by Ernest White II
PHOTO: ED PASCUZZI
Route: Bogotá-El Dorado (IATA: BOG/ICAO: SKBO)–Quito-Mariscal Sucre (UIO/SEQU)
Date: October 6, 2006
Aircraft: Boeing 757-200 (EI-CEY)
Seat: 28K (exit row)
Departure time: 2130
Arrival time: 2230
Passenger: Ernest White II
I arrived at the Avianca international economy check-in counter at 1945, due to miscalculations about Bogotá’s rush hour traffic, but with enough time to pass through the departure tax exemption line to be checked in. Unfortunately, the airline had six international departures within an hour of each other, so the line was lengthy. People who arrived in line after me magically ended up at the check-in counter before me, and despite the relative professionalism of the Avianca agents themselves, the check-in process consisted of the usual chaos and disorder typical of many Latin American airports.
Aircraft boarding began at 2101, with most passengers simultaneously rushing to the gate, disregarding the announcement of boarding by row. The announcement was made only in Spanish, although English and German could be heard spoken among the passengers.
Only about 40 passengers were on the Boeing 757-200, with a mere six, besides me, seated in the aft cabin. Although the interior of the airplane was clean, chipped paint along the aircraft doors and windows betrayed its age. The blue and red upholstery of the seats appeared recent, as did the Chevrolet-branded headrest covers. I claimed seat 28K, a window seat in the exit row facing a bulkhead and a flight attendant jump-seat.
The flight attendants—decked in navy blue pant suits, bright red shirts, and multicolored scarves—managed cabin preparations and seating in a pleasant and professional manner.
At 2122 the cabin door closed and the airplane pulled back from the Jetway two minutes later. All announcements made by the flight crew in Spanish were repeated in English, with the captain indicating a one-hour flight time, with visibility in Quito at 6km (4mi) due to haze.
As the aircraft taxied to the runway, the safety video was shown on the overhead monitors, which were spaced four rows apart. The newly produced video featured Spanish-speaking instructions with English subtitles, but after the introduction the video stopped, apparently because of a technical glitch. Flight attendants tried to restart the video twice, but each time there was sound but no picture. In a flash of improvisation, the attendants completed a traditional ‘live’ safety demonstration in both Spanish and English.
We took off from Runway 13R and passed over the glittering topaz grid of Bogotá before banking toward the southwest, just shy of the mountain range that hems in the city to the east. A full moon greeted us as it rose above the clouds scattered over the Colombian capital, lightning flashing in the far western corners of the sky.
Once at cruising altitude, a flight attendant passed out duty free shopping magazines and Ecuadorian immigration cards. The meal service began about 25 minutes into the flight, and the flight attendant was nice enough to set up my meal on a tray over the vacant seat next to me as I was occupied with filling out my immigration card. A cup of sweet but slightly burnt plantain chips, a package of Nabisco Club Social crackers, a tuna salad wrap, and a super-sweet brown-sugar-and-milk dessert bar comprised dinner. A surprisingly fresh tortilla enveloped the mediocre tuna salad, and a choice of soda, water, boxed fruit juices, coffee, and for-purchase alcohol were available to wash down the meal. There was no in-flight entertainment.
The 757 coursed quietly through the night sky over the spine of the Andes, dark mountaintops piercing the thin cloud cover like whales in the surf. Soon, the captain announced the descent into Quito, with “nice weather” and a temperature of 12°C (54°F). The northernmost suburbs of the city snaked into view like glowing lava from one of the surrounding volcanoes, and what should have been one of the shortest descents in the world was rendered longer by a circular approach from the south.
In contrast to the flat, dry lake basin on top of which sat Bogotá, the hilly topography of Quito gave the impression of the city rising up to meet the wheels of the airplane, instead of the airplane lowering itself to the ground. Reminiscent of descents into Chicago-O’Hare and Mexico City, the 757 cruised just a hair above houses, car dealerships, fast food joints, and office buildings before touching down on Runway 17 at 2236.
After a short taxi to the gate, the cabin door opened at 2242, and we disembarked into the thin air of the second highest capital city on Earth.
Compared with many Latin American airlines, Avianca rates good marks for solid, professional service; agreeable, bilingual cabin crews; and convenient connections through its Bogotá hub for domestic and other international destinations. However, the age of the fleet and lack of in-flight entertainment can make Avianca an unappealing choice for the price, especially as 757s and entertainment-less MD-83s are used on many medium-range stages between Colombia and other countries in North and South America.
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