Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Aerolineas Argentinas EZE-SYD ~ Buenos Aires Sydney Round Trip Info ~ Never Again for This Traveler

International flights Customer-Service, food, comfort, safety FAIL 

Buenos Aires Argentina Domestic Airport Terminal
I'd flown Aerolineas Argentinas and partners a number of times, all with good impressions and flights, so I had no qualms about booking a recent round trip from Buenos Aires to Sydney. Besides, the AA ticket price was almost $500 lower than either LAN Chile or Qantas. I believe LAN operates the Qantas flights on this routing tho their pricing differed.

But sadly you DO get what you pay for, it appears. On a really long haul flight, a few creature comforts go a long way to making a plane load of passengers happy. The only way I could have been happy on these flights would be if I could have been sedated for about 14 hours outbound and 10 inbound.

I debated about posting this in case it was a one-off bad trip, but after talking with other passengers, it appears my flight experience was the norm. The only reason for flying Aerolineas on this routing, people said, was cheap air fare.

Here's my experience:
As I was traveling over the Christmas-New Year holiday high season, I booked my flight in August. The seating chart indicated flights were filling up already. I opted for a direct flight, with one stop en route. The flight left just after 2 a.m. Buenos Aires time, a typical red-eye.

One page on the AA website indicated the one-stop on this flight was in Santiago Chile (SCL), but either I was mistaken or the stop changed in the intervening 4.5 months between booking and flying. In any event, the stop was in Aukland New Zealand (AUK).

My printed itinerary listed the travel time from Buenos Aires to Sydney as 13.5 hours, though this proved to be only the flying time to Aukland; a stop of an hour or so there, then another 3-3.5 hours flight to Sydney. (The return trip is about 3 hours shorter. Southern jet stream? Tail winds?)

The plane is/was an Airbus A340, an older plane, not refurbished ever, from the look of it: Drop down cabin monitors for films (no back of headrest screens) that glitched on the Emergency procedures drill for all flight segments; no above-seats air control (I wore out the emergency instructions by using it as a hand fan. Boy was it hot in that plane!). Midway through the return flight, I went back to the galley and asked for some air in the cabin. We'd breathed all there was and needed more;  very narrow seats (estimated 18 inches), but good height so there was ample room for my long legs under the seat in front of me.

Place your seat back in upright position: 
Nope, no can do. The mechanism was faulty. I could get the seat back upright, but if I sat back on it at all, it fell backwards. It would not lock into position. I noticed several seats had this problem. The drop down meal trays for the 3 seats in the row across from me were missing, and instead trays lifted out from the arm rests, as they do in bulkhead seats.

Store Hand Luggage in Overhead Bins or Under Seat in Front of You If you've flown even once in your life, you have heard this repeated over and over; seems to be some sort of air law. Yet on the return flight, during take-off from Sydney, and landing in Aukland, the AA crew totally ignored a lady in Seat A in the back row who kept her backpack, a large one, on the seat beside her when it wasn't on the floor beside her.

On the return trip leaving Sydney an hour late, there was a large wheeled suitcase on the seats of the empty row behind me. I pointed it out to a crew member (the 'snotty' one) as we were preparing to take off, and she said,"It's okay - it's our luggage." Hmm. She could have at least strapped it down.

Cabin crew locked and refused access to the  washrooms at the back of the plane (I didn't check other washrooms), saying no toilet access until after take-off and the seat belt sign turned off. (Air Canada ex-Buenos Aires had no such restrictions.) Once the seat belt sign was turned off, about an hour later (turbulence following take-off meant the sign stayed on longer than usual), both rear toilets were out of water; One, said crew, was Out of Service for the entire flight; the other was able to 'suck it out', as she so elegantly put it, so go ahead and use it.

Man! 17 hours with faulty toilets on a full plane? And the sad part is, on the return trip 3 weeks later, I got the same plane. Had the toilets been fixed? Nope. Same issues.

Feed Me! The Long Haul Traveler's Diversion.
Two hours after take off outbound from Buenos Aires, food service came around: A small plate of a dried-out pasta dish, with no noticeable sauce. Just blobs of dried, twisted hollow short noodles. Now I know airlines are not fine dining restos, but this was inedible to all but the most desperate. During the flight, the crew set out, but did not inform, of large icing filled cookies covered in icing. More sugar than anyone needs in a snack, but there it was. Food of a sort.

I carry snacks/food when I travel, but after 12 hours, I was tapped out. That's when 'breakfast' came around, an hour before the Aukland stop. A small tray of two sweet buns, dulce de leche (sweet spread) in a packet, and coffee and juice. And a sweet cookie bar. Fat, flour and sugar. As hungry as I felt, I took a few bites and thought of diabetes. No fruit, no eggs, no meat, etc. I went back to the galley and said, "Are you serious?? No food for just over 12 hours, no water, etc and now you give out this? Fat, sugar, caffeine! Are you trying to kill us?"

I was really ticked. Whatever AA paid their BsAs caterers, it was way too much! And the crew seemed totally past caring. No apologies, no concern, just a shrug. Finally one of the crew, a man, came by my seat with a form, saying to fill it out, and send it in. He said the catering company in Buenos Aires was not very good, but there was nothing staff/crew could do about it. But maybe if the passengers said something, Aerolineas would listen. Let's hope. He also said the lunch would be taken aboard in Aukland, and they had a better caterer there.

And so they did, but marginally. A small roll, filled with one paper thin slice of turkey, I think -- hard to tell  -- and about a third of a cup - 100 ml of cole slaw. Coffee and juice, an oat bar and piece of carrot cake. Again, not fine dining, but a smidgen of protein ( I could feel my body losing muscle mass at this point) and some fresh-ish veggies.

Three weeks later, the return flight meals were from Sydney: for lunch before landing in Aukland, the same small roll, with some cheese and a tablespoon of shredded lettuce. From Aukland, for dinner, a beef stew with mashed potatoes - very tender and tasty, all of it, with a fresh roll and an oat cake and some sort of pudding, coffee, tea etc.

One passenger, on the return trip, peeled and ate an orange. I mention this as some security screenings take away any oranges as they are deemed 'too juicy, full of liquid" to be allowed on board.

But the vagaries and inconsistencies of airport security is subject for another post. Suffice it to say Australia and New Zealand (confiscate duty free liquor on stopover as 'over 100 ml') are paranoid stickers for anything liquid; South America appears totally unconcerned. People took full water bottles through security and no one asked to see carryon liquids in ziploc bag. 

AR1182-AR1183 EZE-AUK-SYD and return.
  • Broken seats
  • No seat air controls
  • Bad food/little food (mixed blessing?)
  • Broken toilets
  • Care-less Crew
  • Old plane, no amenities
  • Lax carryon hand luggage enforcement

It's not likely I will ever take this flight again, not so much for the bad experiences, but for the, for me, odd routing. But it did sour any and all international Aerolineas Argentinas flights for me forever more.

If you've traveled AA internationally and had a different experience, I'd be interested in knowing where it was to/from and when.

See also comparing hotels, etc this post.

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