The initial success of vaccination in Portugal, which allowed it to reopen sooner than its neighbors, has made it the destination one of the favorites in Europe. But the country’s rising tourism has coincided with the airline’s steady recovery path, amid a government-funded restructuring and ongoing pandemic uncertainties.
“Our capacity for this winter is already 80 per cent compared to 2019, and we expect to see a similar trend for next summer,” Christine Ourmières-Widener, CEO of TAP Air Portugal, told Skift on Wednesday Aviation Forum. “We didn’t really make significant changes to our network in terms of the region we serve. It’s more that we’ve played with the frequency and type of aircraft we fly to some destinations.”
The airline’s demand curve also varies from other European airlines, Ourmières-Widener told Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of Airline Weekly, when explaining the competitive advantage of TAP Air Portugal, despite the presence of airlines. low cost European in Portugal.
Not serving Asia, for example, and flying to Brazil before US airlines, the airline’s second largest market outside Portugal, with a significant increase in bookings, meant fewer restrictions and border obstacles.
“Brazil is a booming market,” Ourmières-Widener said, while adding that Brazilians cannot travel to the United States at present due to the significant delay in visa processing, but that they are heading to Europe. Of the 11 destinations in Brazil that TAP Air Portugal flew before the pandemic, 10 have returned for the winter season, albeit with lower frequencies. U.S. flights, including those to JFK and Newark, are being restored now that the U.S. has reopened all vaccinated travelers.
The return of travelers comes when the airline is undergoing a restructuring focused on adjusting capacity, reducing costs, improving balance sheets due to debt incurred during the pandemic, and increasing revenue efficiency. The latter has meant addressing the significant increase in customer expectations when it comes to having a digital experience, Ourmières-Widener of TAP Air Portugal said.
“So how can we improve this complete digital experience for our customers, but also how can we optimize our distribution structure that maintains our growth and revenue structure?”
Getting more information before and in the middle of the trip has become more meaningful, as customers seek to have more confidence in the overall experience, which in turn has meant improving the human experience in parallel with the digital experience, said Ourmières-Widener. As a result, the airline has focused on its call centers.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in calls even with updates from our online experience. And I have to say that TAP has been surprised by the pressure on the call center.”
The rise of TAP Air Portugal points especially to the demand from Brazil, but also to the demand for VFR and business travelers from Portuguese-speaking Africa, even in the midst of the pandemic.
“It was a very good surprise because it may not be predictable before the crisis, but yes, all of our markets in Africa have been really resilient, the most resilient market during the crisis,” Ourmières-Widener said. “And we maintained our network. It is also very key for us because we are connecting communities with a very strong bond with Portugal and that is something we maintained during the crisis. ”
Ourmières-Widener characterized the division of the Portuguese-speaking market as 60/40 VFR and business travelers, taking into account the oil and mining industries of this part of Africa, agreeing that when commodity prices are high, the Lusophone Africa’s commercial traffic is also high.
But will TAP Air Portugal expand beyond its historic bastion into Portuguese-speaking Africa to other parts of the continent?
“I think that by 2022, we still have to be very careful; why, because first, as you mentioned, we are restructuring, we are under state aid. It would be difficult for us to move from these countries without running a significant risk. by investing in new destinations “.
TAP Air Portugal’s strategy is to strengthen its network and positioning in Portuguese-speaking Africa, because the 2019 levels have not yet been reached.
“So we will first strengthen by making sure our positions are even stronger in 2022 and then we will see it in 2023. But our industry is still in full recovery,” Ourmières-Widener said.
“But 2023 will be, I’m sure, hopefully, another story, but 2022 will be about rebuilding.”
This will include the government taking a long-awaited decision on a new airport for Lisbon, on which Ourmières-Widener said the government is now willing to make a decision.
“As a leading national carrier that will give us the ability to build a plan and build growth, I believe beyond 2023 and 2024.”
The CEO of TAP Air Portugal confirmed the airline’s commitment to sustainability in the framework of the zero 2050 net targets of the global group of airlines IATA, as part of the restructuring, and which is currently working with energy suppliers in Portugal for sustainable fuel for next year. “It’s an expectation of our customers, but it’s also an expectation of our employees and also of our shareholders,” Ourmières-Widener said.
With all the changes that have taken place since the pandemic in the airline industry, the only constant has been the lack of diversity at the leadership level. As one of the few women to head a large airline, Ourmières-Widener told Unnikrishnan that she remembers being the only woman in the hangar when she started, after studying engineering.
“We need to prepare the new generation and identify new talent and make sure they are prepared for the next steps,” Ourmières-Widener said, adding that it is the responsibility of leaders to make sure this happens.
His message to young women: “It is possible. If they have the ambition and if they have no problem working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, because that is what the airline is asking of anyone, men or women. And I think the industry is willing to see it more and more, so it’s very positive. “