World Cup fans may soon see relief from pricey Brazil airfare

SAO PAULO (REUTERS) - Soccer fans daunted by rising airfares in Brazil during this year's World Cup would be smart to steel their nerves just a little longer. Relief may be around the corner.

Next week Brazil is expected to authorize some 1,500 new domestic flights, expanding travel options between cities hosting games in June and July. Tourists should see a wave of new routes open up - and a bit of reprieve from soaring prices.

That could also ease tensions between Brazil's government and local airlines, who have faced repeated threats of intervention if price increases get out of hand.

Brazil's domestic aviation industry, the third-largest in the world, has come under intense scrutiny as one of the biggest potential embarrassments of the tournament. With a dozen host cities scattered around the vast country, millions of fans are expected to stream from one overcrowded airport to the next during the month-long event.

Prices have spiked as demand overwhelmed domestic networks since world soccer body FIFA determined in December where the 32 teams will play their first round of matches. Fans trying to follow neighboring Argentina from their Rio de Janeiro opener to their second game in Belo Horizonte, for instance, have seen the cheapest tickets as much as double in price.

With Brazil's reputation as a rising global power on the line, President Dilma Rousseff is anxious to pull off a smooth World Cup, the first held in South America's soccer powerhouse since 1950. Success in what she has called "the Cup of all Cups" is also likely to help her chances of winning a second term in October elections.

FIFA chief Sepp Blatter said on Monday no host nation had been so far behind in World Cup preparations as Brazil, where workers are rushing to finish new stadiums and airport terminals for the tournament just five months away.

The extra flights requested by airlines would further tax the country's most overloaded airports. In Cuiabá, a city of half a million in Brazil's sweltering soy belt, proposed routes would boost air traffic by 48 per cent during the tournament.

Rousseff's chief of staff, Gleisi Hoffmann, acknowledged this week that Cuiabá may need a temporary canvas terminal if construction at the airport is not finished by May.

In an effort to prevent price gouging, Hoffmann has also warned the government could open domestic routes to foreign carriers, but experts say that may prove to be an idle threat. The practice, known as cabotage, is highly uncommon outside the European Union. Australia and Chile are among the few nations that allow foreign-owned airlines to operate domestic flights without a reciprocal relationship from another country.