SAO PAULO, Brazil In a country where domestic air travel meant free whiskey in coach class only a few years ago, an airline born from a bus company is attracting travelers in droves to flights where such frills are non-existent.
The low-cost phenomenon launched by Gol even extends to the company's executive domain a squat, four-story building with no elevators where visitors trudge up the stairs to meet with the airline's management team.
Four years after scrambling to get six planes flying in time to profit from Brazil's busy summer travel season, Gol has carried 23 million passengers in Latin America's most populous country and is spreading its wings abroad.
Gol, which took to the skies in 2001 serving just seven Brazilian cities, now has nearly 30 new Boeing 737s traveling to 38 destinations across this country almost the size of the continental United States.
The family-controlled company introduced Brazilians to online sales, ticketless travel, and cold sandwiches and soft drinks instead of hot meals and booze. Forget about first class, business class or frequent flier miles: They're not offered.
The airline started its first international route to Argentina last month and has pledged to start service to Bolivia by June. Analysts predict the carrier's next stops could be Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru or Uruguay.
Growth for Gol, which translates as "Goal" in both Portuguese and Spanish in soccer-crazed Latin America, has come with plenty of challenges. The company got off the ground with a big marketing splash just nine months before the Sept. 11, 2001, travel drop-off.
Then Brazil's aviation industry was hit in 2002 by a huge devaluation of the Brazilian currency that pushed other domestic carriers to the verge of bankruptcy because airline costs like fuel and aircraft leasing payments are linked to the dollar.
Brazil, which has South America's largest economy, went on to flirt with recession in 2003 amid sky-high interest rates.
But Gol, whose full name is Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA, managed to steadily increase its Brazilian market share by offering passengers lower fares than its rivals during the bad economic times.
"We thought people would be more price sensitive in those environments," chief executive Constantino Oliveira Jr. said in an interview. "So we converted the crises into opportunities for growth."
Gol says its fares are typically 20 percent less than its competition, but frequent-business flier and software company executive Miguel Garcia says he sometimes gets a 30 percent discount flying Gol instead of other airlines.
"The service is more basic, but it's worth it for the price," Garcia said after a dawn flight from Sao Paulo to the southern city of Porto Alegre that included a boxed cold breakfast and apple or grape juice. There was no orange juice and no coffee.
In keeping with Gol's mantra to do everything on the cheap, the carrier outsources phone reservation call centers and uses one type of plane to save on maintenance and pilot training costs. Children get toy planes as presents but the planes, made of paper, look like bookmarks.
Cost-cutting runs in Oliveira's blood, courtesy of his father, a former long-haul trucker who started a bus company in the 1950s that became one of the country's biggest.
"He always said, 'When you can save on costs, why spend? There's a cost benefit every time,' " Oliveira said of his father.
The younger Oliveira, who became a licensed pilot at age 17 and rose through the ranks at the bus company before starting Gol, said his father always wanted to offer a low-cost air travel alternative in Brazil. But he held back because of the country's tight regulation over the industry, including government-set prices for tickets in the 1980s and 1990s.
The regulatory climate eased in the late 1990s just as Internet use mushroomed in Brazil. And one of the country's major airlines, Vasp, started laying off workers and slashing routes, creating a ready labor pool of experienced airline executives and pilots.
The Oliveiras sensed the timing was right in June 2000, snagged talent from major airline Vasp and launched seven months later with an initial investment estimated by analysts at $12 million. The first flight came in January 2001, one month later than the elder Oliveira wanted, but in time to capitalize on the annual passenger demand crush in Brazil during South America's summer.
Focusing on business travelers and Brazilians who had never flown before, Gol's domestic market share grew from 12 percent in 2002 to 24 percent by 2004, putting it in the No. 3 position behind Varig and Tam and far ahead of Vasp, whose market share declined to less than 1 percent by the end of last year.
Investors have taken notice, snapping up shares during Gol's initial public offering last summer. in Sao Paulo and New York, which raised $280 million. The company's American depository shares are up 60 percent since the IPO, amid analyst predictions they could go 20 percent higher this year.
"We view Gol as one of the best long-term investment stories in the airline universe today," Morgan Stanley analyst William Greene said in a note to investors last month. Analysts say Gol's expanding presence in South America will put pressure on traditional carriers to keep prices down, but believe the airline will keep up with competition from other low-cost airlines like Chile's Sky, Uruguay's Uair and Brazil's OceanAir. "The only risk, which in Constantino Jr.'s case I don't see, is believing they can walk on water," said Robert Booth, a Miami-based aviation consultant and editor of an aviation newsletter focusing on Latin America.