In the two years since Azul Linhas Aéreas Brasileiras started flying, the Brazilian airline has secured about 8% of the domestic market, with 4 million passengers in 2010. Perhaps this should be no surprise, since Azul's founder, David Neeleman, also started a little U.S. carrier called JetBlue. Brazilian-born Neeleman launched Azul ("blue" in Portuguese) to bring the low-cost airline model to Brazil, where the growing middle class—about 100 million strong—helps fuel Azul's growth.
The airline is a cheap, speedy alternative to the buses that many people use to travel the sprawling nation, which is about the size of the continental U.S. "A trip that used to take 34 hours now you can do in 2," Neeleman says. "About 25% to 30% of those flights cost the same or less than buses." For instance, a February flight from Belém, in the Amazonian Delta, to São Paulo, cost 199 reais ($118) compared to 428 reais ($254) for the bus. The flight takes 5 hours, 52 minutes; the bus ride, 51 hours.
Another Azul innovation also touches the pocketbook: Many Brazilians have no credit cards. Those who do "often have low credit limits," Neeleman says. So Azul offers payments by direct bank withdrawal as well as installment plans.
By the end of 2011, Azul could go to as many as 50 cities, including some that now have no air service. For those markets, the carrier will deploy smaller planes, helping new fliers take to the skies for the first time.