TAP Air Portugal will operate its entire fleet this summer as the national carrier prepares to operate 90% of the capacity it offered in summer 2019.
“We are lucky to have one of the youngest Airbus fleets in Europe,” TAP CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener told me. “But we are also having discussions with suppliers, the chain around the fleet. We are spending a lot of time working on our fleet [with] our different partners.”
Rolls-Royce Engine Reliability on A330neo
One such partner is engine manufacturer Rolls Royce. TAP is operating a fleet of 19 A330neos and back in November 2018 became the first airline to operate the A330-900 with the engine-maker’s Trent 7000.
“The A330-900 is the right aircraft, but one issue is the reliability of the engine. We are struggling with some programs we have to deploy on the Rolls Royce engine and that is for me the main concern,” Ourmières-Widener said. The issue is limiting the availability of the A330-900.
“The A330neo with 100% availability is a good product. But we are working hard with Rolls-Royce and Airbus to improve the availability of the aircraft,” she said. “It will depend on how we can manage the program of improvement of these engines for this fleet. We are discussing with Rolls-Royce what we have to solve.”
TAP’s A330-900s operate on trunk routes from its Lisbon hub to North and South America. The type has recently been deployed on two new routes to Cancun in Mexico and Caracas, Venezuela.
TAP A321LR Deployment
“We are operating 96 aircraft [when including subsidiary TAP Express] and we are still receiving A321LRs,” she said. At least two more A321LRs should join the TAP fleet in 2022. TAP has eight A321LRs in operation at present alongside 10 A321neo and 11 A320neo aircraft.
“The A321LR is an amazing aircraft, and we are exploring for next summer what kind of destinations it could serve,” Ourmières-Widener said. In 2022, the airline is focused on rebuilding its network and the capacity of the A321LR plays a key role.
“What is amazing for us [is, with] TAP’s geographical position so [far] west in Europe, it is really giving us the opportunity of reaching east coast destinations in North and South America with the A321LR—for example to Recife in Brazil,” she said. The A321LR also can reach destinations to the south across Africa.
TAP is meanwhile increasing its regional fleet with second-hand Embraer E190/195 E1s for Portugália Airlines, which operates under the TAP Express brand. TAP Express also has eight ATR 72-600s in operation.
Ourmières-Widener said the fleet of E-Jets will grow because the size of the aircraft is ideal for feeding its Lisbon hub. TAP Express currently operates 13—nine E190-E1s and four E195-E1s—but that total will soon rise to 19 aircraft. The additional aircraft will be second-hand E1s. “The E1 is the right size“, she said.
TAP needs flexibility and agility to feed some routes, not all of which are big enough to support an aircraft the size of an A320, hence the importance of the Embraer jets.
“The only limitation we have this year is about the fleet. We are flying our aircraft a lot. And we are looking at how to reinforce our organizational setup to make sure we are doing everything when an aircraft is not able to be operational, for example in terms of maintenance,” Ourmières-Widener said.
On the cargo side, TAP has been modifying A330-200 passenger carriers into freighters. “But they are on the ground, because we are still waiting for the EASA certification and cannot operate them for now,” Ourmières-Widener said.
Opportunity in Africa
TAP Air Portugal is continuing to look for new opportunities in its major long-haul markets Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa.
The airline currently operates to 11 destinations in Brazil, one of its long-standing traditional overseas markets. “TAP is really the international airline for Brazil with the most significant offer. It is a market that can evolve quickly. Our partners, the two domestic airlines [LCC] GOL and Azul are a real key for us,” Ourmières-Widener said. “Brazil is a strategic market.”
The TAP CEO is aware certain facts must be kept in mind while exploring new opportunities in Brazil. These include a focus on the political situation in Brazil, as presidential elections are to be held by the end of 2022. TAP is looking carefully not only to the revenue side of its operations but also at potential devaluation of the Brazilian Real, which could be critical. “TAP has a close relationship with the government in Brazil,” Ourmières-Widener said. “And we are reinforcing our team in Brazil with a new general manager.”
Across the Atlantic, Star Alliance member TAP serves eight destinations in eight countries across sub-Saharan Africa. “Africa has been the most reliable market during the crisis, honestly,” Ourmières-Widener said. But with more airlines worldwide looking for new markets, other carriers are also aiming for a wider footprint in Africa. The TAP CEO acknowledges the growing competition, “but I think people always underestimate what [Africa] means from an operational standpoint [for an airline] and also organization,” she said.
TAP is keen to expand the African market further. “We are willing, because there are some routes which are successful,” Ourmières-Widener said. “We are in discussions with a number of countries to prepare for summer 2023 with more frequencies, new destinations.”
One key destination is Luanda, capital of Angola. “We are always looking to increase this route,” Ourmières-Widener said. “But there are also elections in September, which we are following.” She noted that African countries, post-COVID-19, will have new strategic plans. “We want to be part of it,” she said. And expansion plans may prove difficult, she added, citing a lack of slot availability. Also, TAP’s safety and security teams are involved in the carrier’s Africa operations. “If opportunities are happening, we will consider them,” the CEO said.
Ourmières-Widener emphasizes TAP’s geographical position in far western Europe, as well as a more southern hub for the continent. It is not only ideal as a hub for North and South America but “Lisbon should be even more connected to Africa,” she said.