The Tactical Traveler by Joe Brancatelli
The TAP Turnaround: How It Happened
By what little there is "holy" in the airline world, TAP Air Portugal should be long gone, a footnote in history like Sabena of Belgium, Olympic of Greece, Malev of Hungary and Swissair. Almost by accident, though, TAP survived into the second decade of the 21st-century and was lucky enough to run into David Neeleman, the Portuguese-speaking American who founded JetBlue Airways and Azul of Brazil. A desperate (and broke) Portuguese government happily dumped TAP on Neeleman in mid-2015 and he's been crafting a noteworthy revival. Melding Lisbon's felicitous geography at the edge of Europe and Portugal's undiscovered charms as a visitor destination with some excess aircraft from the Azul fleet and JetBlue's strong domestic feeder network has created a nimble transatlantic alternative to the multi-carrier combines fronted by British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa. TAP remains a work in progress, of course, and nothing is ever a given in the wild airline business, but the signs are good. Here's how we've covered what's happened since Neeleman and his investment group have taken control. The most recent item is at the top, of course. But read up from the bottom for the full context.
OCTOBER 19, 2017: TAP GETS BY WITH A LOT OF HELP FROM ITS FRIEND JETBLUE
Travelers who don't pay attention to JetBlue Airways probably still think it's a quirky alternate airline with blue potato chips based at New York/Kennedy Airport. But the fact is that JetBlue is growing much faster at Boston's Logan Airport and Fort Lauderdale than at its JFK hub and hometown. It's also become a potent force in connecting domestic travelers to a varied slate of international code-share and interlining carriers. Which explains why JetBlue's initial foray into Minneapolis/St. Paul, the largest market it doesn't currently serve, is coming at Logan. There'll be three daily Logan-MSP flights starting May 3 and the flights are timed to accommodate connections to JetBlue's Logan partners. If you think that's a rhetorical stretch, consider the revelation this week from TAP Air Portugal. The reinvigorated Portuguese carrier, now operated by David Neeleman, JetBlue's founder, says 30 percent of its Logan customers arrive on a JetBlue flight. And the connecting passengers aren't just headed to Lisbon. More than half of the JetBlue customers who switch to TAP at Logan continue to other TAP destinations in Europe and Africa.
AUGUST 3, 2017: TAP'S FREE STOPOVER CAN NOW LAST FIVE DAYS
In the early days of transatlantic jet travel, free "stopovers" in the country of your arrival were a standard perk. Now the practice has virtually disappeared and airlines will charge separately if you don't make your onward connection within hours of your transatlantic arrival. But TAP Air Portugal, now revitalized under the leadership of a consortium fronted by JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman, has brought the perk back. Last year TAP revived a free, three-day stopover in Portugal as part of roundtrip, transatlantic nonstops to Lisbon and Porto. Beginning with travel in September, however, stopover privileges will be extended to five days. There are also other perks attached to the stopover, including hotel discounts, free museum and attraction admissions and free wine with meals. TAP and its partners have even created a "stopover app" to help guide you around the country via smartphone.
DECEMBER 8, 2016: TAP AIR PORTUGAL RETURNS TO CANADA
TAP Air Portugal continues its revival, thanks partially to a new management crew led by JetBlue Airways found David Neeleman and thanks partially to the suddenly trendy nature of travel to Portugal. The Star Alliance carrier announced this week that it will return to the Toronto-Lisbon run on July 10. TAP hasn't flown between Canada and Portugal since 1994. After the 23-year hiatus, there will be five weekly Airbus A330-200 flights in the summer and three weekly flights in the off-season.
NOVEMBER 17, 2016: TAP REVIVES THE FREE STOPOVER
TAP Air Portugal is offering a free stopover in Lisbon for as long as three days to go with its low connecting fares. Prices start at $450 roundtrip to Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Zurich, Rome, Geneva, Bologna or Milan. It's $540 roundtrip in coach to London or Manchester. Travel is available from January 16 to April 6. There's no purchase-by date, but expect the lowest fares midweek. The free stopover allows you to visit Portugal when you travel onward to another destination served by TAP in Europe or Africa. More information about the stopover program is here.
MARCH 3, 2016: AS BRAZIL WEAKENS, NEELEMAN MOVES AZUL PLANES TO TAP AIR PORTUGAL
Unless you are a regular south of the border, you probably don't pay much attention to the goings on in the skies of South America. Let me update you in a word: grim. Global carriers have curtailed service to Venezuela since the socialist government there makes it almost impossible to repatriate funds. Meanwhile, the economies of Brazil and Argentina are in steep decline and so are the country's airlines. Aerolineas Argentinas, which has been up, down, over and out in the past few decades, is down again. For about the zillionth time, it'll drop flights between its Buenos Aires hub and New York/JFK. And seven-year-old Azul, created by JetBlue founder David Neeleman, won't be coming to JFK at all. "We certainly expected to be in the New York market by now," Neeleman told me last week while promoting TAP Air Portugal, which his investment group controls. "The Brazilian economy is so weak that it can't happen." In fact, Neeleman is crafting TAP's revival with planes shifted from Azul. More than a dozen newish Azul aircraft have moved to Portugal to operate routes for TAP. As a result, Azul will cut capacity this year. Also slashing routes: Gol of Brazil, which recently received a cash injection from the HNA Group, parent company of China's fast-growing Hainan Airlines. Delta Air Lines owns 16 percent of Gol, but Delta president Ed Bastian says Brazil's economy doesn't justify a further investment. Which is dire news for cash-starved Brazilian carriers, especially since the government this week officially raised the cap on foreign investment to 49 percent. It's hard to see who'd be willing to bet on Brazilian aviation just now, however.
FEBRUARY 25, 2016: AT THE EDGE OF EUROPE, TAP TRIES LISBON AS A TRANSATLANTIC HUB
Cynics might suggest Lisbon had its best moment as a hub in the movie Casablanca when Ilsa and Victor Lazlo use their letters of transit to board an Air France flight to Lisbon and freedom. But don't tell that to David Neeleman (left), best known as the founder of JetBlue Airways. A group of investors led by Neeleman purchased majority control of TAP Air Portugal last year and they hope to turn it into a transatlantic player by using Lisbon's advantageous geographic position at the edge of Europe. "If you want to fly to Southern Europe, why not fly TAP through Lisbon?" he asked me this week. "We fly to dozens of destinations and you don't backtrack to get anywhere." Neeleman's problem? TAP is a small player in the Star Alliance, it was near collapse in recent decades and had all but disappeared from North America, serving only Miami and Newark. Since Neeleman and his partners have run TAP, however, they've cleaned up the carrier's operations, stabilized its balance sheet, ordered new planes and reconfigured the Europe route network. Now comes the hard part: reestablishing TAP in the United States. It'll start by resuming flights to Boston/Logan in June and New York/Kennedy in July. To ply those routes, Neeleman is importing Airbus A330s that have flown for Azul Brazilian Airlines, the JetBlue clone that Neeleman launched seven years ago. Besides a modern in-flight product--there will be 20 business class beds, 104 premium economy seats and 147 coach chairs--TAP will tap into Neeleman's first creation. Flights will operate from JetBlue's Terminal 5 at JFK and Terminal C at Boston/Logan and TAP will code-share on several dozen JetBlue domestic routes. Besides super-aggressive introductory coach and business class fares (see below), TAP will bundle Lisbon and Europe fares with free stopovers in Lisbon and free tickets to Porto. "Lisbon is one of the places that a lot of people always say they'll visit, but never do. Now they'll have a reason," claims the ever-upbeat Neeleman.
FEBRUARY 25, 2016: TAP IS BACK WITH CHEAP FARES, FREE STOPOVERS AND FREE TICKETS
As explained above, TAP Air Portugal is making a bid to grab a piece of the transatlantic market and reestablish Lisbon as a European hub. To promote its restored flights to Boston/Logan and New York/Kennedy, TAP is offering coach fares as low as $799 roundtrip. But it is also pushing out fabulous business class fares, too. From Boston, business class prices are as low as $1,992 roundtrip for travel from June 11 to September 30. From JFK, the price is $2,299 roundtrip for travel from July 1 to September 5. From the existing Newark hub, it's $2,299 roundtrip for flights from May 17 to September 5. From Miami, it's $2,499 roundtrip for flights between May 17 and September 5. Tickets must be purchased by March 31. But wait, there's more, as they may or may not say on Portuguese television. Tickets come with a free stopover in Lisbon for as long as three days and/or free flights to Porto, Portugal's second-largest city and the eponymous hometown of the port wine industry. The TAP Web site may not yet reflect all the fares and offers, so check with a good travel agent.
JUNE 11, 2015: JETBLUE FOUNDER GETS CONTROL OF FLOUNDERING TAP AIR PORTUGAL
Star Alliance carrier TAP Air Portugal is being sold by the Portuguese government to a consortium led by David Neeleman. If that name sounds familiar, Neeleman founded JetBlue Airways and currently runs Azul, the Brazilian airline he launched after being ousted from JetBlue. The deal for a controlling stake includes a minimal purchase price, the promise to invest hundreds of millions of euro into the debt-laden carrier and a guarantee that TAP will remain based at Lisbon airport for at least a generation. Neeleman, who was born in Brazil and did missionary work there, speaks fluent Portuguese. He'll almost surely forge a close bond between TAP and Azul given the natural affinity between the world's two primary Portuguese-speaking nations. As it has contracted in recent years, TAP has pared back U.S. service and now only flies to Lisbon from Newark and Miami, two markets with strong Portuguese communities.
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