Welcome to my 5th tripreport!
This report covers my recent flights in Bolivia on three Fairchild Metroliners from La Paz-El Alto International (LPB) to Sucre (SRE) via Trinidad (TDD) and Santa Cruz de la Sierra - El Trompillo (SRZ) with the regional airline Aerocon. The report also contains a couple of pictures of downtown Santa Cruz.
Disclaimer: This report contains almost 150 pictures. Unfortunately some of the pictures taken in-flight are a little blurry due to unclean windows.
This report is not about fancy lounges or savoring a first-class cabin. It is not about the fondness towards an attentive flight attendant or the rudeness of an airport security empolyee. It is neither about miles nor perks, neither about seat-back TVs nor in-flight dining. All this did not play a part in my trip.
Still, I would never like to miss those flights for the experience on the ground and in the air was one of its kind.
This report is about escaping the pabulum that air travel can become, it is about escaping the confines of overregulation and it is about escaping from the routines and expectations that we passengers have built around flying.
For me, the flights covered in the following have been a breath of fresh air.
Please follow me on the three legs which have taken me from one of the highest airports in the world to the Amazon Basin, the Gran Chaco lowlands and back to the Andes. All on a certain 19-seater turboprop airliner proudly boasting nicknames like San Antonio sewer pipe or Texas lawn dart.
Just as with my last trip to Cochabamba taking the decisive steps to get me a seat on the plane started out less than a week before departure. Planning this trip, however, began long before I first set foot onto Bolivian soil. Back in spring I was organizing all those indispensable things for my couple of months in Bolivia like finding myself a flat or getting the recommended vaccinations. At this time, when everything for my journey was falling into place, I also started researching for flights I could take once in Bolivia. In contrast to other major operators in the country like Boliviana de Aviación or the Air Force airline TAM, where online research proved to be rather futile due to defective or completely lacking online booking engines, a little regional airline quickly sparked my interest, mainly due to its - for Bolivian standards - outstanding website.
The name of this little airline was Aerocon, and as I quickly learned, it provides scheduled passenger service mainly to communities in the Beni Department in the Bolivian Amazon basin and links this remote region to the major centers in the county. It does this with its fleet of Fairchild Metro 23s and Metro IIIs. Apparently they also operate a Dornier 228. It calls itself "flag carrier of the Beni Department" and advertises that it flies "everyday to the same destinations, at the same times". Well, if you like to split hairs, the last part is not entirely true as the weekend schedule differs from the schedule during the week. Also, as you will see, this promise is easy to be made, but much harder to be kept. The airline started operations in 2005.
Maybe, the name "Aerocon" rang a bell with you. On 07 September 2011 Aerocon Flight 238 from Santa Cruz de la Sierra to their hub Trinidad disappeared on approach to Trinidad. Sadly, out of the nine people on board (incl. 2 crew) only one passenger survived the accident. He was found by the rescue team two days after the plane crashed. The plane went down in the jungle about 30 kilometers outside of Trinidad. Due to bad weater conditions it took a lot of time until the vessel was located.
You can read the corresponding thread to the crash here:
Fairchild Missing In Bolivia: 9 People On Board. (by notaxonrotax Sep 7 2011 in Civil Aviation)
Booking, cancellation, rebooking, rescheduling, desperate phone call attempts and a well-deserved beer
Already after a couple of days here in Bolivia it was obvious that I had to go to Sucre, the constitutional capital of the country. Most of my friends at work advised me to do so and consequently, as soon as I found myself with a free weekend I decided to go for it and book some flights. This was when I remembered the nice website of Aerocon. I entered my dates and they offered me a connection for a little more than 60 Euros. A little steep I thought at first, but a second glance at the webpage revealed that the ticket consisted of three flights: from La Paz to their hub Trinidad, located in the Amazon basin and then onwards to Sucre via the inner city airport of Bolivia's largest city, Santa Cruz - El Trompillo. Suddenly the price did not seem too high anymore, on the contrary: three flights on the rare Metroliner, with an average length of almost an hour, for a price of 20 Euros each. And indeed, this was a great deal. The first leg alone, if you would book it separately, would already cost about 10 Euros more than the whole itinerary. As Aerocon is a private airline their prices are usually a lot higher than those of the government-supported BoA and TAM. For the Sucre itinerary they have apparently matched the price of the private competitor AeroSur which charges about the same for the journey, albeit on a direct 45 minute flight with Boeing equipment and not on a 6.5 hour, 2 stop-itinerary with a cramped 19-seater.
With this fixed price this might be one of the best deals on the planet for a Metroliner itinerary measured in price per flight time. But it is also the variety of regions and landscapes covered with this itinerary that made it very interesting and almost impossible not to book it. After I checked the schedule for possible return flights with TAM (probably covered in a later report) in their La Paz office I finally booked the flights for Sunday, October 27th. I had to work on Saturday, but was able to take Monday off, so my weekend was a little delayed. The whole booking process was done in less than five minutes and I quickly received a booking confirmation in my inbox. So, six days before my departure, everything was set for my trip to Sucre.
Or so I thought.
When I got to the airport on the day of my scheduled departure, I noticed this:
Aerocon flight 73: cancelled.
I immediately went to their combined check-in and ticket sales desk. I was told that today there was no other way to get me to Sucre with Aerocon. They also tried to rebook me to another company (AeroSur had the only other departure to Sucre later that day), but there was no availability. So in the end they rebooked me on their own departure the next day, which was unacceptable for me seeing as I actually wanted to see something of Sucre and not just its airport.
Me: Why did you not try to contact me beforehand? I checked the flights on your webpage yesterday at 10pm and everything was still showing up as normal.
Agent: The flight got cancelled this morning. We tried to contact you on your phone.
Me: I did not receive a phone call this morning. When did you call me?
Agent: (After typing away in his computer) At quarter to seven we called your number [stating my correct phone number].
Me: (showing him my phone call records) I did not receive a phone call from you.
Agent: I don't know.
Me: Why did you not try to contact me by e-mail?
Agent: We don't do that.
Okay, after taking a deep breath I told him I would check flight information with other airlines and be back in a bit. First I went to AeroSur to enquire whether there was really no availability to Sucre today. It turned out that the flight was indeed booked solid. Then I went to the ticket desk of the military airline TAM to enquire about their schedule around next weekend. They offered three return flights on Monday in a week, so I would have many good opportunities to return home. I came back to the Aerocon counter and asked them to rebook me to next Saturday. Luckily the same 2-stop connection to Sucre was available on that day. I also asked the agent to add my mail address to my contact information or write some kind of annotation or memo into my reservation that I should be contacted by mail in case of future problems. I also told him that I was an aviation enthusiast and I would basically be taking the flight only because of the Metroliner and the nice routing. His response was inexistent. Maybe I read too much in the 787 keylace he was wearing (a 787 visited LPB for high-altitude performance tests some months ago).
So, to sum up, my plans had changed a little: I would go to work on the next day and then fly out to Sucre on Saturday, 3rd of December and return to La Paz on Monday, 5th. So this would give me two nights in Sucre. The downside was that I would lose one weekend which I could have spent travelling to another place. So, six days before my departure, everything was set for my trip to Sucre.
Or so I thought.
When, on Friday evening before departure (at 18:48 precisely), I was writing some important mails to my professors back in Germany, I received a mail in my inbox. In this mail an Aerocon emplyee notified me that my itinerary had changed and they could not get a hold of me on my cell phone. This time they really did call me and I missed it. The new itinerary, however, was a little horrifying for me: As per Dictum Aeroconum I apparently was to get myself to Trinidad (TDD) on the same flight I was originally scheduled on (Saturday at 10 a.m.), landing about one hour later. Then, I had to spend 24 hours in this oh-so-beautiful town until I could take a flight to Santa Cruz and connect from there to Sucre, reaching my destination only 24 hours later than originally planned. Some quick research revealed that my second leg from Trinidad to Santa Cruz was cancelled and there were no sensible rebooking opportunities available. Needless to say, I was not pleased with the overall situation.
Of course I immediately tried to get someone of Aerocon on the phone, but for a half an hour of trying, either their line or the whole cell phone network was occupied. So I responded to the mail they sent me, asking them to call me as soon as possible. I also discovered that they had some kind of online chat on their website, so I opened this application as well. After some 20 minutes of waiting an Aerocon employee entered the chatroom and an automatic message appeared, asking me how they could help me. The message was in German, so the software must have had autodetected my system language. I quickly described my problem and asked whether they would provide compensation or hotel accomodation or whatever. Needless to say, I never received a reply.
Alongside my futile communication attempts with the airline I also checked out possible other solutions of getting to Sucre. Luckily, AeroSur offered a departure about one hour before my Aerocon flight was about to leave, and their 727 was scheduled to do the run. So at this moment my plan was: getting to the airport way early, and if my Aerocon itinerary would still not work out, cancel the flights and rebook myself on the AeroSur departure. According to the AeroSur webpage there was still some availability, so chances were good I would at least get another flight on their 727.
At this point I desperately needed some beer and food, so I grabbed some quick dinner at a nearby food stall and got me a couple cans of Paceña. I got back to my flat, finished my mails and started composing a longish rant for our little fb group when, suddenly, I received a phone call from Aerocon. It turned out to be the same agent with whom I have "shared the chatroom" before. He told me that a suitable Trinidad-Santa Cruz flight was freshly scheduled and my itinerary would work out perfectly. During the conversation I navigated to the Aerocon website to view my reservation and everything looked indeed perfectly fine. I profundly thanked the agent, hung up, leaned back in my chair and opened a can of beer which I found to be well deserved after those two and a half nerve-wrecking hours. You can not imagine the grin on my face. So, less than 13 hours before my departure, everything was set for my trip to Sucre.