From Río de la Plata to Mar Caribe: accross South America with Avianca (Part I)

As much as I’d like to picture it that way, crossing the Andes – even if by air – didn’t come as a Che inspired kind of adventure. Quite the contrary: it had very pragmatic purposes. I was living in Rio de Janeiro and had to go for 20 days to Bogotá for (kind of) professional purposes.  The “problem” was that I had the wedding of a very good friend in Buenos Aires just before I had to be in Colombia. My options were flying from Rio to Buenos Aires and back and then to Bogotá and back or fly a triangular itinerary. I opted for the latter. Choosing the airlines was a no-brainer. For the Rio de Janeiro-Buenos Aires leg, the options were TAM, GOL and Aerolíneas Argentinas. The latter was no option for its unreliability and GOL was cheaper than TAM; apart from that, their flights also qualified for award miles with Flying Blue (FB). For the other ticket, Avianca was the only true option, as no other airline allowed me to fly such itinerary. But there were also other reasons to choose Avianca: not only their reviews were so good that I wanted to try them, but they’d also give me award miles in FB, as GOL would as well; additionally, I managed to match my travelling dates with the days in which the new A332s were operating both routes. In the end, I bought a Buenos Aires-Bogotá-Rio “roundtrip” ticket with Avianca, the return leg operating via São Paulo GRU to Rio de Janeiro SDU with Oceanair – now rebranded to Avianca Brasil. Unfortunately, due to family reasons, I had to leave to Lisbon last-minute instead of leaving directly back to Rio and therefore missed the second leg. But the experience of the Buenos Aires-Bogotá flight is still worth telling, together with that of a weekend trip to Cartagena de Índias.

AV88
EZE (SAEZ) – BOG (SKBO)

Airbus A330-243 N967CG (msn 967, first flight 17/10/2008)
ETD: 07h35
ETA: 12h05
Seat: 36A

March 15 2010

As seat assignment wasn’t available and on-line check-in neither (only for routes to Ecuador – how is this possible in 2010 with a modern airline like Avianca?!), I had to arrive early to check-in. The call centre agent told me it wouldn’t open until 2h before ETD; still, I arrived at Ezeiza International Airport at 05h10 (with no sleep, of course). At that time, not only the check-in was already open, but there was also a huge queue.

There was an agent checking that everyone’s name was on the pax list and providing luggage tags, both for checked and for carry-on baggage. I tried my luck with my FB Platinum card, but she kindly told me that only Avianca Oro or Diamante would be eligible for access to the C class check-in counters. So I waited… and waited… and waited… It took 1h for me to be able to check-in. And people kept on arriving at that point: every time I looked back, the cola was either the same or bigger. There were five agents (four for Y and one for C) and a sixth agent who was handling the caja. For about 20 mins., one of the agents got busy with a group (of athletes) and for more or less the same period of time, three agents were only calling C class or Avianca elite pax. Generally, I do agree with giving priority to C class and elite pax from Y check-in agents, but this was beyond any reasonable limit…

When I finally reached the counter, I was helped by a professional and kind (female) agent. I asked if there were any window seats left, but there was only 36A (and a couple of aisles, also at the back of the aircraft – the agent added). With this panorama, I decided to take the last row window seat. It was a risk: I didn’t know almost anything about the aircraft seating configuration because the seatmaps weren’t available online. There could be toilets behind or limited recline. The agent inserted my FB number and noted my elite status. I took the opportunity and tried my luck again, this time to ask whether I could have lounge access. She said that I couldn’t have access to it because it was a contract lounge. When I left the check-in area, only 20 mins. were left before check-in closure time, but the queue was as long as when I had arrived.

Security check-point (where I didn’t even have to take my laptop out of my bag) and immigration were a breeze.

The minute I set my feet in the international area of the airport, I entered a huge flashy and noisy disco-like duty-free area. Apart from the (horrible and loud) music that was playing, there were also people vacuum-cleaning the floor (it wasn’t even 07h00 after all) and gate agents shouting names of late pax for their flights which were due for departure. As I was in the last row of the aircraft, I decided to buy myself a merenda – just in case, and bearing in mind I’d be the last one to be served.

Boarding started 25 mins. late, but finished more than on-time. Although the gate area was packed (it was a full flight) and there was an informal queue, the boarding procedure was rather orderly: first C class pax, elite pax and pax with children or reduced mobility; then Y rear section and only next Y front section – and it was enforced!

When I boarded, I was greeted by the purser, who told me, in Portuguese (after having read my name in the boarding pass), “Bem-vindo a bordo, Senhor Tiago” and directed me to my seat.

The pax were welcomed onboard with a very long announcement that presented the whole crew, name by name (and full name!), and added that there was a sales representative onboard. I was puzzled with this (would she sell tickets for other flights onboard?!), but later understood that she was only in charge of the duty-free and didn’t help her colleagues in any other task. It should be added that apart from having their names mentioned, all FAs were wearing name tags. The inflight service was also described as comprising a breakfast and a snack before arrival, with the full list of available beverages. It should be noted, however, that most other inflight announcements were recorded. And, on a negative note, there wasn’t a single word from the captain or first officer throughout the entire flight!

Doors were closed on schedule, at 07h25 – at which time there was announcement from the FA saying “the doors of the aircraft are closed; Avianca is, as usual, departing on time”. No more than five mins. after that we pushed back from our gate.

The metal that one could spot through the window at EZE was mostly Aerolíneas Argentinas’, but there were also a couple of LAN’s. We had a not so long taxi towards runway 11 that ended with a very narrow turn. After lining up and waiting for a couple of mins., our A332 speeded down the runway and took off at 07h45.

After departure, we followed the runway heading for some minutes towards La Plata until we made a right turn and headed NW, more or less along the Paraná river.

While we were still climbing, a video was shown with basic instructions for the pax during the flight on how to use the toilets and the IFE – quite useful in some circumstances.

Hot (paper) towels were handed out by the crew 20 mins. after departure. Breakfast started being served soon thereafter. I was in the last row and therefore only got it 30 mins. later (ie, 50 mins. after departure). But it was much worse with the drinks, which I only got still another 20 mins. later. This is because the meal serving procedures are plainly wrong and inefficient. Had I not brought a drink onboard myself, my breakfast would have become cold.

The breakfast itself wasn’t all that bad for airline food in Y: scrambled eggs with a sort of fried yams, fruit salad, bread and butter. Everyone got the same: there were no alternatives. Beverages were all non-alcoholic – but by the time they got to the last five rows, orange juice had finished. It’s interesting to note that all napkins were made of recycled paper and had a reference to Avianca’s recycling policy.

After my meal, I napped for a while. When I woke up, the view from my window was stunning, as expected.

Apart from the inflight magazine, which was actually good, the IFE was surprisingly good. Turned on immediately after take-off and turned off shortly before landing (with a recorded announcement saying that “the entertainment system will be turned off in 5 mins.”), it had a wide selection of films and TV shows. As it was March, the  month’s theme was “Oscars 2005-2009”. There were also some premières and yet another theme: “women and the movies”. There was a total of 17 AVOD films in the 9” LCD touchscreen. As for TV shows, the following ones were showing: The Simpsons, Two and a half men, House, The mentalist and Heroes. Lastly, a power socket was also available and headphones were in the seats when boarding started.

Apart from the PTV, the seat also incorporated a coat-hang, a place that holds eyeglasses and a cup holder – even if the cups that were distributed were too narrow to fit there –, a USB entry point, and the PTV control. The tray table was folded away and a blanket was placed on the seat prior to boarding.

3h30m into the flight is the point at which the seat comfort starts to be an issue. It wasn’t very padded, but still had a very reasonable degree of comfort due to the footrest  and to the recline position – which was available in full recline, even in the last row of the aircraft due to some space behind it (and the lack of a toilet there too). The head support wasn’t brilliant, though, because it wasn’t adjustable in the sides. Another good thing about the recline was that the seat also moved itself forward, making it more comfortable. The armrests were moveable.

The PSU panels were also of the last generation, with the sign “turn off electronic devices” instead of “no smoking”.

The toilets featured the new airbus style – a novelty for me. They were much more pleasant than the older ones, both in terms of light and in the fashion the tap works (one doesn’t have to keep pressing the water button as one washes one’s hands).

Throughout the flight, the crew disappeared: no water was offered and the FAs didn’t pass the aisles often to check on pax’s needs. Except from that, they were professional (a bit slow at times), but never willing to go the extra mile. It’s still worth noting that AV’s crew uniforms have been praised elsewhere.

About 1h15 before ETA, a snack was served (no option once again): a sandwich with ham and cream cheese – much like a tramezzino – with beverages. This time, beer and wine were available – and orange juice was miraculously. The quality was again not beyond acceptable and the same goes for quantity.

As soon as we reached our TOD (at around 11hoo, Bogotá time), all security instructions were immediately given (maybe it’s because BOG is quite high: at 8361 ft., it’s the third-highest capital city in the world, after La Paz and Quito). This meant that 35 mins. before landing, armrests had to be put down, tray tables folded away, seats in the upright position, window blinds open, electronic equipment shut down, and blankets placed in the seat pocket in front or in the seat, behind the pax’s back (this one was a new one for me!).

Unlike the flight – which unexpectedly (as we were overflying the Andes) had almost no turbulence – the approach was not only bumpy, but involved many turns.

At 11h35, 30 mins. ahead of our schedule, we touched down on rwy13R and vacated to the right. We still had plenty of runway ahead of us, though, due to its remarkable length (3799.9 m!).

We had a short taxi to the international terminal and therefore this wasn’t the best occasion to spot airplanes. The overall idea was that AV clearly dominated the airport movements (at least at this time of day).

Deplaning was swift. Not so much for immigration and customs, with everything being x-rayed.

Final evaluation
Reservation [1]: 10
Check-in [1,5]: 2
Boarding [0,5]: 8
Seat [2,5]: 8
Aircraft overall ambience [0,5]: 7
IFE [1,5]: 8
Power outlets [0,5]: 0
Crew [3,5]: 6
Food [2]: 4
Beverages [0,5]: 5
Freebies and amenities [0,5]: 2
Disembarkation [0,5]: 10
On-time record [2]: 10

Weighed overall impression: 6,47 (inflight overall impression: 6,93)

Apart from the inflight magazine, which was actually good, the IFE was surprisingly good. Turned on immediately after take-off and turned off shortly before landing (with a recorded announcement saying that “the entertainment system will be turned off in 5 mins.”), it had a wide selection of films and TV shows. It was Oscar month and that was the month’s theme (2005-2009); there were also some premières and yet another theme: “women and the movies”. There was a total of 17 AVOD films in the 9” LCD touchscreen. As for TV shows, the following ones were available: The Simpsons, Two and a half men, House, The mentalist and Heroes. Lastly, a power socket was also available.
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~ by Tiago on December 3, 2010.

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