What a new air route to the Falkland Islands means for travellers and British-Argentine relations
As of November 6, LATAM -the major airline created in 2012 by the merger of Brazil's TAM Linhas Aéreas and Chile's LAN Airlines -will fly this 2,060-mile journey south from Brazil's largest metropolis, departing from the city's vast Guarulhos International Airport for the remote landing strip also known as RAF Mount Pleasant.
Although only scheduled to depart once a week, the connection will bring the Falklands "closer" to a wide range of cities in Europe. LATAM Brasil flies directly to Heathrow, as well as Madrid, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Paris, Milan and Lisbon, from Sao Paulo -while British Airways offers a non-stop service to Guarulhos from Heathrow. Virgin Atlantic is due to begin a service between the same two airports in March 2020.
The launch will create what will be the shortest route with a scheduled carrier between the UK and the fabled British Overseas Territory near the foot of South America. You can already fly to Mount Pleasant with LATAM's Chilean arm, but this means boarding a plane in the chilean capital Santiago (and stopping in the Patagonian port of Punta Arenas en route). Travelling via Sao Paulo will shave around 1,600 miles off the journey -by negating the need to fly to South America's Pacific flank on the way.
The new Brazilian connection may also be more convenient than the most direct route between the UK and the Falklands -the "Air Tanker" charter flight to Mount Pleasant from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. However, while more regular (and more direct) than the LATAM flight, this twice-weekly service is predominantly for military personnel (although fare-paying civilian passengers are also allowed to travel).
The Falkland Islands have always been a destination which demand persistence of travellers. They were uninhabited until 1764, when the French established the fledgling settlement of Port Louis under the gaze of the explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville -and it took more than another two centuries before they were accessible by anything other than a boat. The first flights -via Argentinian Air Force airboats -did not arrive until 1971. It was another two years before planes began "landing", on a temporary airstrip constructed at Hookers Point, near the archipelago capital Port Stanley. A "proper" paved runway was not installed on the site until as (relatively) recently as 1979. RAF Mount Pleasant -which sits some 33 miles south-west of the original Port Stanley airport -appeared as a newer, bigger (and distinctly overdue) project in 1985.
There are, of course, more obvious reasons why it has long been difficult to fly to the Falkland Islands. One is the archipelago's location, deep in the Southern Hemisphere -300 miles east of the Patagonian coast of South America, and only 750 miles north of the upper tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. A second is the notorious 1982 war -which continues to discolour relations between Britain and Argentina almost four decades on.
Flights from the South American mainland to the Falkland Islands all but inevitably have to pass through Argentinian air space -and Buenos Aires has long been reluctant to facilitate access to an archipelago which it views as its own. The launch of the LATAM flight is the result of two years of careful discussions between the Argentinian and British governments, and has partially stemmed from the election, in 2015, of Mauricio Macri -the current Argentine president, who has taken a more approachable stance on the thorny matter of "Las Malvinas".
Perhaps more of note than the advent of the route is the news -quietly, and almost buried in the small-print -that the flight will touch down on Argentinian soil on its way to Mount Pleasant.
Once a month, it will pause in Cordoba -Argentina's second most populous city, which sits some 700 miles north-west of Buenos Aires. This is palpably a compromise decision -one which forges a new air-link between the Falklands and its nearest geographical neighbour without being as contentious as to create a direct connection from the capital. While Buenos Aires would be a more logical site for LATAM's Airbus 320 to touch its wheels to the tarmac (Cordoba sits further to the west than the national capital, requiring a greater diversion from the direct flight-path) a service via Buenos Aires would be more politically controversial.
Admittedly, the short overlay in Cordoba is not entirely ground-breaking. The LATAM service from Santiago de Chile and Punta Arenas also makes itself briefly acquainted with an Argentine runway -touching down (but only once a month) in the Patagonian city of Rio Gallegos. Cordoba is, however, a far bigger dot on the map. It would be difficult to describe its inclusion in the Sao-Paulo-Mount Pleasant route as a thawing of British-Argentine relations regarding the Falklands, but it is significant nonetheless.
A remaining question is whether it is worth making the journey all the way from the UK to the Falklands -an odyssey of some 7,880 miles (which currently includes a refuelling stop in the Cape Verde islands) if you manage to fly in from RAF Brize Norton, and around 8,000 miles if you change planes in Sao Paulo. Those who have ventured south to glimpse the islands' remarkable seabird population -which includes penguins, caracaras and the black-browed albatross -would concur that the Falklands have a wild beauty that is made all the greater by the effort required to glimpse it.