With no commercial airlines operating in the country, charter flights have increased month by month, despite the high cost.
By Vladimir Vasquez (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – Charter flights are currently the only option for leaving Nicaragua amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The public health crisis has restricted passage across land borders, and commercial flights remain suspended. The date for commercial flights to resume keeps getting pushed back.
Confidencial has confirmed an ever-increasing demand for these private flights over recent months. Charter flights are thriving, even though booking may involve a wait of several weeks and a cost of US $600 – $1300.
The charters are private flights offered by travel agencies in conjunction with the airlines. They’re offered to compensate for the lack of commercial flights in the country. There are fewer flights at higher prices, with limited space and schedules. Nonetheless, in August there were six flights of this type. In September, ten have already been scheduled, according to data from travel agent managers or executives.
Currently there’s a charter flight scheduled from Managua to Mexico and another to Los Angeles. There are another seven to Miami. The tenth flight is scheduled for the middle of the month, bound for Madrid, Spain. This information is drawn from offers posted on the travel agencies’ social media sites.
All current charter flights are full
Ana Palacios, general manager of Villapal Tours, stated that all current flights are fully booked. The executive admits that they had expected the flights from Miami to Managua to fill the quickest. In fact, it was the other way around with the flights from Managua to Miami filling first. Ana Palacios asserted that people are still calling to inquire about upcoming flights. “There’s an incredible demand,” she commented.
The demand comes principally from Nicaraguans with tourist visas who want to travel to another country, explained Palacios. The US is the principal destination, although Nicaraguans traveling there on tourist visas must purchase round-trip tickets. That is, they have to pay for two charter flights.
Scarcity and demand double the ticket price
Ticket prices have increased considerably as flights were reduced for the COVID-19 pandemic. The current charter flight is one of the most expensive options around. This month, a one-way trip from Managua to Miami costs up to US $640. Previously, it was possible to buy a round trip ticket to that destination for US $300-$400 dollars.
Similarly, a round-trip ticket from Managua to Los Angeles that previously cost around US $422 now costs $799 just for the one-way flight from Managua to Los Angeles.
Confidencial also confirmed that the flight scheduled to Madrid this month has a cost of $1,295. Before the pandemic, the price ranged from US $800-$900, depending on the season.
Meanwhile, a one-way ticket to Mexico today costs around US $550, whereas previously the round-trip fare between Managua and Mexico was around $640.
Carlos Schutze, general manager of the Aeromundo travel agency, offered some reasons for the increased cost of these flights. Basically, they’re more expensive because the airplanes aren’t based in either Managua or Miami. Instead, they have to come from El Salvador. Other charters, like those offered by Avianca, may come from Colombia or Costa Rica. Those offered by Aeromexico come from Mexico. Once the flight has concluded, Schutze continued, the airplane must return to its country of origin. This is factored in as “the price of another ticket”.
The main destinations are Mexico, Miami and Los Angeles
“Essentially, what we’re doing is making connections. The destinations are mainly Mexico and Miami, plus Los Angeles. From Los Angeles and Mexico, passengers can make connections to other cities or to Europe,” said Schutze.
He added that these charter flights are filling a need. They provide the means of travel for those who have to, or wish to, leave Nicaragua for whatever motive.
However, these flights are few in comparison with what was normal for the country before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The website www.flightradars.com shows airline travel around the world in real time. The sky over Nicaragua appears clear of airplanes. Occasionally there’s a single plane, usually tracing the route from Miami to Managua.
Even before the pandemic, flights to Nicaragua had been reduced due to the country’s socio-political crisis. In November 2019, Confidencial revealed that there were 80 fewer flights arriving each week, an estimated 36.2% reduction in landings.
Under these conditions, fares had already gone up 50%. Some passengers were already forced to travel overland to Costa Rica, then take flights from San Jose. However, with the pandemic passage across the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border has been restricted to returning citizens from each respective country.
In March, the first positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Nicaragua. At that time, Confidencial confirmed the cancellation of airline operations. These included Copa, United, and Avianca. Other international airlines also lessened the frequency of their operations. The number of flights arriving in the country decreased to 53, including operations of the national Nicaraguan airline La Costena. The total drop was about 76% in comparison with February 2018. By April, the drop was total, when the airlines completely suspended operations, situation which continues today.
Charter flights offered out of Costa Rica
Companies have begun to offer charter flights from Costa Rica to Managua, according to the social media posts from travel agencies.
One agency is offering one-way flights for US $245. However, the offer warns that those wanting to disembark in Managua must show a negative COVID-19 test result. This is a requirement that the Ortega-Murillo government has imposed on anyone wishing to enter or leave the country. In the case of those leaving, tests can only be done in the central Health Ministry laboratories. And the cost is US $150.
One travel agency that requested anonymity confirmed to Confidencial that the demand for these charter flights is “spread equally”. That is, there are as many Nicaraguans as Costa Ricans wanting to book seats. The first such flight is scheduled for September 12.
“There’s notable demand from people stranded at different points,” the agent stated. The source added: “many were waiting for the commercial flights to be restored.” These, however, are still rescheduling their return to service.
The Colombian airline Avianca informed on its website this week that it would renew commercial service to Nicaragua on September 19. Avianca flights to Nicaragua had been suspended since April 23, due to the pandemic.
However, other airlines such as Aeromexico, American Airlines and Copa will continue to suspend flights until at least October. This is in part due to the onerous demands of the Ortega regime. The Nicaraguan government has demanded that the airlines supply them with a passenger list 72 hours in advance. Further, they insist that the list include copies of passengers’ passports. They also demand that the crew present negative COVID-19 tests with less than 72 hours of validity. This, even though they don’t actually enter the country.