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Best of Airways — TAME: A Complex History Revealed

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Best of Airways — TAME: A Complex History Revealed

Cesar Badilla

Best of Airways — TAME: A Complex History Revealed
October 09
15:09 2017

Written by Sebastian Schmitz • Airways Magazine, August 2014


Ecuador is one of Latin America’s smallest countries by size and inhabitants. Its capital city, Quito, sits almost on the equator, which explains the country’s name—in English, the Republic of the Equator. Although its small territorial dimensions and short distances between its major cities, Ecuador’s topography is such that road trips can still take many hours, making flying a much less time-consuming option.

More than 50 years ago, the Ecuadorian Air Force set up its own passenger airline to connect the country’s principal cities, establishing links to the more remote parts in the Amazon. Today, domestic routes are still the core business for TAME, though, in recent years, the airline has aggressively expanded internationally with the inclusion of a direct route to New York John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK/KJFK).

More than 50 Years of TAME History

TAME is not only Ecuador’s flag carrier and the largest airline in terms of passengers, it is also the country’s oldest. TAME’s name, an abbreviation for “Transportes Aéreos Militares Ecuatorianos”, (Ecuadorian Military Air Transport) is a reminder of who founded the airline and ran it for decades. Creating the company was a smart move which addressed two pressing issues: the Ecuadorian Air Force at the time, was in need of cash to finance its expensive pilot training program, and the country was looking to improve connections among its major cities as well as to its rural regions. Thus, the TAME concept was suggested, approved and developed, generating much-needed extra revenue for the Air Force while establishing vastly improved aerial links throughout Ecuador.

This Boeing 727-134 (HC-BLF) played an important role in the growth of the Ecuadorian carrier. (Quito, 1988) PHOTO: BILL HOUGH.

Like so many airlines at the time, TAME relied on the good old Dakota aircraft to get things off the ground. Its inaugural flight in December 1962 was a circuit around the country, routing from Quito (where TAME has always been headquartered) to the coastal town of Esmeraldas, along the Pacific Coast to Bahía (BHA/SESV), Manta (MAC/SEMT), and Guayaquil (GYE/SEGY) before returning to Quito (UIO/SEQM) via the city of Cuenca. The network soon also included the strategically important Galapagos Islands. In order to reach them and return (refueling on the islands was not possible), the C-47 aircraft were equipped with extra fuel tanks. Today, the Galapagos Islands have developed into a major tourist attraction and TAME offers daily flights to the islands of Baltra (GPS/SEGS) and San Cristobal (SCY/SEST), although much more comfortable since the retirement and replacement of the Dakota.

Civilian DC-3 and bigger DC-6 aircraft soon joined the airline’s fleet, putting the farthest destination in the network—the Galapagos Islands—within easy reach. In 1970, a pair of HS-748 were acquired, serving the airline well for shorter routes. These aircraft still remain in service with Ecuador’s Air Force, although not on scheduled passenger flights.

As demand for domestic flights continued to grow, TAME purchased four Lockheed L-188 Electras from Ecuador’s international flag carrier Ecuatoriana to offer more capacity on its domestic routes.

By the late 1970s, TAME entered the jet age for the first time and added a type to its fleet that had been very popular in the mountainous areas of Latin America: the Boeing 727. Three 727-100 aircraft were acquired and, as the airline expanded internationally, these were joined by four additional Boeing 727-200 aircraft—most of them former Lufthansa airliners.

TAME served destinations in neighboring countries and also flew on behalf of airlines such as Lufthansa and Air France, connecting with their flights to Bogotá while offering onward transportation to Ecuador. Unfortunately, one of those flights ended tragically in 1998 when Boeing 727-200 (HC-BSU), operating a connecting flight for Air France, crashed into a mountain shortly after takeoff from the Colombian capital Bogotá.

All in all, however, the Boeing 727 served TAME very well; the last was retired from service in 2009. By then, TAME had taken delivery of its first Airbus aircraft (a pair of A320 were the first-ever factory-new aircraft delivered to the airline) and four Embraer 170/190. For a brief three-month period, TAME also operated a leased Boeing 757 in full colors. A pair of Fokker 28-4000 aircraft, used on less-traveled domestic routes like Manta, Lago Agrio or Loja, were also retired as much more efficient Embraer aircraft were put into service.

Throughout the 1990s, TAME concentrated on domestic flights, with Cali in Colombia its only scheduled international destination for a time. Charter business, however, took the TAME fleet to the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao as well as Cuba. While TAME had been important— maybe even the most important—airline for Ecuador for decades, there were always other carriers like Ecuatoriana, Saeta, or, later on, LAN and Aerogal operating long-haul flights from Ecuador to Miami, New York, and even as far as Madrid.

TAME has four Embraer E-190 and two E-170 in its fleet. Pictured is HC-CGG, delivered in 2007. PHOTO: AUTHOR.

With a more efficient and competitive fleet in operation by the end of the last decade, TAME decided to once more venture into the international arena where it saw interesting opportunities for growth and higher profits to be made than on domestic flights. Perhaps to underline its bold ambitions, a brand-new color scheme was introduced in 2009.

The decision to launch more international routes from Quito was also part of the vision for the soon-to-open new airport of the capital, located away from mountainous terrain and much better suited to serve as a hub than its predecessor. The new facility saw the typical years of delay that seems to be common for airport openings these days but was eventually inaugurated in February 2013. Between 2010 and 2013, TAME launched flights from Quito and Guayaquil to Panama City, as well as from Quito to Cali and Bogotá in Colombia, Caracas in Venezuela, Lima in Peru, and two South American mega-destinations, Buenos Aires and São Paulo. This represented an unprecedented expansion and a remarkable international network for TAME.

Rapid international growth was accompanied by the addition of more domestic routes and more frequencies on existing domestic services. A sub-fleet of three ATR42-500 aircraft were acquired for new domestic routes, allowing the airline to do well on lighter routes and begin connections with places like Macas, Tulcan, Tena, and Salinas, which previously lacked scheduled service. For these cities, an aerial link to the capital was very important, as traveling overland can take many hours.

Being government-owned, TAME also operates a number of subsidized social routes that would not be commercially viable. Prior to the delivery of its own ATR aircraft, TAME used a pair of Embraer 120 operated as TAME Express by a small local carrier, SAEREO.

Today, TAME has most every major city in the country covered, servicing 15 domestic destinations, including Baltra and San Cristobal on the Galapagos Islands.

The international network saw a quite spectacular addition in late 2013 when TAME took over its first wide-body aircraft, a former Emirates A330-200 registered HC-COH and launched a route to the United States, from Guayaquil to New York JFK.

PHOTO: MISAEL OCASIO HERNANDEZ.

Nearly 1.5 million Ecuadorians live in the New York area, making the choice of destination an obvious one. Previously, LAN was the only airline serving this route, leaving room for another carrier, at least during busier times of the year. Fabricio Bruzzone, TAME’s Sales Executive in New York, admits that filling the seats during the slow season might be more challenging.

While the Airbus A330 would have been able to operate this route nonstop from Quito’s new airport, and in spite of TAME’s ambitions to turn Quito into a regional hub, the airline still chose Guayaquil as the departure point to New York.

Guayaquil is not only Ecuador’s most populous city but also a major port and economic center. The airline originally planned its flights to the United States during the busy summer months, though the government shutdown in Washington in 2013 delayed the authorization for TAME’s flights to the US by a few weeks. A first test and certification flight took place in October and the official inaugural flight from Guayaquil landed at JFK on November 22, 2013. Ever since, the airline has served this route seven times a week, with immediate onward connections to Ecuador’s major cities shortly after the morning arrival in Guayaquil.

As of early 2014, TAME’s fleet stands at 20 aircraft, most of which were manufactured by Airbus. Four Airbus A319, six A320, and a single A330 are the airline’s main engine. Three ATR42-500, as well as two Embraer 170, and four Embraer 190, are the perfect complement for shorter regional routes.

For TAME, the main focus is on developing its international network and also turning Quito into a regional hub. While traditionally TAME’s passengers had been point-to-point travelers, today the airline actively promotes onward connections. At Panama City, for example, there are large advertising boards at the airport promoting very affordable fares to Buenos Aires and São Paulo via Quito on TAME.

Access to the Amazon and More Long-haul Flights on the Horizon

Another interesting project is the launch of TAME Amazonia. This new subsidiary will be based at various smaller airports in the country’s Amazon region and will operate a fleet of initially six brand-new Quest Kodiak turboprops—a very robust high-wing short takeoff or landing (STOL) aircraft seating nine passengers. The aircraft will provide subsidized flights within the Amazon region, where often there are no roads or poor connectivity. TAME Amazonia’s flights will connect to mainline TAME services to Quito or Guayaquil at larger airports like Macas, where the airline’s ATR can operate. Clearly, TAME’s international ambitions do not stop with the launch of the New York service.

The airline plans to acquire at least one more Airbus A330 in 2014. Route candidates are Miami (a vacant route at the moment), or a destination in Spain, either Madrid (a route that is served by Iberia already) or Barcelona. In 2013, TAME, the leading domestic carrier surpassed LAN as the airline carrying the most international passengers from Ecuador.

Aerogal, another long-standing Ecuadorian carrier, has disappeared from the international arena, apart from feeding the Colombian airports of its mother airline, Avianca. The airline previously served the United States from Ecuador so TAME is now taking advantage of the gap left by Aerogal abandoning these routes.

The Ecuadorian carrier has a total of three ATR 42 in its fleet, all delivered between late-2011 and early-2012. PHOTO: CESAR BADILLA

Until recently, TAME was controlled by the Ecuadorian Air Force. It was only in late 2011 that the airline was converted into a so-called “public company.” Still fully-owned by the Ecuadorian government, the goal of this conversion was to make the company more efficient in its everyday operation and more results-driven than it was as an Air Force entity.

By growing TAME’s route network internationally, the government, as the airline’s owner, also aims to bring fares to Ecuador down significantly (regional airfares within Central and South America are among the world’s most expensive, partly due to some of the world’s highest taxation).

As tourism is a major source of income for Ecuador, having good international connectivity is absolutely essential for the country. To this aim, TAME serves as a tool to improve direct links between Ecuador and the rest of the world. While there is no doubt that much has changed in recent years, TAME may not yet have reached international standards in all fields, but it has definitely improved. The future will determine to what extent, despite being government-owned, the flag carrier of Ecuador can compete with major players such as LATAM, Avianca, and Copa.

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Sebastian Schmitz

Sebastian Schmitz

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