San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Economic Turbulence Grounds Flights

Always a volatile industry to begin with, recent economic turbulence has local airlines more topsy-turvy than ever.

Last week, Central American carrier TACA announced it would lay off an unspecified number of workers and cut back on flights due to the economic downturn. Meanwhile, however, U.S.-based Continental Airlines announced it would add more flights to Costa Rica from hubs in Houston and Newark, New Jersey.

“Mainly, it’s based on consumer demand,” said Garlos Granados, sales manager at Continental Airlines Costa Rica.

While the number of tourists flying into Costa Rica “has picked up a little” over the last month, Continental’s growth plans should not be taken as a sign of an industry wide rebound, according to Alexi Huntley, Sales and Marketing Director at Nature Air.

“The fact of the matter,” Huntley said, “is that the overall market is shrinking.”

Huntley said Nature Air had seen about a 10 percent decrease in passengers in January compared to the previous year, causing the company to reduce the number of flights offered and lay off about 3 percent of its work force.

TACA officials estimated that the company had seen a drop in passengers between 5 and 10 percent in the same period, with tourism traffic in Guanacaste being the hardest hit. However, communications coordinator Sofia Valverde said the company’s 1,300 employees in Costa Rica would not be facing job cuts, for now.

The layoff “at the moment only affects workers in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras,” Valverde said. “It will not affect TACA Costa Rica or (TACA affiliate) SANSA, for now.”

Last week, DanielOduberAirport in Liberia announced that tourist arrivals had increased 3.5 percent in 2008 to 420,000, up from 405,000 in 2007. But Huntley said arrivals for the Liberia airport, a better indicator than JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport near San José of tourist numbers because it caters almost exclusively to vacationers, were down 9 percent in January 2009 compared to the same month last year.

With the deep discounts being offered, however, airline officials expressed optimism that tourists would respond.

“The market is really price sensitive,”  said SANSA business manager Cesar Solís, citing the success of the airline’s new Web site and cheap fares.

“I think it’ll get better,” agreed Huntley. “People are going to want to live their lives again. Ironically, there’s never been a better time to travel.”


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