South American air travel is alive and kicking
Ethan Hawke has a lot to answer for. OK, not him personally, but his 1993 film Alive, the true story of a Uruguayan football team whose plane crashes in the Andes, and who are forced to eat the bodies of their dead friends to stay alive.
Every time I mention I'm going to South America, someone raises that film. It seems the general impression of air travel in South America is that the planes crash frequently, often have drugs on board, and generally can't be relied upon. The reality is very different.
In 15 years of travelling around South America, I have discovered that flying in South America is no better nor worse than flying in Europe. It's much better than flying in the US, where endless safety checks, cramped planes and inedible food (on the rare occasion that there is any on offer) are the norm.
South America is a huge continent and if you want to get around, you're going to have to get on more than one plane.
Last year alone, I took almost 20 flights in South America - and I took notes.
Here's a snapshot of the best and worst of South American air travel.
TEST 1: THE AIRLINES
A friend recently flew business class on Aerolineas Argentinas, Argentina's national airline. Soon after take-off, she discovered her entertainment system was broken: not what you want on a long haul flight.
Unfortunately, as the cabin was full, she couldn't swap to another seat. Making the best of a bad situation, she got out her book and switched on her reading light. That was broken too. The best the stewardess could do was offer her a torch to read by.
I haven't flown Aerolineas in years, having sworn off the airline after a flight that hit the trifecta: broken seats, dirty cabin and unhelpful staff. It's the only South American airline I actively avoid, and I'm not alone - plenty of South Americans I know also make a point of avoiding it.
Aerolineas, however, does not win the award for Dodgiest South American Airline Ever. That would go to the Peruvian airline Aero Continente which, in the 1990s, quickly went from start-up to the country's largest airline.
It then collapsed spectacularly after US authorities denounced it as a drug-running operation.
Its founder, Fernando Zevallos, was accused of shipping millions of dollars' worth of cocaine around the world.
The good news is, South America has plenty of reputable carriers. The airline with the best name recognition in this country is LAN, with its flotilla of carriers: LAN Chile, LAN Peru, LAN Argentina. They offer a world-class service and are always a good option. My other first-choice airlines include Brazil's TAM (now in a partnership arrangement with LAN) and Colombia's Avianca.
GOL, Brazil's low-cost carrier, also offers good service, and I'm very fond of its jaunty orange logo, even though it does have slightly less leg room than most of its competitors.
TEST 2: THE AIRPORTS
South American pilots get to fly to some pretty extreme locations, from Manaus, in the heart of the jungle 1600 kilometres up the Amazon, to the icy wastes of Patagonia, to a large number of airports high in the Andes.
If you're picturing dirt landing strips like those you find in Africa, however, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find a fully functioning airport just about anywhere you land.
That doesn't mean nervous flyers won't have some angsty moments. For sheer spectacle, it's hard to beat Peru's Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu. The airport is surrounded by Andean peaks that soar up to 6000 metres, and is one of the most challenging airports in South America. At around 3500 metres, it's one of the highest commercial airports in the world.
To add to the degree of difficulty, landings can only be made visually, which means your plane is only going to touch down in daylight hours, and only in fine weather. Rest assured: they assign these routes to experienced pilots who are comfortable in these conditions. You're in good hands.
Pilots who like a challenge are still mourning the recent closure of the old Mariscal Sucre airport in Quito, Ecuador. This airport conferred serious bragging rights, as pilots had to juggle the effects of the high altitude on the engine, along with a short runway, active volcanoes nearby, and a location in a residential area. That airport was closed last year and the landing at the new Mariscal Sucre airport, located one valley over, is apparently much less challenging.
My least favourite airport is in Chiloe in southern Chile, a place so wet locals say it rains 13 months of the year. Landings are perfectly safe - it's once you get out the front door you're in trouble. The roof that supposedly protects the pick-up area is so small, you inevitably get drenched before getting your luggage to your car.
TEST 3: ARRIVING AND DEPARTING
South American guidebooks are full of horror stories about dodgy taxi drivers who lurk at airports, looking for arriving tourists who make easy prey. There are good reasons for the warnings, which is why most major airports, from Brazil to Colombia, give new arrivals a safer option.
Arriving passengers can prepay for a registered cab: just look for the booth before you pass through security. Best of all, they usually take credit cards, so you can use the service even if you haven't yet picked up any of the local currency. For the small premium you pay, it is a great way to avoid dramas.
Generally, arriving in South America is a fairly smooth process, as long as you have your visa. (In some countries, such as Chile, you can get a visa on arrival; in other countries, such as Brazil, you will need to organise one in advance. Determine which category your destination falls into.)
Leaving is also easy enough, apart from the odd little quirk.
Take the boarding time printed on your boarding pass. At some airports, the time printed on your boarding pass does not mean the time you are allowed to board the plane: rather, it indicates the time you are allowed to enter the boarding area.
This happened to me most recently at the airport in Brazil's capital city, Brasilia. Like many of Brazil's airports, it was undergoing renovations in the lead-up to the World Cup. Seeing a queue gathering at the door to Gate 10 - from which my flight was meant to be departing - I joined the end of it.
Five minutes after the boarding time printed on my boarding pass, the door was still shut, the queue still stationary. I showed my boarding pass to the woman in front of me - was I in the right queue? Yes, she assured me, we were going to the same destination.
We stood there for another 15 minutes - no announcement, no movement. One or two people wandered off, but most everyone stood there. However, there must have been information filtering back through Chinese whispers, as suddenly the woman in front of me turned and told me, "We go to gate 2 right now - they are boarding there."
With no officials actually on the scene, I had no choice but to trust her. I grabbed my hand luggage and followed her. When she started to run, I ran too. Smart move - we got there just as the gates were closing.
Moral of the story: it never hurts to ask.
TEST 4: THE FOOD
Like many people, I try to avoid airline food whenever possible.
Generally, I try to eat before I get on the plane. On a recent LAN flight in Brazil, however, I went straight to the airport from a day of back-to-back appointments, without a chance to eat. So when the flight attendants came around with large cardboard lunchboxes, I was ready to take a chance.
The generous size of the box suggested a picnic-style spread. So I was disappointed when all I found inside was a couple of small servings - a spongey cake and some cheese and crackers. (The cheese, a trifle ominously, was labelled "provolone flavoured".)
It was a decent snack for a short-haul flight, if only that oversized box hadn't raised my expectations.
Even on short hops, most flights in South America will offer some sort of refreshment, in contrast to their North American competitors. Even Brazil's GOL, a low-cost airline, gives you a free drink and peanuts, as well as offering a fixed-price menu.
On the shortest flights (less than an hour), staff take orders for drinks and snacks before lift-off, so be prepared. In fact, South America may be one of the few places where the food on the plane is better than the food in the airports.
While it's refreshing to walk into an airport and find the usual suspect fast food chains absent, most airports have a disappointing range of food options.
TEST 5: THE SERVICE
The single most impressive piece of on-the-ground service I've ever experienced took place late last year, on an early evening flight in Brazil. As we stood waiting to board the plane, we could see the skies darkening. Sure enough, it started to rain - a very light drizzle that wasn't going to impede our short stroll across the tarmac.
The ground staff, however, had other ideas. By the time the gates opened, two staff were standing there wielding large golfing umbrellas. Each passenger received one as they went through the door, a manoeuvre executed so smoothly, it didn't impede boarding in the slightest.