of Madeira. SBA, formerly known as Santa Barbara Airlines, says Panama City forms the first part of the third phase.

SBA executive chairman Jorge Mendez Alvarez says as part of the third phase the carrier will also soon set launch dates for services from Caracas to Bogota, Buenos Aires, Lima and Sao Paulo. He adds the new Panama City service "is an important part of our project to offer a wide range of international routes" and turn Caracas into a major international hub.

According to Innovata, SBA will compete against Copa between Caracas and Panama City. Copa is now the only carrier on the route, offering three daily flights with Boeing 737-700 and -800 aircraft. SBA says it will fly into Panama with 757-200ERs configured with 154 economy and 24 first class seats.

Before Boeing 245-seat 767-300ERs were added earlier this year to support new transatlantic flights, SBA's international network only consisted of Miami, Quito and Tenerife. Miami and Quito are served with 757s while earlier this month SBA's Tenerife service switched from a wet-leased 767 to one of its newly acquired 767s.

SBA now operates one daily flight from Caracas to Quito and two daily flights from Caracas to Miami plus one daily flight from Maracaibo to Miami. The carrier says a third Caracas-Miami frequency will be added on 1 July.

Madrid is served five times per week while Tenerfie is served twice per week and Funchal once per week.

Santa Barbara Airlines was acquired by another privately owned Venezuelan carrier, Aserca, in 2007 and was re-branded as SBA last year. Aserca operates mainly domestic and short-haul international routes to nearby Caribbean islands using McDonnell Douglas DC-9s while SBA has become mainly a medium and long-haul international operator.

SBA has quickly become the main international carrier of Venezuela following the expropriation of Aeropostal. According to Innovata, SBA currently does not compete with any Venezuelan carriers on any of its international routes.

Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Peru are also not currently served by any Venezuelan carrier. Instead SBA will start competing against Aerolineas Argentinas, Gol, TAM, Avianca, Lan Peru and TACA Peru as it further expands its Latin American network.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news