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LABACE Returns To The World Stage

LABACE, Latin America’s largest business aviation event, returns after three years to an altered world. The players have changed in both the commercial and the business aviation worlds, and the pandemic has brought new customers to private aviation. As usual, the show, at São Paulo’s Congonhas Airport, lasts for three days (August 9-11) and doesn’t get started until 12 pm each day then welcoming visitors to convivial conversations in the evening among the static display and exhibits until 8 pm (and often later).

Legislation finally regulating fractional ownership in Brazil has brought new firms to offer fractional shares and new flyers to purchase them. More airports have moved from public to private management, others will soon do so, and Brazil’s first private business aviation airport, Catarina, has opened and prospered. World demand for agricultural commodities has left those in Brazil’s agribusiness with hard currency in their pockets, along with a perpetual need to more easily reach far-flung fields of crops or herds. And eVTOLs seem as close to fruition in Brazil as anywhere on Earth, not only as home to Embraer’s Eve spin-off—one of the strong contenders to be among the winners in the race to create a viable electric aircraft ecosystem—but as having already been the location of the first trials to use helicopters to replicate future urban air mobility (UAM) operations.

With all these changes, LABACE returns to Congonhas, shifted a few hundred meters from the historic (“decrepit”) hangars that traditionally housed it, with precautions against Covid added to forecasts of rain, but with the same qualified visitors from across the country and the continent, eager to see old friends and new products.

Pandemic Problems

The pandemic began with the Brazilian air passenger market dominated by Gol and LATAM. Upstart Azul, blocked from established, profitable markets by a slot system that favored the status quo, had established its hub at underused Viracopos Airport in Campinas, serving new and small destinations with a mixed fleet of Embraer, ATR, and even Caravan aircraft. The pandemic found Azul with a fleet adaptable to reduced demand, and it also shattered the system that kept the airline frozen out.

At the height of the pandemic, the country’s air routes were reduced to a skeleton that carried essential medical personnel and supplies. Delays in making connections among diminished routes, however, made private flying the only option for some business travelers who absolutely had to reach a destination.

A remarkable departure from the Brazilian business aviation scene is Icon, which leaped from a department store’s flight department to a deep-pocketed charter operator. Its model of operating aircraft it owned, rather than those of others, was capital-intensive in a market where capital is expensive, and after a few years its owner chose to exit the market. Among those that purchased significant Icon assets was VOAR, a Goiania-based operator that took over Icon’s Congonhas hanger and is exhibiting at LABACE after many years’ absence.

Amaro Aviation is a new firm, with an established pedigree. When the Amaro family merged TAM into LATAM, the charter operations and Textron dealer representation were kept as TAM Aviação Executivo; Amaro Aviation is another scion. The aviation expertise and vision of company president Francisco Lyra, a former chairman of ABAG (the Brazilian General Aviation Association), is also behind Catarina Executive Airport and the GATGRU business aviation terminal at Guarulhos Airport. Lyra is still pursuing other endeavors that are moving from the drawing board to reality.

fresh exhibits

TAM Aviação Executivo, Textron’s local representative, is once again LABACE’s largest exhibitor and is bringing a variety of Cessna, Bell, and Beechcraft aircraft to the show. TAM AE also has the country’s largest business aviation MRO hanger, at Jundiaí Airport.

Lider Aviation, with a network of FBOs around the country, will again be showing the HondaJet, which has undergone many upgrades since the very light jet made an appearance at the last LABACE three years ago. The current version, the HondaJet Elite S includes a full-service galley, private lavatory with an optional belted seat, and an industry-first Bongiovi sound system. Additionally, the twinjet’s maximum takeoff weight has been raised by 200 pounds, enough for an added 120 nm of range or an additional passenger during a typical mission.

The HondaJet is certified for single-pilot operation and often owner-flown. Its flight deck includes a customized Garmin G3000 avionics suite, and FAA DataComm and ACARS have been added to replace traditional voice commands with text-based messaging, where available. The aircraft’s avionics are also complemented by the newly introduced nosewheel advanced steering augmentation system.

Fractional ownership was long unregulated in Brazil, but many firms, notably Avantto, found workarounds. Regulation has brought the security of a legal framework and more competitors. These include recently launched Amaro Aviation, which has focused on fractional shares, and Solojet, a longtime business aviation service provider, and its Solojet Shares.

Airport Activities

The last grand business aviation event before the pandemic was the opening of Catarina Executive Airport near São Paulo—Brazil’s first private, dedicated business aviation airport. Conceived during a boom, construction continued during Brazil’s longest modern recession, as competitors dropped out and as controller JHSF sold off parts of its other businesses. The original plan suffered some scaling back, although not to essentials such as the 8,100-foot runway, which accommodates the largest, longest-range business jets. That long-range planning bore fruit. Elon Musk’s Gulfstream 650ER landed there in May, and 80 of the country’s fleet of 749 business jets regularly use the airport.

Another accommodation for business jets is the GATGRU business aviation terminal at Guarulhos airport. Like Catarina, it offers customs and immigration services for business jets, unlike most Brazilian airports where business aviation passengers wait in line with everyone arriving from Florida.

An international facility for business jet passengers at Congonhas has been dedicated but isn’t functioning due to staffing issues. Long-standing plans to internationalize Sorocaba Airport, an important business aviation MRO hub, especially for Embraer, have stalled as the airport awaits privatization.

Antares Polo Aeronautica is near Goiania, 113 nm from Brasilia and the geographic center of Brazil, in the heart of the Central-West and its strong agribusiness-driven general aviation demand. Conceived as an aviation condominium, Antares has been long in the planning stage but is now moving earth for a 5,906- by 148-foot runway. Here at LABACE, Antares is selling hangar lots.

Plans to privatize Congonhas encountered protests by ABAG, as the request for proposals contained no provision for business aviation, despite its intense use not only for business travel but for MRO, as Lider’s main maintenance base. Campo de Marte, the city’s main general aviation airport, was deeded to the federal government, which may help preserve it from real estate interests greedy to build in the flight path, and it will also be privatized.

emerging technology

While eVTOLs come with a lot of Silicon Valley hype, that also means good things such as new technology and cutting-edge software, but there is also a surfeit of glossy brochures and lots of sizzle, but little steak.

Embraer has certified more aircraft than any other company in recent decades. Its vision of urban air mobility is of an ecosystem including vertiports, designated routes, and three layers of air traffic control: one for commercial aircraft, another tracking (though not controlling) drones, and a third for UAM. Embraer’s Atech subsidiary already supplies Brazil’s current air traffic control system and is working on drone traffic with the support of public authorities, leaving only the third layer pending.

Eve’s UAM proof of concept trial in Rio de Janeiro last year included 180 actual flights, with real passengers, performed by helicopters operated by Helisul, which is exhibiting for the first time at LABACE 2022. EVTOLs will eventually have to make the difficult transition from glossy brochures to the real world, and so far the closest to that breakthrough has been in Latin America.

Beyond the starting pistol, leading fractional operator Avantto has placed an order for 100 Eve eVTOLs. In a May press event, Avantto hinted at an IPO to raise funds to operate eVTOLs in Brazilian cities, and eventually elsewhere in South America.

Last year’s Rio Eve trial included airports as the main destinations. Helisul took advantage of the pandemic’s emptying of Rio’s Galeão Airport (international travel suffered most and longest) to land passengers on the air side of the airport, who found significant value in thus quickly leaping the distance from the curb to the gate. A luxury terminal operator—AEPM Brasil—has been selected to build and operate the VIP terminal at Guarulhos International Airport. It has secured a lease on a site strategically straddling the air and ground sides, promising a future vertiport with that same advantage.

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