Universal Weather and Aviation continues to grow its presence in Latin American markets despite several of the region’s nations—including Brazil and Mexico, Latin America’s two biggest economies—having seen international air traffic decline in election years.
Adolfo Aragon, senior v-p of Latin America and Caribbean for Universal Weather and Aviation (UW&A), said the company is growing in Latin America by offering new services, opening new facilities, and adapting to each customer’s specific requirements, whether those be to serve as a full-service, one-stop shop for trip support, fueling, and ground handling or to provide a single product or solution.
While UW&A is growing throughout Latin America generally, it is committed to maintaining its sizable existing footprint in the Brazilian market despite the market experiencing a significant decline in international traffic in the past few years—a decline that has included a substantial slowdown in domestic operators traveling abroad, according to Aragon. In addition to adverse economic factors, “larger, longer-range aircraft are also reducing the amount of legs flown and handlings in Brazil, as these aircraft are capable of flying directly to their destinations without making tech stops within the country,” he told AIN.
“During Brazil’s election, we experienced some conservatism in terms of investment and that negatively affected corporate traffic,” said Aragon. “Following the elections, however, we’ve seen a slight year-over-year improvement in traffic and some signs of recovery. Of course the slight uptick is nothing compared to previous years when the country hosted the Soccer World Cup and the Olympics.”
But UW&A has kept its substantial Brazilian operation intact “because of our relationships with strong domestic corporations and global brands in the country, which rely on us for mission support,” said Aragon. Now that loyalty is bearing new fruit for UW&A. “With the new [Brazilian] president in office, we definitely see some big domestic and international corporations flying again to and from Brazil. Most of the local and regional operators are always traveling to and from the U.S.A., and in summer they will fly to Europe. Where Universal provides the most value is on complex trips with multiple legs.”
Traffic Beyond Brazil
International traffic has also declined in other Latin American countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Costa Rica during election years, said Aragon, noting that Panama and Argentina are experiencing similar market softness this year during their election run-ups. “Unfortunately, in Mexico, some decisions from the government related to aviation and fuel reform are not providing the clarity needed for the expected growth,” he added. “Venezuela used to have one of the biggest fleets in the region, but it has been negatively impacted due to the political instability and U.S. sanctions.” However, “leisure travel in the region and the Caribbean keeps growing.”
Despite election-year international traffic declines, demand for the services Universal provides is generally growing in both the Brazilian market and throughout Latin America, said Aragon. That is true “especially for local operators expanding operations inside their countries and growing regionally. We see more midsize aircraft arriving, and those customers are requesting some new services.
“What we’ve seen with some of these operators is that they have their own flight departments and do some of the work in-house,” said Aragon. “However, it’s not uncommon for those flight departments to run into unforeseen challenges and then reach out to us for support. The challenge with an in-house team is that they may be going to a location for the first time and don’t know some of the inherent risks at a particular location. We do it daily and have mission advisors with decades of experience who have experienced just about everything imaginable, which can and often does happen on a trip. We also have the global contacts and network to get our clients out of a jam, knowing that time is money.”
In Brazil, Universal has “the only locally based trip support services business, operating 24/7 and fluent in English and Portuguese,” said Aragon. “Our Brazil Operations Center is based in São Paulo and we also have local fuel reps. We have Universal Aviation ground-handling offices in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Soracaba, Manaus, and Brasilia.” Its business in Brazil being to support locally based operators’ outbound international operations and other customers’ inbound international traffic, “we are not in the local traffic market, so our presence and footprint is focused on the major international airports. We have 55 employees, split among our São Paulo office for fuel and trip support and our handling division, which covers more than 20 airports with offices in Guarulhos [São Paulo’s main international airport], Rio, Recife, Manaus, and Brasilia,” he said.
“Unfortunately, Brazil doesn’t have clear plans for corporate aviation and is lacking in appropriate facilities and procedures in most of the major cities and airports,” said Aragon. “On the other hand, it does allow Universal and our local teams to arrange and coordinate everything in advance and while our customers are on the ground. Despite the amount of traffic to Brazil, it’s still a high-risk country to operate to without the support of an experienced trip support provider with people on the ground.”
Elsewhere in Latin America, “We are always looking to add new services,” said Aragon. These include new Universal Aviation ground-support locations “in growing, potentially high-stress locations like our new office in Buenos Aires” at Ezeiza International Airport, and expanding UW&A’s ground-transportation network via its new joint venture with Drivania Chauffeurs.
UW&A is also adding more Air2Ground global concierge agents at highly congested airports and is working with airport authorities to improve infrastructure and facilities. One such project is at Juan Santamaría International Airport, which serves Costa Rica’s capital San Jose. There Universal is managing construction of the country’s first-ever general aviation terminal, which it will manage upon completion. “We are continuing to listen to our customers and adding people and infrastructure in the places they are asking for additional support,” said Aragon.
Universal has some 300 employees throughout Latin America, based at more than 20 airports and providing customers with trip support, fueling, and handling. “We still feel Latin America is an emerging market with great possibilities for business aviation,” said Aragon. “As the regional economies begin to grow, we’ll be ready to support expanded international and regional traffic, as we have continued to invest and expand our operational footprint in the region.”