SOCCER-U.S. fans at 2014 World Cup to see a lot of Brazil - from the air

Fri Dec 6, 2013 6:41pm EST

By Brad Haynes
    SAO PAULO, Dec 6 (Reuters) - The World Cup finals in Brazil
next year may be as trying for United States soccer fans as it
is for their team.
    U.S. players learned on Friday they will face elite
opponents Germany, Ghana and Portugal at the start of the
tournament. The other bad news for fans? The venues hosting
these matches mean long, expensive flights through some of the
vast country's most overcrowded airports.
    Far-flung games from the northeastern coast to the Amazon
rainforest may force the U.S. team to fly about 9,000 miles
(14,500 kilometers) in three round-trip flights between the
matches and their training facility in Sao Paulo.
    U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said the itinerary they are
stuck with is "the worst of the worst."
    Fans will also book some serious mileage if they want to
catch the team's first three games. American demand for early
ticket sales was the highest of any country outside Brazil,
according to FIFA.
    
 
    
    Brazil's outdated airports and restrictions on foreign
airlines will only magnify the cost and inconvenience of air
travel - the only reasonable option given the distances and the
dilapidated roads available.
    Two domestic flights between the first three U.S. matches
could alone cost $1,000 or more, if travelers snap up the deals
that websites offered on Friday.
    But prices are already climbing.
    Between Friday morning and afternoon, when it was revealed
that highly ranked Germany would play back-to-back in Fortaleza
and Recife, the cost of flying between those matches shot
upward. Airlines raised prices as much as 30 percent for the
cheapest tickets and over 50 percent for the most popular flight
times.
    Fans face the choice of pouncing on rising ticket prices now
or waiting and hoping that airlines will add more routes by Dec.
20 - the deadline for them to submit their World Cup flight
plans. Airlines have said repeatedly that they want to optimize
their stretched networks for the tournament.
    
    FOREIGN CARRIERS NOT IN PLAY
    The scarcity of affordable flights is a legacy of Brazil's
barriers to foreign airlines. Of more than 100 countries that
have signed an open skies agreement with the United States,
Brazil is one of only a handful that have not yet put it into
practice.
    Brazil's aviation minister has also ruled out letting
foreign airlines operate domestic flights during the tournament.
The possibility was floated by the country's top tourism
official as a way to relieve the pressure of an estimated
600,000 foreign visitors and three million local fans at the
World Cup.
    To make matters worse, there are no direct flights from the
United States to the Americans' first group match against Ghana,
scheduled for June 16 in Natal. The city sits on the far eastern
tip of Brazil - closer to Africa than North America - and travel
from New York through Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro will take 15
hours or more.
    From there to the faceoff with Portugal, in the Amazonian
capital of Manaus, there is only one direct, eight-hour flight
per day, run by Gol Linhas Aereas. Rivals' flights
take over 10 hours with at least one layover.
    The airports in Natal and Manaus - cities with populations
of about 1 million and 1.8 million, respectively - are both
running beyond their capacity, according to official data.
    The United States' third group match is a showdown with
Germany, about eight hours back to the east, in the beachfront
city of Recife on June 26, the last day of the group phase.
    The players will decide if that is the end of the road for
travel-weary U.S. fans.
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