Tracking TAP's Turnaround

By what little is "holy" in the airline world, TAP Air Portugal should be gone, a footnote in history like Begium's Sabena, Olympic of Greece, Malev of Hungary, Swissair and Balkan Bulgarian. Almost by accident, though, TAP survived into the second decade of the century and was lucky to run into David Neeleman, the Portuguese-speaking American who founded JetBlue Airways and Azul of Brazil. A desperate (and broke) Portuguese government dumped TAP on Neeleman in mid-2015 and he has crafted a noteworthy revival. Melding Lisbon's felicitous geography at the far edge of Europe, Portugal's charm as a visitor destination, excess aircraft from the Azul fleet and JetBlue's strong domestic feeder network created a nimble transatlantic alternative with great connections around Europe and into Africa. TAP remains a work in progress--new Airbus planes have replaced the hand-me-down fleet, for example--but the carrier is profitable and growing. In fact, TAP's problem now is its success. Its Lisbon hub is swamped with traffic. Here is 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. -- Joe Brancatelli

NOVEMBER 21, 2019: TAP ADDS "NEW" ROUTES TO CANADA AND AZORES
TAP Air Portugal has expanded rapidly since the carrier was saved by David Neeleman's investors group. The airline will continue to grow in 2020, too. The "newest" route to TAP's Lisbon hub will be from Montreal. There'll be six weekly flights using single-aisle Airbus A321LR aircraft. The service begins May 23, the first time in 25 years that TAP has flown to Montreal. Next year's other "new" route? A nonstop between Boston/Logan and Ponta Delgada, the economic capital of the Azores. There'll be five weekly flights, also using A321LRs. Those flights will compete with the sole year-round U.S. route of Azores Airlines, formerly known as SATA International. TAP hasn't flown from Boston to the Azores since early in 2001.

JUNE 20, 2019: TAP'S FAST GROWTH CREATES UNHAPPY BUSINESS FLYERS
The revival of TAP Air Portugal engineered by David Neeleman has its storybook elements: The carrier's fleet has been overhauled with new-off-the-line Airbus aircraft, the in-flight service is dramatically improved, new U.S. and Canadian gateways have been added and there are excellent connections over TAP's Lisbon hub to Europe and Africa. And, oh, by the way, TAP's revival contributed mightily to Portugal's economic resurgence and it's not unfair to say Neeleman may have helped rescue an entire nation.

But business travelers are paying a price for TAP's new prominence. Lisbon Airport is much too small for the capacity that TAP has poured into its hub. The result? Far too many transatlantic flights arrive and depart from "hard stands," requiring annoying bus rides to the terminal. Customs and immigration facilities at Lisbon (above) are overwhelmed and travelers report long lines and even longer waits. And business class travelers at New York/Kennedy receive no lounge access because there is no club to use at the JetBlue terminal where TAP is located. "It puts you off TAP," one JoeSentMe member fumed last week. "The lines, the buses and nowhere to wait out a delay [at JFK] make you feel like TAP does not take business customers seriously."

Neeleman admits he's heard the complaints, but can't fix the most serious issues. "We wish we had a better airport in Lisbon," Neeleman told me this week after he arrived on TAP's inaugural flight to Washington/Dulles. "We are in need of more space." On the customs issue, however, Neeleman insists lines and waits are decreasing now that 170 more people have been added to help with the processing. The JFK lounge gap is a matter of logistics, however. About 40 percent of TAP's connecting passengers at JFK come from JetBlue, making it logical for the airline to stay in the terminal. "Once we get 'em on the plane, they are okay. Everyone knows how much we improved our business class product in-flight" he says. "Before and after, that's been the problem."

DECEMBER 13, 2018: TAP AND UNITED ADD ROUTES FROM SAN FRANCISCO
United Airlines is playing connect-the-dots from its huge San Francisco hub. There aren't any new cities for United's route map, but there are new routes from SFO. Most notable: daily flights to New Delhi starting December 5 using Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. There will also be three weekly flights to Melbourne; additional nonstops to Seoul; twice-daily runs to Toronto; and daily service to Amsterdam. Two existing routes, to Auckland and Papeete, are being upgraded to year-round service. Separately (although related because TAP Air Portugal is in the Star Alliance with United), TAP says it will add nonstops between San Francisco and Lisbon. Five weekly flights begin in June and will buttress two previously announced new 2019 routes to Lisbon. TAP will add service to Chicago/O'Hare and Washington/Dulles, both of which are also United hubs.

DECEMBER 4, 2018: LISBON AIRPORT IS "CROWDED" BUT "NOT COLLAPSING"
Lisbon's Humberto Delgado Airport is choking on its own growth. The revival and expansion of TAP Air Portugal is the primary reason. And as aviation-insider site Blue Swan Daily now notes, the double-digit annual rise in passengers is pushing the airport to the brink. The Portuguese airport authority begs to differ. "We don't have a collapsing airport, we have a crowded airport," snaps the chief commercial officer, Francisco Pita. Um, okay, sure, whatever you say, pal. Good luck on the ride to your next bus gate.

NOVEMBER 29, 2018: TAP ADDS TWO MORE NORTH AMERICAN ROUTES
It was near collapse before JetBlue founder David Neeleman brought in a syndicate to remake it, but TAP Air Portugal is on a roll. The airline announced this week that it will start two new U.S. routes to its Lisbon hub next year. On June 1, TAP will add five weekly nonstops to Chicago. Effective June 16, TAP will also add five weekly flights to Washington/Dulles. Both of those are United Airlines hubs and TAP is a Star Alliance member. TAP will deploy newly delivered Airbus A330neos on the runs. The aircraft will be configured with 34 of TAP's newest business class seatbeds, a traditional coach cabin and an Economy Plus section offering chairs with 34 inches of legroom.

SEPTEMBER 13, 2018: TAP WILL FLY TO TEL AVIV
Tel Aviv gets another route from Europe that could aid connecting U.S. flyers. The revived TAP Air Portugal in April will launch a daily Airbus A321LR route from its Lisbon hub. TAP flies from Boston, Newark, Toronto, New York/JFK and Miami to Lisbon.

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/JFK. 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 is also become a potent force in connecting domestic travelers to a slate of 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 jet travel, free "stopovers" in the country of 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, recharged under the leadership of a consortium fronted by 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 new management led by JetBlue Airways founder 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'll 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 a destination served in Europe or Africa by TAP. More information about the stopover program is here.

MARCH 3, 2016: AS BRAZIL WEAKENS, NEELEMAN MOVES AZUL PLANES TO TAP
Unless you are a regular south of the border, you probably don't pay 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 Buenos Aires and New York/Kennedy. 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 New York by now," Neeleman told me last week while promoting TAP Air Portugal. "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.

FEB. 25, 2016: AT EUROPE'S EDGE, TAP TRIES LISBON A TRANSATLANTIC HUB
Cynics might suggest Lisbon had its best moment as a hub in 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, best known as founder of JetBlue Airways. A group of investors and Neeleman purchased control of TAP Air Portugal last year and they hope to turn it into a transatlantic player by using Lisbon's advantageous position at the edge of the European continent.

"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 bit player in the Star Alliance, it was near collapse and had all but disappeared from North America, serving only Miami and Newark. Since Neeleman and partners have run TAP, however, they cleaned up the carrier's operations, stabilized its balance sheet and reconfigured the Europe route network.

Now comes the hard part: reestablishing TAP in the United States. It will start by resuming flights to Boston 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 a lot of people always say they'll visit, but never do. Now they will have a reason," claims the ever-upbeat Neeleman.

FEB. 25, 2016: TAP'S BACK WITH CHEAP FARES, FREE STOPOVERS AND FREE SEATS
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 and New York/Kennedy, TAP is offering coach fares as low as $799 roundtrip. But it is also pushing 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 Lisbon stopover for as long as three days and/or free flights to Porto, Portugal's second-largest city. 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
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. Neeleman, who was born in Brazil and did missionary work there, speaks fluent Portuguese. He will 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.

This column is Copyright 2020 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2020 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.