LVZXV From Gabon, joined Mar 2004, 2041 posts, RR: 31 Posted (10 years 11 months 2 weeks 2 days ago) and read 6794 times:
My long awaited First Trip Report...
The last couple of years or so have been by far the busiest in my life as far as air travel is concerned. With my family scattered across three countries and my friends over many more, I caught the travelling bug and have been putting to good use money I have saved over the past eight years. From 2003-4, I did some fairly intensive travelling around South America, owing to the fact that it became my base once more after many years in Europe. Exotic airlines I was able to sample included VASP, GOL, TAM, LAB, American Falcon, Aerovip, Pluna, LAN and its subsidiaries, a now defunct Patagonian regional airline, Aerolíneas and, last but not least, the now infamous Southern
Winds. Although I walked-off Southern Winds' Jumbo last month after a pretty bitter-sweet experience, I will dedicate this report to my first international flight with them last year, of which I have fonder memories.
Upon leaving for Buenos Aires on September 11, 2003, I had promised my friends in London that I would be back in the middle of February: 2 months of travel, 6 weeks working in Tierra del Fuego, and another 6 weeks or so to make the most of the southern summer holidays. Good weather and a job offer from a prominent Buenos Aires newspaper lured me into staying a little longer. February became March, March became April, and April, May. I can't say I was missing London yet, as for one thing Buenos Aires was the only city I knew of where I could get by on as little as a Dollar a day! In short, I extended my internship by a month, and partied almost a month straight as awe-struck friends of mine from London began to swamp Buenos Aires.
It was probably after a heavy night drinking that I opted to "bail-out" by calling my travel agent. The end of the month was approaching and prices were not looking good for a single to London. Requiring Business Class on account of almost a year's worth of luggage, Aerolíneas, BA and Varig were quoting me prices in the USD 1,700-2,100 range. At this point, I decided to do what any Argentine does best: think laterally.
What about Southern Winds, I thought? At the time, they offered a convenient connection to London-Gatwick through Spain's Air Europa. Total price for a single to London in Business Class with Southern Winds and Air Europa: USD 1,390. I think numbers speak louder than words.
Trying to enjoy my last few days in BA without thinking of how much I was going to miss it was not easy. Trying to ignore my cousins' efforts to persuade me to stay on was even harder. "May, June, what's the difference? It's X's birthday in June, you can't miss it..." and so on. Nowhere else have I found a city as warm and human as Buenos Aires, even if, as a Polish friend of mine remarked, "it's a place where people wear human nature on their sleeve", make of that what you will.
"Southern Winds is a strange airline", my godmother told me over a lunch.
"In what way?" I probed.
"You will not find the nicest bunch of people on board. Many are relations of illegal immigrants in Spain, it's the cheapest way to Madrid, expect surprises." A la Ryanair, I wondered. As I left my flat, with 90kg of luggage, she assured me, "don't worry, when I took them in January there were people carrying much more. I have never seen people travel so heavy. We used up almost all the runway at Barajas, I wondered if we would ever leave the ground". How reassuring, I thought, especially since the 767-300ER has little fuel to spare on the route.
Check-in was less of a problem than I anticipated. Baggage allowance was 40kg, of which a further 10 were forgiven, so in the end I was "only" 40kg overweight (not including 15kg of hand luggage).
There must be few airlines in the world that you can predict exactly what plane you will be flying on. Southern Winds' fleet at the time comprised seven 737-200s and a single 767, so there were no points for guessing which one in would be.
I suppose I was mildly excited to board the albino-looking "Don Bosco". Southern Winds was new for me, Business Class a rare treat, and it had been 10 years since my last flight on a 767. Some supremely good-looking stewardesses greeted me by the L1 door, one of them tanned and green-eyed, the other more Scandinavian-looking. My seat was comfortable enough, though next to me sat one of the "strange" people my godmother talked about, a chubby man pushing 40 who bore a clone-like resemblance to Diego Maradona. To my right my view was blocked by the open cargo door, so I just switched-off.
During the safety demonstration, I noticed that my PTV said in the classic logo "TWA", as did the life-jackets shown by the cabin crew. Throughout South America I had seen conflicting logos on aircraft, the most notable being the British Airways and "Property of Pegasus" ones on the drinks trolleys on board Aerolíneas' 737s. Always cause for a grin.
Cabin lights were dimmed upon entering the runway, and the PW's roared. In spite of my luggage, the aircraft gathered speed quickly, and was airborne in a little over 30 seconds. Almost immediately the ground disappeared beneath a low fog bank, glaringly lit-up by the wing lights. An instant later, I could see an orange blanket glowing beneath. Even in late-Autumn, the sleepless city continued to exude red-hot energy by night.
Dinner was perhaps my only gripe with Southern Winds, comprising cold and bland chicken, a far cry from the fine Patagonian lamb they boasted in leaflets.
The flight passed quickly, and was easily the smoothest I had ever experienced on the route. Over northeastern Brazil, the pilot made some minor course adjustments to steer clear of the angry-looking airborne anvils. Cunims are certainly a menacing sight at night, their dark silhouettes flashing fiercely every few seconds.
Somewhere off the Moroccan coast, the green-eyed former World Stewardess Queen woke me for breakfast. Not fully sure if I was dreaming or not, I asked for some maté to make sure. Low and behold, I was awake, and Southern Winds became the first and thus far only airline to serve me the caffeine-rich tea.
Crossing the Portuguese coast, I couldn't quite believe I was back in European airspace. I had grown so accustomed to the anarchic layout of most South American cities that I was somewhat startled to see Madrid as we descended over it developing in such an orderly fashion.
We touched down lightly at 13:45, 30 minutes late, in a pleasantly sunny Barajas. I asked the pilot if the 767 met the airline's needs on the route, to which he replied that the aircraft was far from ideal, arriving in Madrid with only 150 miles to spare. It felt a little far for the 767, but good to know the aircraft could make it.
Finding the Air Europa desks in Barajas was nothing shy of an ordeal. Every single person I asked would either reply absently "pues, no sé" or point me in completely the wrong direction. The compartmental nature of the airport began to fray my nerves. A couple of hours and a couple of miles later, I stumbled upon the Air Europa counters, where there was no one on sight save a few British tourists in my position.
Not long before the flight, a single Air Europa agent arrived to check us in, albeit at a snail's pace. Thank God my baggage had been checked staright through to London. Upon handing me my boarding pass, the woman pointed at some unattended immigration booths signalling that boarding would take place beyond them.
At 18:15, 15 minutes before my flight, together with my fellow Air Europa passengers, we realised that either the woman was wrong or the gate had been changed. It turned out the gate was the same, but the directions useless.
Anxiously queueing to go through the metal detector, a man in his mid-40's with a Southern Winds badge clipped to his lapel ironicised at the efficiency of Barajas. Curious as to this man's profession, he told me he was a former Southern Winds pilot, from Córdoba, who had flown CRJ-200s and Dash 8s until the Crisis of 2001/2. He recognised me from the flight from Buenos Aires, and somewhat intrigued I began quizzing him about his former airline. He gave me a concise summary of the airline's survival methods, which entailed returning their entire Bombardier fleet and suspending a lot of pilots. Very few were retrained to fly 737-200s when they were introduced in 2002, and even the 767 I had just flown on was apparently crewed by former LAPA pilots with an ex-Dinar oberver in the jump seat.
Engrossed in conversation, I barely took note of what aircraft I was boarding, except that it was a brand-new 737-800 without winglets. Sat near the nose, I was soon joined by the pilot as I had two free seats next to me. He informed me of the imminent delivery of the MD-11s, the reasons as to why Southern Winds had been unable to maintain their Icelandic-registered 767s (operated by Air Atlanta), and then we discussed at length the crashes of the Austral DC-9 in 1997 and the LAPA 737 in 1999. Although the context was retrospective, both accidents appeared more avoidable than I once thought. According to his findings, panic struck the Austral pilots as they approached a 50,000ft cunim with a faulty airpseed indicator, suggesting that all that needed to be done was to check the First Officer's which was still functioning. He added though that no pilot should have taken-off in such conditions, and went on to tell me of some of his more interesting experiences of landing Bombardiers in foul weather at Aeroparque in downtown Buenos Aires.
"Down to 300ft you were ok, but below that fierce venturis could funnel through the hangars and hit you broadside, so you had to be careful." That plus the fact that the runway's drainage system was inadequate, increasing the risk of aquaplaning.
The charcoal-grey Bay of Biscay looked anything but inviting far below. It may have been the middle of Spring, but over the years I've built-up a mixture of fear and respect for it, owing to some interesting experiences on the Basque coast.
The sun disappeared as we began our descent into Gatwick, not much of a surprise I suppose. Punching through the monotone stratus cloud overhanging southeast England, I was greeted by the sight of the soggy green English countryside, famed for its beauty but done little justice in such poor light.
We put down uneventfully in the drizzle at 20:38. A journey that had begun with an unassuming Lufthansa A300 flight to Frankfurt ended in a similarly unspectacular fashion with another Eurowhite airline returning me safely some 9 months later. In that time I visited 8 countries and travelled on 16 airlines, of which 3 have since packed-up and another 2 are threatening to follow suit, one of them being none other than Southern Winds. It sad to see South America, the land of the legendary condor, becoming home to an ever growing number of flightless birds.
My apologies for the lack of Air Europa photos, which I had trouble uploading.
LVZXV From Gabon, joined Mar 2004, 2041 posts, RR: 31
Reply 6, posted (10 years 11 months 1 week 10 hours ago) and read 5826 times:
Thanks for the comments.
The excess baggage ended up costing a small fortune, as it would have whether I travelled Business-Surf or Economy. I'm grateful that they discounted 10kg in any case (a nice Argentine touch).
Given that the difference in baggage allowance between the two classes was just 8kg (40 vs. 32), I don't see how Economy could have been more expensive. As it was, the main reason I flew Business-Surf was that Economy was full, owing to the fact that I bought my ticket just two weeks prior to departure.
Incidentally, I have a bad feeling that this is SW's last week of existence, as LAN Argentina begin operations on June 8.