BOGOTA, Colombia — In its quest to make air travel accessible to the masses, Colombia’s no-frills carrier, VivaColombia, would be more than happy to rip out the seats and make passengers stand — if it only could.
“There are people out there right now researching whether you can fly standing up,” VivaColombia’s founder and CEO William Shaw told the Miami Herald. “We’re very interested in anything that makes travel less expensive.”
Shaw was considering ideas about the future of air travel last week as VivaColombia, which has daily flights from Medellin to Miami, is expanding its fleet amid Colombia’s booming tourism market.
Last week, the company announced it’s adding 50 Airbus 320s to its line, with the first one going into operation in May of 2018. The new planes have more seats, are more fuel efficient and will have lower maintenance costs — savings the company plans to pass on to customers.
But the holy grail for low-cost airlines is packing passengers into standing chairs similar to bar stools.
The idea was first floated by Airbus in 2003 and several airlines have promoted the idea without ever receiving regulatory approval. For the moment, Colombia doesn’t appear it will be an exception.
Reacting to the idea of standing flights, Civil Aviation Director Alfredo Bocanegra told RCN radio in Colombia last week that he wouldn’t sign off on it.
“People have to travel like human beings,” he said. “Anyone who has ridden on public mass transit knows that it’s not the best when you’re standing.”
That the innovative idea is floating around Colombian aviation shouldn’t be a surprise. The country has always been something of an air-travel early adopter.
Because the South American country is carved up by the Andes mountain chain, overland trips have always been arduous and dangerous. Colombia’s flagship carrier, Avianca, was founded in 1919, making it the oldest existing commercial airline company in the Western Hemisphere — and second oldest in the world after KLM.
VivaColombia is part of VivaAir, which is based in Panama and was developed by Irelandia Aviation, a pioneer in the low cost carrier, or LLC, field. Irelandia’s managing partner is Declan Ryan, the founder of LLC granddaddy Ryanair.
Shaw, a native of Mexico, worked in the airline industry for a decade, including a stint in Colombia, before heading off to Stanford in 2004 to get an MBA. VivaColombia was his thesis.
“I wanted to pursue the model that was winning around the world,” he said, “which was the low cost model.”
By the time Viva had its inaugural flight in 2012, however, an LLC competitor, Easy Fly, had begun operating here. Even so, VivaColombia is now the country’s No. 2 carrier after Avianca.
The Colombian skies are likely to get more competitive and crowded as the country continues to shed its violent reputation and burnish its new one as tourism hotspot. Indeed, international tourism was up 43 percent from January to April this year, versus last year.
And awareness about Colombia is likely to get a boost when Pope Francis visits in September. The head of the Catholic Church is expected to visit Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena and Villavicencio, and Shaw said VivaColombia will be adding an additional 20 flights between the cities to keep up with demand.
Despite the expansion, VivaColombia had a net loss of 18 billion pesos in 2016, or about $6.4 million, according to Civil Aviation records. And it has been accused at times of cutting too many corners. In May, regulators launched an investigation after the company allegedly canceled a flight without properly reimbursing passengers.
Shaw says the company’s goal is to give working-class Colombians — those who have never been able to afford to fly — a chance to know their country.
“Who cares if you don’t have an in-flight entertainment system for a one-hour flight?” he said. “Who cares that there aren’t marble floors … or that you don’t get free peanuts?”
And maybe some day, people won’t care if there are seats either.