Interview: CEO Felix Antelo On How Viva Air Returned To Cali, Is Welcoming First Time Flyers & Growth in Colombia’s Aviation Market
Last week, Finance Colombia’s executive editor Loren Moss was on hand as Colombian low cost air carrier Viva Air inaugurated the return of its Medellín Cali route, and announcement of additional flights from Cali’s Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport (CLO) to Cartagena, San Andrés, and soon, Barranquilla.
Since the hiring of LATAM Airlines veteran Felix Antelo as Viva Air CEO, the airline has made operational improvements and burnished its image. Gone are stunts like one way tickets for US passengers dissatisfied with US President Trump’s election or controversial slogans like “Llevate a la mosa pa’ la arenosa”—roughly translated as “Take the side chick to Barranquilla;” now the airline is making news with top punctuality ratings and a string of successful, growth-oriented deals from next-generation powerplants to growth capital to fuel the airline’s international expansion.
A native of Argentina and only in his 40s, Antelo is a rising star in aviation. The social media savvy 6’4 executive has an easy manner with his staff, and gate agents, ground crew, and flight attendants seem to adore, rather than fear or be apprehensive of him. Those who follow Colombian aviation closely can see the significant influence his leadership has had on the airline in the short time he has had his hand on the yoke and feet on the rudder pedals.
Antelo tells Finance Colombia readers why the airline left Cali and how it returned, recent changes in the airline, and the ways the airline is welcoming first-time flyers and foreign tourists and family visitors.
Finance Colombia: Thanks for your time. I know you have had a busy day. Today Viva Air re-opened here in Cali, why did Viva Air leave Cali the first time?
Felix Antelo: At the time, our point of view about operations and management differed from the criteria of the airport. Back then, Viva was not good with punctuality and honestly, Viva decided to withdraw because of the combination between the issues with punctuality and the different criteria between Viva and Cali`s Airport, on how to manage Cali`s operation.
“Approximately 20% of our passengers are flying on an airplane for the first time.”—Felix Antelo
Nevertheless, I don’t want to look into the past, I am more interested in the future than in the past. What I noted when I arrived, was that Viva had to fly to Cali because of the size it had and the relevance it had obtained in the Colombian market. Cali is Colombia´s third largest city in terms of population, and not only that, I also saw the demand from Cali`s passengers. They clamored and insisted that we return to Cali: “we need you in Cali, you left and the prices went up so much, there are fewer options now!” So, we began working on approaching the airport again, we left our differences behind and, as you know, with all the growth we had ahead, and all the new airplanes, Cali was an option we could not waste.
I think the difference now compared to 2017 is that the operation now is much stronger and powerful than it was before. When I say more powerful, I mean more flights, more destinations, and better schedules. the company now has much better punctuality than back in 2017.
We have the newest fleet in the region. In 2017, we did not have such a modern fleet. We have lower costs now and we are more efficient than in 2017. Finally, (this was also mentioned by your colleagues), the customers know the low-cost model better and accept it more in 2020 than they did in 2017. It`s still a new model in South America. You are American, and in the United States it has existed for 30 or 40 years. It has been in Colombia ever since Viva launched it 7 years ago, 2012, 2013, so, all those factors pushed us to return and make me believe that we will do well.
Finance Colombia: It`s very interesting how Viva Air has changed since you arrived, it has been 2 years now, it was in April 2018?
Felix Antelo: Yes, May 2018.
Finance Colombia: Yes, I wrote an article—things have changed so much. You have operations here, you are so strong in Peru, and it`s so curious because each time I see more and more low-cost airlines arriving in Colombia from Panama, the United States, now from Spain, Chile. I know so many people, such as back in Medellin, that have flown for the first time with you. So, I imagine, that as you say, democratizing the experience, the transportation, before; this was done by bus, but now your fares can almost compete with the bus fleets.
Felix Antelo: Yes, effectively, the greatest goal that we have is to democratize transportation. Air transportation in our case, but transportation overall, our goal is that people who could not fly before, or traveled by bus, can have access to air transportation, which is basically what you are mentioning. Approximately 20% of our clients are clients who are flying on an airplane for the first time.
So, we are saying that last year we carried six million passengers, and more than a million passengers flew for the first time on an airplane with us. Just as you said, it`s fascinating, it`s what makes me move forward, both me and Viva, this is what mobilizes us, generating that, we are a company that promotes development, well-being, connectivity, dreams. We help to carry out the dreams of those passengers that fly for the first time on an airplane. If you have the chance to fly with us, and I know you fly, you will see it, we always give a special greeting to those who fly for the first time, and not with Viva but to all those who fly for the first time. It`s a unique experience, which also has the singularity to be a life-changing trip. As I say, someone who flies for the first time on an airplane will hardly use a different means of transport again. He or she will not only overcome the fear if he or she was afraid of flying, but he knows he will also arrive faster, he knows it`s much safer, and there`s all the fascination of flying, and that`s what we work for every day.
Finance Colombia: I saw some foreign tourists on the flight, I know you fly for example, to Miami, do you know what percentage of the passengers are tourists that are not from Colombia or Peru?
Felix Antelo: Foreigners, well, look, within Colombia and Peru, about 25 percent, an average of 20 or 25 percent of those who fly are foreigners, which is a very high percentage, considering that, as you said, our only flight to the United States right now is to Miami. We are looking at other international routes, but now we only fly to Miami, so it´s a high percentage, almost 25 percent are foreigners.
Above: Felix Antelo photo by Loren Moss