Costa Rica nearly had its own low-cost tourism airline

This is the DC-8 that would have provided low-cost tourism flights

When TACA Airlines said May 17 that it was suspending 10 direct flights to and from Costa Rica, tourism operators were outraged. Officials were surprised, and the civil aviation authority said it would look into the lack of notice of those flights carrying the LASCA destination.

LASCA is the long-time Costa Rican airline that is now part of Grupo TACA.

For a former expat businessman now living in Florida, the news was bittersweet. Frank Parish tried to establish a Costa Rican flag charter line in the country in the early 1980s. Like many foreign businessmen, he was blindsided by officialdom, and the project never got off the ground.

Now living in Port Charlotte, Florida, Parrish was a driving force behind VEL Airlines. This was supposed to be a charter line that would bring in tourists on low-cost flights to Costa Rica, he recalled in a telephone interview Thursday.

Controlling interest in the firm was by a Costa Rican, as was required by law. That man was the legendary hotel developer Bernardo Monge Otarola, who founded what is today the Grupo Marta.

Monge had foresight, and he was the man who built the first major hotel in Jacó even when the town did not have electricity, according to his company’s history..

“Just imagine, if VEL airlines could be operating today . . . Costa Rica would have its own Airline to build its own tourism,” Parrish said in an email to a friend here. “VEL airlines was to become an economic weapon for Costa Rica. Instead of begging others to promote tourism, VEL was designed to go and get tourists from their homes and bring them to Costa Rica at unbelievably low prices. The losses to Costa Rica have been unbelievable.”

Parrish says he believes LACSA officials at the time were concerned about the competition and raised objections with the civil aviation authorities that has given VEL permission to fly. LACSA had accused VEL of dumping in the marketplace even before the first flight took place. Parrish said he lined up hundreds of tourism agencies in the Chicago area that would fill his plane for frequent charter flights. Dumping is when a firm sets its prices lower than cost.

Eventually the Consejo Técnico de Aviación Civil issued an ultimatum, Parrish recalled Thursday. The firm had to use its aviation permit right away or lose it. So he made a deal with Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to bring Costa Rican tourists at $199 apiece.

The 180 seats on his D C-8 filled up quickly due to local advertising, he said.

About the same time, Monge died in a private aviation accident at Tobias Bolaños airport, so Parrish was left without his close Costa Rican friend and business partner. That was in March 1983.

But the cheap flights were not to be. More legal maneuvering forced the airline to return the money would-be passengers had paid, and the firm went bankrupt. Some time later, the Costa Rican courts found no merit in the allegations against VEL, but by then the company did not exist, said Parrish. He moved back to the States.

“Now Costa Rica suffers the consequences even today,” said Parrish in his email. “Costa Rica being a small country with all of the others, with hat in hand, begging for airlines to fly to Costa Rica, competing with all other countries for tourism in a difficult economic condition. This reminds me again, of how Mexico turned Cancún into such a tourism mecca. Sure, Cancún had nice white sandy beaches in a remote jungle area. There were no hotels or tourists in the beginning. Were there tourists just standing on these remote beaches begging for hotel rooms? Or did they build large hotels just hoping that tourists would come? Well, neither one is true, it was the PLAN, that made it happen . . . .”

Monge, of course, wanted tourists to stay in his growing chain of hotels. Out of respect, VEL named it’s aircraft the Don Bernardo.

Parrish was proud to say Thursday that any firm or person owed money by the airline was reimbursed.

Some money came from the sale of the aircraft because VEL owned it outright. That was one reason why VEL could offer low-costs flights.

Parrish, now 72, did not leave empty handed. He met his wife, Ligia, because she was in the first class of flight attendants for the airline. They still are married and have two grown children.

But he still says nostalgically of the airline “A great loss for Costa Rica.”

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