The airline TAP Air Portugal has confirmed today that it plans to establish direct flights between North America and the Azores. This strategy is part of the agenda of the company's largest shareholder, Gary David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways, the Canadian WestJet and the French airline Aigle Azur, which makes tourist charter services to the islands.

The so-called "fifth freedom", which must be requested by airlines, would allow a company making a flight from a third country outside the European Union (EU) to make a stopover, in this case in the Canary Islands, to drop off and pick up passengers or cargo, and then continue the flight to another country.

Industrial engineer José Francisco Fernández Belda, an expert in the air logistics business and the author of numerous studies of international airlines with interests in Europe, points out that "all politicians, and some businessmen, talk about tri-continentality, Europe-Africa-America, but they seem unwilling to take the necessary steps to make that multi-syllable word come true, instead of just making grand declarations with costly fact-finding trips surrounded by advisers and assistants”.

In 2018, TAP will compete with Azores Airlines, a subsidiary of Grupo Sata, on routes between the Azores and the United States. The Azores will not be the final destination for these flights; instead it will be a key transfer point.

Delta Airlines has also announced flights from the United States to the Azores. From May 24th, Delta will offer flights from New York to Ponta Delgada. In 2018, the Azores expects to receive 198,000 cruise passengers.

How it works in the real world

The air market expert considers that "it is to be expected that in a globalized world" the international air transport industry "will continue to fight against such restrictions, that some might say are limitations on free competition, imposed by the politicians of almost all countries and that sometimes strangle regional development such as in the Canary Islands”.

Azores Airlines has been offering regular air schedules between Boston and the Azores, and Lisbon and Oporto, with a seasonal schedule from Providence (Rhode Island), Oakland (California) and Toronto (Canada). In addition, Azores Airlines offers connections to Madeira, Cape Verde and the Canary Islands. For Fernandez Belda, the important thing is not to increase costs so that "a few companies can get to build secondary or tertiary connections”.

The key factor is cargo

Fernández Belda points out that for the Canary Islands the key interest is not passenger traffic. “In my opinion it is of much greater strategic interest for the Canary Islands to think about air cargo. For certain technical reasons, known to all those responsible but never addressed with decision and vision, the development of Gran Canaria Airport is still very limited”.

In his opinion, "when they talk about improvements, they mean the tendering of very expensive programs of doubtful public benefit but of very real benefit to some construction companies and decision makers, and always they are thinking only of the volatile tourist market”. Belda expressed his conviction that a "fifth freedom" could be applied to the Canary Islands where the airports "could be real logistic centers, mostly for cargo distribution and sometimes also for passengers".

If the fifth freedom was endorsed and fully operational in the Canary Islands, "our airports could become a genuine mid-route distribution center for new cargo from other airlines, or those airlines could set up their own small distribution centers, with a knock-on increase in economic activity and employment".