This is the second in a series of posts chronicling my January 2018 trip to Colombia. You can read an overview/preview here.
As a result of mergers, air travel in Northern South America is dominated by two mega-airlines: LATAM – the product of a merger between Chile’s national carrier LAN (and its various partly-owned subsidiaries in Colombia, Peru, and Argentina) and Brazilian carrier TAM — and the new Avianca (which was going by AviancaTaca at some point), reflecting the merger of Colombia’s Avianca and its subsidiaries with TACA, itself a coalition of various Central American carriers with some South American affiliates. I have flown both LAN and TAM before, but never Avianca or TACA. So I wasn’t sure what to expect. (Complicating factors, my flights *to* Colombia were actually operated by TACA under Avianca branding, while all my other flights were on pre-merger Avianca. I’d also travel through two of the new Avianca’s hubs – San Salvador and Bogota (its third hub is Lima).
The backbone of Avianca’s fleet are A319s and A320s. There are a few A330s and Boeing 787s used primarily to fly to Europe, but also some New York and LA flights. The 787 also makes appearances on high-volume domestic flights sometimes, as well as high-volume regional flights like MEX-BOG. All five of my flights on this trip would be on A319s and A320s, so don’t expect much variety in my trip reports. But I was overall looking forward to trying out the flights. (This part of the trip was booked using 35,000 Avianca LifeMiles in business class.)
One thing nice about flying to Colombia as opposed to points further south in South America, is that you can leave in the late afternoon and still arrive that night. My first flight, from Washington-Dulles to El Salvador, left around 3:15pm, so I was able to work a half day and head straight from my office. I took a noon Uber across the bridge to Rosslyn, and picked up the 5A bus at 12:27pm, arriving at Dulles at 1:05pm.
Avianca check-in was pretty crowded, as flights to both San Salvador and Bogota were leaving within five minutes of each other. (Bogota would have been a shorter travel time for me, but there was no award availability.) There was only one person ahead of me on the business class line, though, and check-in/bag drop was smooth (and all in Spanish). I couldn’t tell if I had access to the premium security line but it actually made no difference given the short lines. It was the emptiest I’d seen the main checkpoints at Dulles, and I moved through quickly, then onto the train to the B concourse where I arrived by 1:20pm.
At check-in, I was directed to use the Lufthansa lounge, which is right across from Avianca’s gates. But as a Star Alliance business class passenger, I also had access to the much nicer Turkish lounge. I’ve reviewed both before, but the Lufthansa space for business class passengers is a small basement room, where as the Turkish Lounge is a newer space with better food and slightly bigger (though can get crowded due to the layout and because people don’t realize there is a second room, even though that’s where the bar is). Indeed, the lounge was fairly crowded even though the only Star Alliance flights around then were the Avianca ones, but the lounge also does accept Priority Pass. (For the first time, I also noticed a set of stairs in the lounge going upstairs that didn’t seem like a staff-only staircase. Perhaps a VIP section?)
I had a strong feeling the Turkish lounge food would be better than the Avianca business food. The buffet had chicken stew, cod, pasta, biryani rice, two soups, and a variety of dips and salad. I also tried a good Turkish bread pudding I hadn’t had before. The bar service was pretty poor, as they had one bartender who also was cleaning up. They also ran out of champagne glasses, so I had some out of a lowball glass.
Around 2:10pm, I headed to the gate. My boarding pass had an “At gate” time of 2:15pm, but no boarding time. At 2:25, ground crew announced wheelchair boarding (in Spanish only). There was a business class line, a “special services” line, and then lines marked for zones B, C, D. At that point, I got on the business line, where I was the first person. Meanwhile, about 25 people- of various ages, none in wheelchairs—rushed to board. I was first on line in business. But as the “wheelchair” passengers boarded, a bunch of other passengers joined the line behind them, and then boarded before me telling the agent they were business class. So, I ended up actually being the 8th person in the cabin, and didn’t get great photos.
The flight was on an A319 operated by TACA, actually outfitted in the Star Alliance livery. It’s not a very big plane for a nearly five-hour flight, seating about 130 total. The passenger mix was nearly all Central American, which makes sense because Northern Virginia actually has a very large Central American population. Business class is three rows of 2×2 leather recliner seats. They weren’t the fanciest, but on par or better than most US carriers’ domestic first class product. They were fairly comfortable, with individual footrests, but I’d avoid the bulkhead. At boarding, there was a blanket and pillow at each seat, a newspaper and headphones in the seat pocket. Each seat has both USB and AC power, and a somewhat small personal IFE screen. The seats were similar to those on Aeromexico’s 737 in business, but felt a little wider. The tray mechanisms were a little faulty, and led to a slope when using the tray.
Boarding seemed to take very long for what was not a very big plane. All the seats in business were full, but at least one had been gotten via the upgrade offer Avianca emails around. (The passenger said she had offered the minimum bid. For my return flight, that bid was about $350.) Every time one of her coworkers boarded she pointed out that Trump was on the cover of the El Salvador newspaper, as if it was a surprise that the American President is on the front page of a newspaper the day after he made a comment about immigration from “shitholes” and days after his administration announced plans to send hundreds of thousands of people living in America back to El Salvador.
While coach was boarding, a flight attendant came around offering water, orange drink, or sparkling wine, and a small ramekin of nuts. The wine wasn’t bad. Then we had an on-time takeoff. The in-flight entertainment system started working on taxi. There weren’t a ton of movies, but good enough; there were multiple new releases, just fewer newish/classics. There was actually a better TV selection, including lots of new shows, including House of Cards, the new X-Files, Outlander, and others. Avianca has a streaming wifi based entertainment product as well, but not on any of my flights.
Once airborne, I dozed a bit, before waking an hour into flight to an offer of a hot towel, followed by a meal and beverage service – the only service on the flight which seemed off. For the main meal, there was a choice of beef or fish. I probably should have picked the fish, but picked beef for some reason. It was a roast with a tomato sauce, accompanied by green beans and mashed potatoes. It was hard to cut with the knife I was given, but it was surprisingly tasty, though a bit tough. On the side was a small weird salad of greens, sundried tomato, and olives, and there was a choice of rolls. To drink, there were about 4 different wines, in addition to a full range of soft drinks. Service was friendly enough.
There was a separate dessert cart, with small slices of tiramisu, Cointreau and Bailey’s, as well as coffee. I watched Battle of the Sexes over dinner, because who doesn’t love a poorly-written, predictable lesbian period love story slash “comedy.” Besides meal time, the crew was invisible, unfortunately. On a 4h45m flight, a second drink service would be good. My empty coffee cup sat for a few hours and I was not offered a refill or asked if I was done. A little over an hour out of San Salvador, I rang the bell because I was thirsty, and it took a good 4 or 5 minutes for anyone to respond, which is weird on such a small plane when you’re in row two.
There was a pretty sunset as we crossed over the Yucatan and into Central America, and soon enough on the ground in El Salvador, landing a bit early, and I was off the plane at around 6:40PM local time. (The timing of my flights was a little confusing because of my slightly out-of-the-way routing. From IAD to SAL I flew south-southwest, and then SAL to MDE was more east-southeast. That meant I was actually flying out of Eastern Time to Central Time, then back into Eastern Time.)
El Salvador is currently a very dangerous country and not one high on my list to visit. My heart breaks for those Americans who have been here– legally — for 20+ years and now are in danger of being forced to return and give up the lives they’ve built. That being said, the airport is known for being an easy connection hub, having served as TACA’s hub for decades and featuring a good connection point for flights from all parts of North America to Central and South America. The reported ease of connections made me more comfortable with a scheduled 75-minute international connection with luggage onto the last flight of the night. With the early arrival, it was totally comfortable.The airport terminal is a straight line, pretty much, and US flights all come in at one end. As luck would have it, my Medellin flight was the furthest gate from there, on the opposite end, but that still wasn’t very far.
I popped into the Avianca Sala VIP Lounge as I passed it, which was clean and modern, but fairly basic. There was a main room with seating, an area with bartop seating and some tables, a “TV room,” a “family zone” (playroom), and a “Productivity Zone” with desk-like corrals and some computers. I figured I’d only be there around 25 minutes, so it was fine. I did some charging of my laptop, though, and drank two Coke Zeros. In terms of food, it was an odd assortment, with a salad bar of sorts, some mini sandwiches, vegetarian raw spring rolls and “sushi,” and some desserts I didn’t think were worth the calories. There was also a very good dog.
The lounge announced all flights, which was nice, but I was still a ways from my gate, so headed out about 45 minutes before scheduled departure. My flight was in the last bank of flights of the night, so the airport was pretty quiet, though several gates were was full. On the way I passed a Priority Pass lounge which I had read about and didn’t seem that different. The gate area wasn’t that hectic, and at about 35 minutes before scheduled departure time, boarding began.
Flight number two was also a TACA-operated A319, but it felt like a completely different product. The configuration was the same, but it was a much newer interior. At the same time, there was no personal IFE, just drop-down screens, and the leather seats weren’t as comfortable. No USB power, but there was The flight was also half the length, though, so it didn’t matter much. Headphones were also at each seat, as were a blanket and pillow. The blanket was wrapped this time but otherwise the same. The pillow seemed fresher, too. As on flight number 1, pre-departure beverages and nuts were offered.
We had a longish taxi and then were airborne pretty much on time. The movie “Victoria and Abdul” started to play on the drop-down screens, and the flight attendants did a hot towel service, followed by a dinner service. There were two options for dinner, a chicken with rice and something I didn’t quite understand, but sounded like a ham sandwich. I went with the chicken, which was not very good. It was a sort of stuffed chicken, served with rice and zucchini, none of which had any flavor. There was also a side salad, and I couldn’t tell you what it was. Tuna tartare? Watermelon? Tomato? On the same tray, though, was a star: a strawberry tart.
I read a bit and watched some episodes of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel I had downloaded to my Kindle. And then we were on the ground, a little bit early at around 11:50pm. Medellin’s Jose Maria Cordova International Airport was pretty dead, as it is one of the last arrivals of the night. I was through immigration by midnight, and had my bag by 12:05am. I tried to get an Uber, but it was an 18-minute wait. The regular airport taxis have a set rate of 70,000 COP to Medellin – about $25 for a winding 25-mile ride. The airport is pretty far from the city so even at that late hour, it was a forty-minute ride. (And due to the pitch black, not scenic!) I ended up arriving at the Ibis in the Ciudad del Rio neighborhood just before 1am – 11 hours after I left my office. Yawn! In all, not a bad travel experience, though, and Avianca Business Class was perfectly fine for this route.