Airlines in gear for an Olympics of the skies

An Olympic-branded LATAM plane sits on the tarmac at the Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport ( Galeão) in Rio de Janeiro.
An Olympic-branded LATAM plane sits on the tarmac at the Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport ( Galeão) in Rio de Janeiro. LATAM

Athletes aren't the only ones who had to prepare for the Rio Olympics. The airlines carrying fans, officials, Olympians and their equipment also had to gear up.

LATAM Airlines Brasil launched 150 additional domestic flights during the Olympic period. American Airlines, which already has 74 weekly flights to Brazil during August, added an extra daily flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Rio de Janeiro from Aug. 2-4 and will put on another daily flight from Rio to JFK to accommodate return passengers Aug. 20-23.

“Our flights have been really, really full,” said American spokeswoman Martha Pantin. In September, AA weekly flights to five Brazilian cities will fall back to 66, she said.

But it is LATAM, which transported the Olympic flame from Geneva to Brasilia to begin a countdown to the Games, that has really caught the Olympic spirit. Not only did the flame travel on a seat in a special stabilizing device during the flight but the aircraft had a special livery painted on it that said “Olympic Dream Onboard” in Portuguese.

The airline said it expects to serve about 25 percent of the public flying to Brazil for the Olympic Games, which end Aug. 21, and will transport about 30 percent of the 4,500 athletes traveling to Brazil for the Paralympic Games, which run Sept. 7-18.

LATAM Brasil said it has undertaken more than 100 special operations to better serve athletes, delegations and fans and carry their equipment. It has spent nearly $4.8 million on its special initiatives and budgeted another 5 million reais ( $1.59 million) for contingencies.

Like the Olympic athletes, LATAM trained for the challenges of handling special cargo, including wheel chairs, and coordinating mass arrivals and departures from a single city over a span of just a few days.

LATAM held three company exercises to prepare for the Olympic challenge and two others in partnership with Brazil’s Civil Aviation Department at the two airports in Sao Paulo and the two in Rio de Janeiro that are receiving the bulk of the traffic for the Games.

More than 1,000 employees were trained on how to handle passengers with mobility issues, and procedures were developed for loading Paralympic athletes’ personal wheelchairs through the airplane’s right door and placing them in protective packaging in the hold.

Meanwhile, even a bump up from Olympic and Paralympic traffic through Miami International Airport isn’t expected to be enough to counteract slumping Brazilian traffic out of the airport so far this year.

Miami International Airport offers more flights to Brazil than any other U.S. airport. But despite the Olympic traffic, the number of flights leaving MIA for all Brazilian destinations will actually be down this August. Greg Chin, airport communications director, said there are 250 flights scheduled to Brazil this August compared to 430 flights last August.

Through June, Brazil passenger traffic through MIA was down around 30 percent, he said.

He attributed the drop to Brazil’s economic downturn. It not only makes Florida vacations more expensive for Brazilians but also puts a damper on business traffic between the two countries. Zika fears also may be having some impact on travel to Brazil.

But merchants at the airport were still trying to capitalize on the Olympics, offering special “Go for Gold” coupons and staging Olympic-themed events like a table tennis tournament, a gymnastics showcase, “Gold Medal Beats” by DJ Joseph Anthony, and a double-hoop basketball challenge at the central and north terminals through Aug. 21.

LATAM opened a 24-hour control center for the Games on Aug. 1, and to make life a little easier for athletes, it is offering advance passenger and baggage check-in at the Olympic and Paralympic Village.