SAO PAULO -- The Brazilian domestic aviation sector could grow up to 9.5% this year, a top industry official said here Thursday.

Eduardo Sanovicz, president of the Brazilian Airlines Association (ABEAR), told a press conference that he expected stability in the first half of the year and growth in the second.

"The performance of the sector is linked to the performance of the economy, of the GDP," he noted. Amid expectations of GDP growth of around three percent this year, he said the aviation sector "could grow nine or 9.5%."

Sanovicz said total demand in 2012 grew 7.14% over the previous year..

In December, seat availability rose 5.1% over the previous month, said ABEAR, which added that its five member airlines -- TAM, GOL, Avianca, Azul and Trip -- carried 75 million passengers in 2012.

Azul merged with Trip last year.

Although demand in this continent-sized country of 194 million people has stabilized, experts see huge potential for further growth.

In 2002, 33 million air tickets were sold, a figure which nearly trebled to 86 million last year.

Brazil's top airline TAM, which merged with its Chilean counterpart LAN last year to become Latin America's biggest airline, retains a 43.9% share of the domestic market, followed by GOL with 34.6%, Azul with 10.5%, Avianca with 6.5% and TRIP with 4.6%.

With accumulated losses of $500 million up to September, Gol was forced to cut costs, with fewer services and greater plane occupancy rates, a strategy pursued by other companies.

TAM also had to cut costs.

Sanovicz, meanwhile, has welcomed plans by the federal government to privatize the airports in Rio and Belo Horizonte later this year and to build 800 regional airports across the country.

Most of Brazil's 70 airports are congested or in urgent need of an upgrade as the country prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013