Ask the pilot

The rich, colorful, checkered history of flying in Latin America. Plus: In which cities is it best to just fly in and get the hell out?

By Patrick Smith
Published March 14, 2008 11:08AM (EDT)

The history of civil aviation in Central and South America is a rich one. After all, it was a Brazilian, Alberto Santos-Dumont, who in 1906 made the first fully controlled flight of an airplane.

For many decades, however, it was U.S. and European companies that controlled most of South America's airways. It can be argued that the most influential carrier on the continent today isn't a South American carrier at all but, rather, American Airlines, which can trace its Latin lineage all the way back to 1929 and the founding of Panagra (Pan American Grace Airway). Panagra was a joint venture between Juan Trippe's Pan Am and the Grace Shipping Co., set up to compete with SCADTA, a German-owned outfit that monopolized many of the continent's most prestigious routes. Panagra later merged with Braniff, whose routes were eventually sold to Eastern in the early 1980s. With Eastern's demise, they were acquired by American.

Not that South America wasn't, through its own derring-do, home to some of the first established carriers. Avianca, the national airline of Colombia, was founded in 1919, and today ranks second oldest in the world (Holland's KLM is the eldest). Two years later came Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (LAB). Until its unfortunate suspension of services in 2007, the airline of Bolivia -- Bolivia! -- had been around longer than any U.S. major.

But on the whole, the airlines of Latin America have been nothing if not erratic, possibly even more unstable and ill-fated than their counterparts in the United States. The reasons for this are varied, if not entirely surprising, ranging from corrupt government ownership to the economic woes of the home nations. Sure, many developing nations nurture their airlines as a point of pride -- look at Ethiopian Airlines -- but this is hardly easy in a region marked by political instability, repeated economic crises, and something less than an upwardly mobile population. That LAB, based in one of the poorest nations on earth, lasted 86 years is something of a miracle.

Others never made it that far. Former South American mainstays like Aeroperú, Ecuatoriana and Viasa also are gone. Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela no longer have a national carrier to speak of. Lesser-known but equally storied airlines, such as Peru's Fawcett, Brazil's VASP and Avensa of Venezuela have succumbed as well. Others cling to solvency. Venezuela's Aeropostal, around since 1929, was operating only limited flights between Caracas and Miami at this writing. (My 2004 flight aboard Aeropostal in 2004 is detailed here.) Varig, the historic national airline of Brazil, whose network once reached Africa and the Far East, has come close to liquidation on more than one occasion, and today is reduced to also-ran status against giants like TAM and Gol.

Service-wise, most airlines of Latin America have not been highly regarded. (Some of you might recall my experience three years ago with a Chilean carrier, whose staff refused to provide information during a lengthy delay, then stole from my luggage.) Standards are roughly on a par with what we're used to in North America. Average fleet ages, too, tend to be on the high side. Uncomfortable planes, mediocre service, and a shaky history marked with bankruptcies and liquidations. Sounds a lot like commercial aviation in the U.S., actually. So goes flying in the Americas.

One exception would be LAN, arguably the only world-class airline in South America, known for excellent service and reliability. Formerly known as LAN-Chile, the company now has subsidiaries in Ecuador and Peru, picking up the slack from those countries' flopped national carriers. I flew LAN-Peru a few years back and could not have been more impressed. Slightly to the north is TACA, the collective airline of several Central American nations and another duly respected outfit. Copa, in Panama, also has a good reputation. Copa was established in 1947, but did not become a serious player until Continental Airlines purchased a 49 percent stake in 1998. Today, Copa's network reaches 21 countries. (Astute fliers will notice that Copa and Continental share almost identical liveries.)

I'll also attest to the squeaky clean standards aboard PLUNA, the little-known airline of Uruguay. My ride on a PLUNA 737 was covered here.

I know, some of you will wonder about safety. As my regular readers already know, I dislike comparing airline against airline, region against region, when it comes to accident data. There are too many nuances to make such differentiations meaningful, and, with accidents as rare as they are, to describe one airline as "safer" than another means little in practical terms. Suffice it to say there is no Latin American airline that I would avoid. Granted there are many challenges to Latin American flying, including some of the world's highest and most rugged terrain. Complicated approaches and balky radar coverage can add to the difficulty. But nobody knows these areas more intimately than the hometown carriers that operate there. TACA, to pick one, has been in business since 1931, and has not recorded a fatal accident in over 45 years. LAB, for all its troubles, hadn't had a crash since the 1970s.

A partial list of defunct Latin American carriers

Aercontinente (Peru)
Aeroperú (Peru)
Avensa (Venezeula)
Cruzeiro (Brazil)
Dominicana (Dominican Republic)
Ecuatoriana (Ecuador)
Fawcett (Peru)
LAB (Bolivia)
Ladeco (Chile)
Air Panama (Panama)
SAETA (Ecuador)
SAHSA (Honduras)
Transbrasil (Brazil)
VASP (Brazil)
Viasa (Venezuela)

Latin America's largest airlines (in millions of passengers carried)

1. TAM (Brazil) 25.0
2. Gol (Brazil) 17.4
3. LAN Group 12.2
4. Avianca (Colombia) 7.5
5. Varig (Brazil) 7.5

Pilot report

AeroRepública Flight 7480
Leticia, Colombia, to Bogotá
Class: Economy
Aircraft: Embraer ERJ-190

The first thing you notice about AeroRepública is how similar its livery is to that of the aforementioned Copa, whose colors bear a striking, not at all accidental resemblance to those of Continental. Copa purchased 90 percent of AeroRepública in 2005. The company had been around since '92, but operations were greatly expanded after the takeover. Today AeroRepública is the second-biggest airline in Colombia, behind the historic Avianca.

Leticia is gateway to Colombia's Amazon region, and like nearby Iquitos, in Peru, it is accessible only by airplane or boat. Its airport is Alfredo Vasquez Cobo Internacional -- an elaborate name for a simple, somewhat downtrodden facility cooled by ceiling fans. The airport has something of a frontier feel, with its open-air baggage claim and murals of Amazon wildlife. There are a few small craft shops and snack bars. No jetways. Check-in and boarding are straightforward and efficient. After seat assignment, AeroRepública passengers may proceed through security (no ridiculous shoe removal or liquid confiscation, thank you) to an air-conditioned holding room.

I was excited to see the gleaming new Embraer ERJ-190 pulling into the apron. I'd never flown one, and had heard good things. Built in Brazil, the 190 is somewhere between a regional jet and a mainline jet. AeroRepública uses an all-economy, four-abreast layout with seating for 108 passengers. (In North America, U.S. Airways and JetBlue are the plane's biggest customers.) The jet was immaculately clean and the handsome leather chairs were considerably more firm and comfortable than the flimsy seats found in most larger jets. The cabin bins and sidewalls were to give an illusion of spaciousness. The 190 is a small jet, but it doesn't feel small. (Mind you, for the time being most of AeroRepública's fleet consists of aging McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series planes, which are older and less comfortable.)

We departed about 15 minutes late because of late arrival from Bogotá, where the weather had been stormy. For this the crew offered apologies, in both English and Spanish, on at least three occasions. From my window seat on the left side, takeoff provided a splendid westward view of the Amazon. My only real gripe was the in-flight snack. Colombia isn't known for its gourmet cuisine, but the stale, cellophane-wrapped pastry provided made the usual peanuts or pretzels seem like a gourmet meal.

In the end I was neither wowed nor disappointed. It was, on the whole, not terribly different from a flight in the United States.

Check-in and boarding: B
Punctuality: C
Aircraft cleanliness and decor: A
Food and onboard service: D (Even with the low expectations of economy on a short flight, that petrified knot-roll was unacceptable.)
Customer service: B

From Bogotá we traveled to the Colombian town of Villa de Leyva, about three hours north. This was by bus, not by plane, and I submit that Bogotá's central bus station is both cleaner and more user-friendly than its airport. At about 8,000 feet in the Andean foothills, Villa de Leyva is a protected national monument of whitewashed façades and old colonial churches, with cobbled streets, virtually no modern architecture and few cars. It's a great place for walking, particularly in the early morning or at dusk, when the nuns are headed to Mass to the ring of church bells. It's a tourist town, but not overrun.

Nearby to Villa de Leyva is the village of Ráquira, known for its ceramics. Ráquira makes for an acceptable half-day trip, but it belongs to a peculiar and slightly discomfiting category of places that travelers will occasionally encounter -- the type of town that appears to exist wholly for the benefit of tourists, and that seemingly could not exist without them. Towns like Ráquira have circular popularity; they are visited not so much for anything that is there, inherently, but because they are known and understood to be tourist towns in the first place. People go there because people go there.

That's good and bad, I suppose. It brings in money and gives people jobs. On the other hand, it makes for a contrived and sterile environment.

I know, that's being brusque. Some of you will call it ignorant. Had I taken the time to stroll Ráquira's side roads and gotten to know any of its 1,500 or so citizens, I'd maybe have discovered some deeper sense of its existence. But the town's main drag consists entirely of souvenir hawkers and relentlessly kitschy craft shops. I didn't feel like I was in Colombia -- whatever that is supposed to feel like, exactly. I felt like I was in an open-air gift shop, a Disney presentation of Colombia.

There are similar places scattered around the world. Of those I've seen, several are worth visiting by virtue of the nearby attractions (e.g., Victoria Falls), but the towns themselves tend to be tedious. Below are a few that jump to mind, but I'm curious what others might be lurking out there. Readers are invited to share their observations on similar spots they might know of or have visited.

Ráquira, Colombia (As above.)
Ubud, Bali, Indonesia (Most of Bali is wonderful. Ubud is intolerable.)
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe (The falls themselves are a world-class attraction, but the town is honky-tonk tourism at its worst.)
Vang Viang, Laos (A shantytown of backpacker joints, bars and restaurants selling banana pancakes.)

At the other end of the scale is what I call the fly-in/get-out city. Fly-in/get-outs are places like Lima, Peru. They offer very little for the tourist, but are mandatory landing spots if you want to visit the country. You can't get to Cuzco or Machu Picchu without landing in Lima first. I'm sure Lima has a few interesting spots, but they are not the reason a tourist comes to Peru. Spend the night if you must, and move on.

One of the things I've discovered is that people have a very city-centric way of judging other countries -- as if a nation's largest or most notorious city represents all there is to see. When I was planning to visit Nicaragua, a colleague of mine, another pilot, remarked, "Why the hell would you want to go there?" The only place he'd ever been was Managua, its noisy and crowded capital. When I think of Nicaragua, I think of the otherworldly scenery of Ometepe Island, the cobblestone streets of Granada, or swimming in the crater of an ancient volcano. Canaima National Park in southeastern Venezuela is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but tell people I spent a vacation in Venezuela and they usually turn up their noses, no doubt picturing the slums and traffic jams of Caracas.

Amman, Accra, Santiago, Casablanca and Guatemala City are some other fly-in/get-outs. That's Jordan, Ghana, Chile, Morocco and Guatemala, respectively. All are outstanding countries to visit, but their busiest cities aren't exactly seductive. The best of them are boring; the worst of them are oppressive, giving whole nations an unfairly bad reputation.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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