From October 1, after a break, Russia and two Caribbean countries will again be connected by direct flights, on which they form their tour packages immediately three major market players. In an interview with ATOR Vestnik, Anna Podgornaya, General Director of the tour operator PEGAS Touristik, the consolidator of the program of direct flights to Cuba and Venezuela, answered the most common questions from tourists and travel agents regarding conditions, flights and prices.
– Anna Albertovna, as you know, PEGAS Touristik will fly direct flights to Cuba and Venezuela from October. What are your hopes for these programs, what is their significance for the market and for tourists?
– Yes, we are finally flying. Of course, for the winter season, the opening of direct flights to Cuba and Venezuela, I'm not afraid of this word, is a real breakthrough.
It's no secret that winter beach destinations with direct flights from Russia this year are sorely lacking. Thailand will have, from what is known, only the Aeroflot chain to Phuket. Egypt, too, is still not far behind last year in terms of transportation volumes. The UAE is also experiencing a shortage of transportation capacity, there are problems with tickets for regular flights. The Maldives and Seychelles are quite niche and not very capacious destinations.
As for the Caribbean beaches, it is not necessary to present and paint the benefits of a holiday there. The Caribbean has always been desirable for many Russians. Let me remind you that in 2019, more than 400 thousand tourists from the Russian Federation vacationed in three countries of this region, and more than 350 thousand in 2021. Therefore, we now see how companies are working out various options for sending tourists there by connecting flights, as part of combined tours etc.
But tourists have the biggest demand for a direct flight – it ends up being cheaper and, most importantly, more convenient. We have finally managed to resolve this issue. We, in cooperation with other tour operators who have also taken seats on Nordwind flights, expect to send a total of more than 60,000 people to the two Caribbean countries by the end of March 2023: it was until this time that we put up flight programs.
Anna Podgornaya, general director of the tour operator PEGAS Touristik. Photo: PEGAS Touristik press service
– The question that travel agents repeatedly ask us is: why are direct flights to the Caribbean from Russia opening only now?
– Everything is really simple. We have been working on these plans for a long time, since May – the technical ability to fly without refueling to any of the islands of the Caribbean region is already available for Boeing 777 aircraft of any modification. And we proved it in practice: both with export flights in March, which flew around all the closed airspaces of Western countries, and with summer non-stop flights of these aircraft to Caracas.
But before announcing for tourists and travel agents of the program to Cuba and Venezuela, we had to obtain both permissions from the Russian regulator – the Federal Air Transport Agency, and firm documentary guarantees of the safety of our aircraft in Cuba and Venezuela.
The process of coordinating all possible details with all parties and government agencies went on all summer. And finally, in September, before the high season, we can already officially announce that Nordwind has both permissions to receive and service aircraft in Cuba and Venezuela, and the corresponding permissions from the aviation authorities of the Russian Federation to operate flights on these routes. I emphasize: no further permissions are required from anyone, and no tricks are expected with the postponement of the start of the flight program.
– How the configuration of the flight program looks like today PEGAS Touristik to the Caribbean? What aircraft will you fly?
– According to current plans, to Cuba, to the most popular resort of the island, Varadero, we will start flying from Sheremetyevo on October 1 on Nordwind Airlines Boeing 777-300 (flights N4 3501). Departures in October on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3 times a week. Further, from October 30, we add 1 more flight on Sundays, and go to the schedule 4 times a week, from this date all flights will be under the number N4 353.
To the island resort of Cuba, Cayo- Koko, we will fly from Moscow from October 2 on another type of Nordwind aircraft – Boeing 777-200 ER, with a floating frequency of 1-3 times a week. These are flights numbered N4 3503. For example, we will have flights in October on 02.10, 09.10, 12.10, 16.10, 17.10, 19.10 and so on.
To Venezuelawe will fly directly to the main beach resort of this country – Margarita Island, without transfers in Caracas or technical stops. These flights of our partner, Nordwind, under the number N4 3511, will also be operated by Boeing 777-200 ER aircraft. We start from October 1 with a frequency of 2 times a week (on Wednesdays and Saturdays). And from October 31, we are doubling the frequency and we will fly to Margarita (Porlamar airport) already 4 times a week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday.
– What route will planes fly from Moscow to the Caribbean countries? How much longer will the travel time be compared to what it was before the closure of airspace for Russian aircraft by the countries of the Atlantic bloc?
– All routes were carefully worked out with the Federal Air Transport Agency for safety. We have all the necessary permissions to fly under the ETOPS rules.
The route from Moscow to Cuba will run in neutral airspace – we fly around Norway, fly past Iceland, then along the coast of the United States and Canada. On the way to Margarita Island in Venezuela, we will also pass through the airspace of Trinidad and Tobago. The return routes are a little shorter – we fly between Iceland and the UK and further north.
As for the flight time, we will fly from Moscow to Varadero about 14 hours, to Cayo Coco – 14.5 hours. Travel time to Venezuela will be just over 15 hours. This is 1-2 hours longer than before the airspace was closed. At the same time, service (hot meals twice a day, etc.) remains at the same level.
– Will there be flights to Cuba or Venezuela from other Russian cities? If yes, which ones? Wouldn't it be cheaper to fly over from the South?
– While I will be as careful as possible in forecasts. You yourself understand that the configuration of flights overflying closed airspaces still implies the maximum approach to one of the two routes – conditionally “northern” and conditionally “southern” (for example, from Sochi). Now we are working on all technically possible options in contact with the Federal Air Transport Agency.
For the time being, we intend to fly from Moscow. But if we are convinced of the economic efficiency of certain options for regional transportation and if all the necessary permits are obtained from the aviation authorities of the Russian Federation, then why not put programs from the regions? And yet, while it's too early to talk about it, we will announce them only when everything is 100% resolved.
– And if there is still a transfer, or a change in the configuration of programs, then what? Again, this is not a question from us, but from a number of travel agents – subscribers of our telegram channel who are worried “whether the carrier will have the same experience with Egypt.”
– The questions are quite reasonable – and in covid, and during the current geopolitical crisis, there have been numerous cases when carriers have canceled or rescheduled programs. Therefore, I fully understand that some travel agents, having burned themselves in milk, blow on the water.
But in this particular case, the situation is completely different than with the mentioned program to Egypt. Firstly, unlike Egypt, we have both official permission from the Russian aviation authorities and all guarantees from Cuba and Venezuela regarding the Nordwind aircraft. I mean, there's no reason why we couldn't fly.
Secondly, in the case of Egypt, we immediately offered everyone a full refund for the tour. And all payments were made immediately. Nobody put any money on any “deposits”. Therefore, considerations like “they will raise money for the first flights and cancel the program” are not for us. Stunts in the style of the infamous “Pearl River” have not been and are not being done.
Moreover, all our programs are provided with guaranteed blocks of seats, for which we have already made an advance payment to hotels in Cuba and Venezuela. Would we risk our own money like this?
And thirdly, the fact that other major market players joined our program to Cuba almost immediately after the announcement, in itself shows a high level of confidence in the announced flight plans within the tourism industry itself. If something had gone wrong, they would have doubted themselves.
It also shows that our colleagues in the market are counting on good demand in the Caribbean. Already on the first sales, we see impressive activity – and this is not surprising. Therefore, I would recommend that travel agents not be afraid, but book.
– What is the reason for the current level of prices for Cuba and Venezuela? Will prices go up or down? Many are waiting to see if prices will drop after the start of the program.
– The main factors behind the increase in the cost of tours compared to last winter are the limited volume of transportation (we see this in absolutely all directions) and the increase in the duration of routes to the Caribbean.
Direct long-haul air travel in the current conditions, alas, has become much more expensive. But it is still cheaper than docking. You can see for yourself by searching in search engines – a 10-day tour with a direct flight costs the same or less than a week with a connecting one. By the way, this is a rarity – it is now more expensive to fly to Thailand by direct flight.
Why is that? Our host companies tried to “squeeze” the maximum out of the situation in order to give the market comfortable prices for the first flights in October and November.
As I already said, under the program we took guaranteed blocks of places in hotels in Cuba and Venezuela at special prices for our customers. We have kept last year's prices for transfers. We have done a lot of work in order to make the prices for tour packages – I repeat – in the current, very difficult conditions – as attractive as possible.
Yes, the current prices for Cuba are 30% higher than those what happened in 2021. But it is unlikely that it will be cheaper in the next few years – and tourism market analysts directly speak about this. In conditions of a shortage of rest and air travel, they can only be higher.
And I do not exclude that with an increase in demand for winter beach holidays – and this will happen in October, prices may begin to rise after demand dynamics. Therefore, I would not recommend waiting for tourists and travel agents by the sea for weather.
It's not even about prices: in the current conditions, any foreign destination flies away at the moment. The practice of both ours and other companies on the market clearly demonstrates this. Therefore, “waiting” today, tomorrow you can simply not find a tour for the date of interest. My advice is to use all the opportunities here and now.
Interviewed by: the editors of the ATOR Bulletin