Most public officials who have seen how the coronavirus pandemic has smashed the transportation industry would otherwise welcome a financial hand to save their national carriers from extinction. But in the case of Bogotá, home to the country’s largest airport El Dorado and headquarters of Avianca Airlines, Mayor Claudia López slammed the national government’s decision to extend up to US$370 million in loans to salvage the world’s second-oldest airline (KLM beat Avianca to the honor in 1919 by a couple of months), claiming that the offer “borders corruption.” López insinuated “corruption” as a close family member of President Iván Duque holds an executive position at Avianca.
The loan offer comes after Avianca has maintained cargo flights during the five months Colombian air space has been closed, delivering flowers, coffee and tropical fruits to international markets – while at the same time – acting as a lifeline for inbound medical supplies.
By aviation standards, a US$370 million government loan to Avianca Holdings is a small sum to save tens of thousands of jobs across the region, from highly-qualified pilots to ground and maintenance staff, given that during the first months of the pandemic in the U.S., rival carriers, among them United, American and Delta, received US$5 billion in federal bailouts. These payments not only secured payrolls, but the future of modern fleets that otherwise would have been destined to the scrap heap. And while much of North American airspace saw a sharp decline in commercial air traffic between April and May, leading carriers were able to keep key routes operational, connecting North American gateways, such as New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles with those in Europe, Middle East and Asia.
Colombia, however, did come to a complete aeronautical standstill, except for chartered flights by foreign governments to repatriate stranded citizens. But after five months of closure and the possibility that Colombians and foreigners can muster enough confidence to return to the skies, for Mayor López, the future should be one in which travelers have to connect through host countries – relying on foreign transit and immigration requirements – instead of having the option of a direct service from Bogotá to New York, Barcelona and London. And this is ludicrous to put it mildly: for much of the capital generates its business and tourism revenue because it is connected to other world financial centers with direct routes that are costly to maintain given airport fees and gate slots that are highly competitive and result of years of negotiations.
Complaining over the Colombian government’s decision to inject liquidity into Avianca pales in comparison to what Lufthansa, Air France and British Airways have received to keep their trusted names afloat, and very bad business for Bogotá at a moment in which the capital desperately needs confidence, leadership and a long-term economic strategy. If López envisions a “Marshall Plan” for Bogotá, then history is the best judge of how nations, and their bombed cities, pulled together to rebuild a common future. During the Marshall Plan in 1948, much of the aid relief was dropped from the skies from combat-tested DC-3s.
If Bogotanos are denied the chance to gaze at the sky and imagine far-flung destinations and our connectivity reference is TransMilenio, the greatest threat of this pandemic has been populism, and for which, there is no vaccine, either. So, next time Mayor López, when you have to attend that urban planning congress in Toronto, and find yourself logged at the back of a United B-737 (without empty middle seat), handed a taco sandwich before facing a one hour queue at U.S immigration, you may regret that you could have reached your destination in five hours – not 10 – all the while, enjoying Colombian vallenato and videos showcasing Bogotá as a city that much closer to the stars.