Friday, February 21, 2020

Buenos Aires Airports (Including the Newest)

The terminal building at Aeropuerto El Palomar
Buenos Aires has airport issues. That’s long been apparent, given the accessibility issues of the main international airport at Ezeiza, the problematical logistics of the urban Aeroparque and, now, a third airport in the suburb of El Palomar, used primarily for the burgeoning low-cost market.
Manuel Tienda León is my default option from Ezeiza into Buenos Aires.
It’s the last of the three that I’ll be most concerned with there, but I’ll briefly mention the first two. Ezeiza, formally known as Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini (EZE), is about 22 km south of the city center via the freeway known as the Autopista Teniente General Pablo Riccheri. That’s not far, but transportation can be problematical when suburban traffic clogs the highway at rush hour. Ideally Ezeiza would have rail service but, when I made this observation to a taxi driver, he responded that it would kill one of his main income sources (never underestimate the collective power of taxistas). When arriving at Ezeiza, I normally take the Manuel Tienda León bus/taxi combo into town—short delays don’t mean as much then—but, when leaving the country, I usually choose a cab or remise (livery car) directly there because luggage can be an issue. I still leave plenty early, though.
Aeroparque has few gates, so passengers must often take a shuttle to their plane.
Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (AEP) has different issues. It’s almost walking distance from our apartment in Palermo—or about a ten-minute cab ride—but the narrow road that runs alongside it (currently being widened by a landfill that projects into the Río de la Plata) can also get congested. Aeroparque’s biggest problem, though, is its very convenience, which brings low-flying planes to land on a crowded airfield with so few gates that passengers must often board shuttle buses for the relatively short distance to their plane. Immigration facilities also get really busy on international flights (mostly to and from neighboring countries).
Immigration gets backed up at Aeroparque.
El Palomar (EPA) is something else entirely. Only 20 km from downtown Buenos Aires, just outside the city limits, it’s a converted military airfield with only a single runway to serve FlyBondi and JetSmart, which provide cheap flights to provincial Argentine cities and to Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile. Because of objections from neighbors, there are no nighttime flights.
The Ferroccaril San Martín is a commuter line that serves El Palomar.
On board the train to El Palomar
Getting there can be interesting. Manuel Tienda León offers remise service, but the congested approach makes public transportation a better option. The modernized Ferrocarril San Martín, a commuter line that once crossed the entire country to Mendoza, offers direct service from the central Estación Retiro, but I chose to walk from our apartment to the refurbished Estación Palermo (newly constructed overpasses have made the route quicker than it used to be). It’s 37 minutes from Retiro to El Palomar, and only 29 from Palermo, with frequencies every 15 minutes.
The gates to Aeropuerto El Palomar
This disconcerting panel stands outside the gates to Aeropuerto El Palomar.
Better yet, Estación El Palomar is barely a five-minute walk from the airport gates (presuming you’re not weighed down with heavy baggage). Some travelers may find it disconcerting, though, to be greeted by a sign that says that “This base operated as a clandestine detention center under the Air Force. According to witnesses, this was the departure point for ‘death flights’ with the purpose of killing detained and disappeared individuals from various points in the country.” During Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship, the military often threw sedated prisoners from planes or helicopters into the river or the open South Atlantic.
El Palomar's check-ins are congested.
After that, the terminal can’t help but be a relief, though its claustrophobic facilities are far inferior to of both Ezeiza and Aeroparque—even if conspicuous signs assure patrons that “We are modernizing El Palomar.” Not intending to fly out of there, I was unable to visit the departure areas, but I was still relieved that my own flight to Neuquén, on low-cost Norwegian Air Argentina, would depart from Aeroparque.

That scenario could change in the near future, as JetSmart has acquired Norwegian Argentina’s routes and will phase out the brand in favor of “JetSmart Argentina.” JetSmart should hold onto those gates at Aeroparque, which many if not most Porteño fliers should still find more convenient than El Palomar. That doesn’t mean, however, that I wouldn’t consider a cheap flight from El Palomar to, say, Bariloche or Ushuaia.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Delta Equation...

I’m old enough to remember when flying was a pleasure, something to look forward to rather than a test of one’s endurance. In my teens, my first flight ever was from Seattle to Los Angeles, and a window seat enthralled me with vistas of Mount Rainier and the Cascade Range, followed by the Sierra Nevada and the Mediterranean landscapes of Southern California. I can’t recall what airline I flew—it might have been the now defunct Northwest—but the experience itself was memorable.

I’ve had comparable experiences since—once I flew a nearly empty Aerolíneas Argentinas jet from Buenos Aires to Miami that let me move around for the best views of the Andes, and provided three seats to stretch across after dark. Many times I’ve also flown the length of the Chilean Andes, and have relished the opportunities to snap aerial photographs of their natural and cultural landscapes, including cities, in the days before window seats cost extra.

Something New (For Me, at Least)
Still, I looked forward to my December flight with Delta to Buenos Aires via Atlanta, if only because I’d never flown that airline—which absorbed Northwest in 2008—nor had I ever been to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), the world’s busiest single airport as recently as 2017. Delta, a legacy airline, began its operations as a cotton crop-dusting operator in 1925—in the Mississippi Delta, of course—and has offered commercial passenger flights since 1929.

Anecdotally speaking, Delta has a pretty good reputation, and my first impressions were positive. For my morning departure at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), the personnel were congenial, lines were short, and I breezed through security without even having to remove belt or shoes. Because of that, I had a longer wait at the gate than I anticipated and, though I found Delta’s boarding procedures a bit confusing, we left SFO on time and arrived at ATL with plenty of time to spare.

Happily, there was no need to go through security again at Hartsfield. I had only eaten a small packet of almonds on the four-hour flight from SFO—another contrast with the past, of course—but found nothing but the lowest-common denominator fast-food options in Atlanta, so I refrained from snacking in anticipation of an on-board meal en route to Argentina. Again, Delta’s boarding procedures were a bit opaque, but we were all seated by the scheduled 9 p.m. departure time.

That’s when things started going wrong, however. As we waited patiently for takeoff, it was half an hour before an announcement informed us that we could not take off until the pilot’s seat received a necessary adjustment, and that mechanics were attending to the problem. In an update an hour later, we heard that the entire seat would require replacement, and cabin crew proceeded to distribute water to passengers (not having eaten since breakfast, I was feeling the first pangs of hunger). An hour later, we learned that the mechanics were successful, but that the repair would require an inspection. Finally, at midnight, we taxied onto the runway and took off for Argentina.
Finally in the air...
Delta's southbound menu from Atlanta
That was only the start of it. About an hour into the flight, as we were anticipating meal service, the crew began to serve a “Peach Bellini” sparkling cocktail that I would have turned down had I had the chance—but, somehow, only passengers on the right side aisle of the plane received them. I have a personal aversion to sparkling wines but, on the left side, I never even had the chance to decline.
The remains of Delta's dinner (no disrespect intended toward Ben & Jerry's)
Finally, dinner arrived in the form of a so-so grilled chicken salad, accompanied by bread that turned to be harder and colder than the ice cream dessert that followed. I managed to sleep about two hours before the egg and Swiss breakfast sandwich arrived and, shortly thereafter, we landed in Buenos Aires—at noon, three hours behind schedule, of course.

It's Better in Argentina?
Over my six weeks in Argentina, I had two orderly no-frills flights from Aeroparque, one with Aerolíneas Argentinas to the southern coastal city of Comodoro Rivadavia and the other on Norwegian Air Argentina to northern Patagonia’s fracking boomtown of Neuquén, capital of its namesake province. I didn’t expect anything special on board, though I was a little surprised that Comodoro’s glisteningly modernized Aeropuerto Internacional General Enrique Mosconi had no food service inside the security area. No matter, as I had abundant lunch options near our Palermo apartment.

Northbound Improvements?
My return to California, late last month, went somewhat more smoothly—Delta left on time, I had the opportunity to decline the Peach Bellini, the grilled chicken salad had mango rather than strawberries (which I don’t much care for), and I got a nightcap of Bailey’s on request. The breakfast sandwich, consisting of an Argentine medialuna with ham and cheese, was an improvement on its southbound counterpart. On balance, though, I found no reason to choose Delta over any of its competitors except that the price was right, but I’ll stop short of saying the company should have stuck with crop-dusting.

An Explanation
I've not posted anything on this blog in more than six weeks, and that's because of a computer issue that occurred as soon as I arrived in Buenos Aires that would have cost a small fortune to repair there, and the iPad and iPhone were too awkward to manage. That's left me with lots of material and, now that I've got my computer repaired, I'll be posting more frequently in the near (and not so near) future-—in the hope that everyone will follow along.

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