ANALYSIS: Aerolineas Argentinas forges ahead with fleet renewal plan

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New SkyTeam member Aerolineas Argentinas is hoping 2013 will mark a turning point in its fortunes, as it welcomes new widebodies into its fleet in a move to turn around its unprofitable international operations.

The Buenos Aires-based carrier has undergone tumultuous changes in the last decade or so, moving from bankruptcy to privatisation and then renationalisation by the Argentinean government in 2008.

Since then, the airline has been working to re-establish itself among its more profitable peers in Latin America and to shed the image problems that have plagued it for years.

Once operating a fragmented and ageing fleet of Boeing 737 Classics, 747s and MD-80s, Aerolineas has taken the first steps in a fleet overhaul that will play out over the next three years.

Its fleet now comprises 26 737-700s and 800s, as well as 11 A340s. Seven of the A340s are the -300 variant while the remaining four are -200s. Aerolineas' domestic subsidiary Austral operates 20 Embraer 190s.

Saying that the airline's long-haul operations still represent a "significant challenge", the airline's vice-president of fleet Sergio Garcia Gomez tells Flightglobal: "We need better economies for the aircraft."

In 2013, Aerolineas will add six 737-800s, four A330-200s and two A340-300s, tells Flightglobal. It will retire two A340-300s from its operating fleet and five 737 Classics that are in storage, he adds.

Aerolineas expects to receive its first leased A330 in the third quarter of this year and plans to operate its new widebodies to destinations in the Americas, such as Miami, Bogota and Mexico City. The carrier is also hoping to resume its Buenos Aires-New York John F. Kennedy route by end-2013 with the A330s, says Gomez.

The New York flights were suspended by the airline following its renationalisation in 2008 and were never resumed.

Gomez believes that Aerolineas' new A330s will help the carrier regain profitability on its long-haul operations, as he points out that its A340s are expensive to operate. The A330s will also act as a bridge solution for its long haul needs as it evaluates a potential 787 Dreamliner or A350 order in the longer term. Aerolineas is evaluating both the 787-9 and the A350-1000, says Gomez.

Aerolineas is in discussions with Airbus to acquire new A330-200s with an increased maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 242 metric tonnes, which Gomez says will allow the carrier to fly non-stop to destinations in Europe. However, these A330-200s with the increased MTOW, first announced by Airbus in 2012, will be available to airlines only in 2015.

In the narrowbody segment, Aerolineas expects to finalise soon agreements with lessors on 13 to 15 737-800s, including the six that will be delivered in 2013. These remaining aircraft will be delivered through 2016.

Gomez points out that the average age of Aerolineas' fleet is now 7.5 years compared with 18 to 19 years before the fleet rationalisation kicked in. "We have much better operating efficiency now," he says.

The fleet changes are expected to help Aerolineas achieve a positive financial result in 2014 and 2015, says Gomez. The carrier lost $486 million in 2010, the last year with available data, the airline said last September.

Whether Aerolineas succeeds in its financial turnaround could have implications for airlines in the rest of the Latin American region, which have frequently criticised the Argentinean government for its protectionist policies that benefit Aerolineas. Latin American carriers have complained in recent years about difficulties in obtaining rights to fly to other Argentinean cities besides Buenos Aires.

Uruguay's Pluna, for example, ceased operations in July 2012, citing Argentina's refusal to grant it rights to serve new destinations in the country as one of the key reasons behind its demise.

The issue of Argentina's protectionism, often raised by the region's airlines chiefs as a challenge to overcome, got an airing again at a panel during last year's Latin American and Caribbean Air Transport Association (ALTA) Airline Leaders Forum in Panama City. The tense session culminated in an angry rebuttal by Aerolineas' Juan Pablo Lafosse, who did not agree with the other airline executives that protectionist government policies shielded the carrier.

If Aerolineas does achieve financial success with its fleet rationalisation plan, it would only be good for the region and the airline. The carrier will then be able to compete on the same level with its bigger and more profitable peers, even as a wave of consolidation in the Latin American region in recent years has reduced the number of players in the field.