Spirit Airlines Sees Future in Latin America

Fast-growing Latin American air travel has caught the eye of one rapidly expanding domestic airline in South Florida.

Miramar-based Spirit Airlines expects half of its revenue to come from Latin and Caribbean markets by 2007, said Ben Baldanza, the airline's president and chief operating officer.

It now serves 18 cities, including five in Latin America. But it expects to add two or three new routes in Latin America or the Caribbean by the end of this year, ''and three or four more next year,'' Baldanza said Tuesday.

He was speaking at the International Airline CEO Conference in Miami Beach, which concluded Tuesday. The conference was organized by AvGroup, a Miami aviation consulting firm that specializes in Latin American airlines.

Latin air travel is growing quickly. While international airline passenger traffic grew 9.4 percent in the first three months of this year, Latin American Travel saw an almost 14 percent jump, according to Aviation Daily.

US Airways now flies to 15 destinations from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, 10 more cities than it served a year ago.

It is emphasizing Latin American and Caribbean service.

But there is turbulence ahead.

Participants at the conference at the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort noted that although Miami International Airport is growing, its staff of immigration and Customs agents is not expected to keep pace with the increase in passenger traffic from Latin America.

In Fort Lauderdale, Baldanza and James Sarvis, Delta Air Lines' director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the airport faces challenges handling additional traffic. If Delta, the leading carrier at the airport, tried to build a significant hub there for international travel, ''I don't think Fort Lauderdale can handle it,'' Sarvis said.

And there's a growing tempest over taxes.

Participants decried what they said is an Internal Revenue Service initiative to force Latin American carriers to pay back taxes on wages paid to their crews during their flight time over the United States.

IRS spokesman Mike Dobzinski said he couldn't confirm or deny the existence of such an initiative.

On Monday, a panel of Latin airlines' chief executives played down the threat of low-cost airlines to traditional carriers.

Nelson Ramiz, CEO of Aeropostal, predicted that the rapid acceptance of low-cost carriers, or LCCs, across the United States and Europe was at least 10 years away from occurring in Latin America.

''To have an LCC is more than just replacing a sandwich with a bag of peanuts,'' he said.

In addition, low-cost airlines rely on high volume and reduced ticket distribution costs. In Latin America only 10 percent of ticket sales are made on the Internet.