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During my recent trip to Brazil, I flew American Airlines from Miami to the northeastern coastal city of Recife (REC), then caught a connecting flight to one of my dream scuba destinations, the volcanic island chain of Fernando de Noronha (FEN), on low-cost domestic Brazilian carrier, Azul Airlines.
This was my first flight on Azul, and I was impressed with the relatively seamless one-hour, 10-minute experience. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find award space on my particular flight, but having recently received a 40,000-mile sign-up bonus from my application for the Arrival card, I’ll simply use those miles to get a cash-back statement for the cost of my ticket.
Travelers from Recife to Fernando have only two carrier options, Azul and GOL; both offer one daily flight apiece, each at about 1pm, but GOL also offers a second flight on Sunday mornings at 10:30am.
I wondered if my inability to get an award flight to Fernando de Noronha was a common occurrence. I imagined that its reputation as an exclusive island escape means that travelers will pay high prices for the route’s few available flights. I chose Azul based on its lower cost, but I also wanted to see how a comparison between the two would stack up in terms of:
- Mileage programs
- Awards levels and space
Introduced in 2008 by David Neeleman, the Brazilian founder of JetBlue, Azul is essentially the JetBlue of Brazil. Largely composed of Embraer 195s, its fleet flies 840 daily flights to 100 Brazilian destinations and maintains its hub in the southeastern city of Campinas, near Sao Paulo.
Azul’s all-Economy cabins offer a couple of upgrade options: Espaço Azul seats at the front of the plane have just shy of three feet of space between seats, and any passenger has the option of purchasing an adjacent seat without paying an additional embarkation tax (see below). On all of its planes, 48 channels of live TV are offered on seat-back screens.
Azul’s Economy seats are sold at two fare levels, the less expensive Promo and the more expensive Flex. Using several sample itineraries in May and June, I found that a REC-FEN round-trip fare could be commonly found for $755.41 BRL ($340.50 US). Pricey for a short flight, but that’s what happens when there isn’t a whole lot of competition on a particular route.
Azul’s mileage program, All Blue (TudoAzul) isn’t all that useful to North Americans unless you’re planning to do a lot of domestic travel within Brazil. The program allows members to accumulate points based on what they pay for flights rather than on miles flown; for every $1 BRL (44 cents US) you spend, you get 4 points. You also get 1,000 points just for signing up. However, while there are no citizenship restrictions to this program, non-Brazilian citizens who wish to sign up must call 011-55-4003-1141.
As of April 1, 2014, United MileagePlus members can start earning and redeeming miles on Azul flights. The problem? I was right, and there doesn’t seem to be much award space available on Azul for the REC-FEN round-trip route, though Azul has great availability on other routes throughout Brazil.
Creating a (theoretically) easy partnership between the two carriers, United now flies to two airports served by Azul – Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos (SAO) and Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão (GIG). Keep in mind, though, that routes to FEN from either airport still require a connection in Recife (REC) – which in this case means that daily flight on Azul.
United’s travel award chart for intra-South America flights- since all partner flights are at the Saver level, you’re looking at 25,000 miles or 12,500 one-way. Azul award space now shows on United.com, making booking painless and easy.
My Azul flight experience
Check-in at REC was relatively easy. Azul doesn’t allow the advance purchase of exit row seats and instead instructs passengers to buy them at check-in; when I tried to do so, though, there were no choice seats available. My consolation was the fact that the airline charges no baggage fees – I was able to check my bag full of scuba gear for free.
The airport at Recife has a nice layout and is easy to navigate, though most of the shops and restaurants are gate side so don’t expect much once you go through security. I grabbed a bite to eat just outside of security, then hung at the boarding area until my flight was ready. Boarding was drama-free, and we took off on time.
The plane was an all-Economy-class Embraer 195, the most common plane in Azul’s fleet. The legroom at my standard Economy seat was just fine as long as the person in front of me didn’t recline – which they thankfully didn’t.
This flight is only one hour and 10 minutes long, but you get a drink and choice of snack packages: nuts, biscuits or mini-airplane gummy bears (delicious).
The worst part of my flight wasn’t Azul’s fault: a truly dumb woman across the aisle from me was PAINTING HER NAILS and left everyone gasping for air! I told the flight attendant and they very quickly took care of it…before anyone passed out from the fumes.
Our arrival in FEN was easy and beautiful on approach, with a rainbow welcoming us to the island. Once you land at the airport you need to pay Fernando de Noronha’s environmental preservation tax for Fernando de Noronha ($48.20 BRL/$22 US per day). The permit room is tiny and quickly gets crowded, so I’d recommend paying this tax in advance online, noting that the process is largely in Portuguese; consult the environmental preservation tax chart to determine the number of days you’ll be staying and corresponding amount in BRL , then click through to the online payment form.
Azul is the low-cost option to fly to Fernando de Noronha and many other Brazilian destinations, but ironically, they provided more services (like free in-flight entertainment) than I had onboard my international flight on an American Airlines 757 from MIA-REC.
Overall, I’d fly Azul again in a heartbeat. Have you flown with them before? If so, please share your experience in the comments below.