MIAMI — Over the last decade, Brazil has experienced an unprecedented period of “Boom and Bust.” In the earlier part of the decade, the country experienced an unbridled economic expansion driven by the global run-up in the demand for its commodities. Economic prosperity and the international spotlight followed – peaking perhaps with all the global acclaim it achieved from pulling off a successful 2014 World Cup in Rio De Janeiro. During these heady times, the country’s pride was amplified even further by becoming the first South American Country to be awarded the prestigious Summer Olympics. After years of economic and political stability, Brazil was considered a modern day miracle, but these good times were not destined to last.
Beginning with the abrupt slowdown in international GDP growth, and particularly the commodities fueled boom; Brazil’s fortunes began to wane in mid 2014. The past decade’s virtuous cycle was replaced by a vicious cycle of rampant government corruption, spiraling inflation, draconian austerity measures, and a rapidly contracting economy.
TAM: Powering Through Trying Times
TAM Airlines, itself is considered a miracle. The airline, only dating back to the 1970s has ascended from being a niche carrier as recently as 15 years ago into the nation’s flag carrier and one renowned for high levels of customer service, operational excellence, and profitability. In the latter, TAM has certainly not been immune from the effects of the global and in particular Latin American downturn. Its sibling airline LAN, who it merged with to create LATAM Airlines Group back in 2012, has been affected as well – but not as severely.
Brazilians posses an undeniable upbeat spirit, passion and unabashed pride, even in the most difficult of times and their airline is no exception. This was borne out when TAM made history on December 18, 2015 becoming the first operator in the Americas and only fourth in the world to take delivery of the Airbus A350 XWB.
TAM proudly had its first A350, PR-XTA (MSN 024) emblazoned with a special commemorative seal on both sides underneath the cockpit windows, which reads “The Americas’ First A350 XWB”, in Portuguese and English. TAM’s aircraft was only the 14th A350 delivered out of 17 in the world thus far as of March 18, 2016. TAM joined the ranks of prestigious customers Qatar, Vietnam, and Finnair in operating the A350 while beating such luminary airlines such as Singapore and Cathay Pacific, which are the next A350 operators up to bat.
The A350’s manufacturer is not without its woes, as well. Though experiencing nowhere near the production problems of the A380 or the Boeing 787, Airbus has nevertheless been hampered by slow A350 final assembly and delivery rates. At the end of March, Airbus had a total of 775 firm orders for the A350 XWB, mostly for the -900 variant. The A350 production rate, which has been projected to reach five aircraft per month and 60 per year in 2016, and then ramping up to 10 aircraft per month by the end of 2018 looks optimistic indeed given the limited deliveries of three aircraft as of this writing; so far in 2016.
BRINGING THE BIG BRAND NEW ‘BUS TO BRAZIL
The story of TAM and the A350 stretches back nearly 10 years in the making when the airline ordered 27 A350-900s for delivery over the years 2015-21. Since the initial order, 12 have been up-gauged to the stretch A350-1000s. The A350s were ordered as part of a wide-body fleet renewal program, which would also see the addition of Boeing 777-300ERs while the 767-300ERs and Airbus A330-200s will be exiting the fleet over time.
TAM’s ramp-up of the A350’s entry-into-service began in earnest two years ago, touching nearly ever aspect of the company with 21 people on the lead team from maintenance, information technology, customer service, cabin crews, marketing, network planning, etc. According to Gregori Daminell, the A350’s project manager in a briefing with Airways, things ramped up into hyper-drive 9 months before when training for mechanics began with Airbus in Miami and pilots began ground school and simulators in Toulouse. Daminelli says this has paid dividends: “We have 12 pilots qualified on the aircraft and 20 more qualified on sims. They have come over from the A330-200s, but we didn’t want to move them over too soon until we actually had A350s for them to fly.” The airline is evaluating what form further in-house pilot training will take, and what kind of simulators will be purchased. Daminelli confirms that pilots will transition from other TAM aircraft types as well.
One member of the flight crew we spoke to exclaimed if the “A330 is a Mercedes, then the A350 is a Bentley. Why would you want to go back?” He particularly cited the A350s evolved fly by wire system, the 6 Thales 15” landscape flat panel display screens as part of the Honeywell Avionics suite, and additional power as an upgrade over the A330s they are used to. The quick qualification conversion from the A330 is appreciated by pilots, network planners, and accountants alike.
As for lessons learned, Daminelli considers the A350 EIS as a textbook of best practices for future LATAM projects. “Being one of the launch customers forced us to work even more closer with the airliner manufacturer. We joined (both) engineer teams to refine the last details. We have 2,000 distinctive part numbers from 50 manufacturers to register for our supply chain system. It’s a challenge to synchronize global supply chain to have materials on time to make delivery. We didn’t rely solely on Airbus.”
ENTRY INTO SERVICE
The moment of truth arrived on January 25, 2016, when TAM initiated domestic familiarization flights operating between São Paulo/Guarulhos and Manaus. In a sea of bleak news for the country, this historic event attracted positive attention from around Brazil and indeed the aviation world. Daminelli relayed that thus far “The A350 has been operating at a 97.7% dispatch reliability. This is within expectations and is similar in fact to what LAN experienced when it introduced the 787 into service.”
All this was a prelude for what was to come on March 17-18, 2016, when TAM launched its first long-haul routes that the A350 XWB was conceived for: between São Paulo Guarulhos and Miami. TAM became only the 2nd airline to regularly operate these, for now, rare birds to the United States. Qatar Airways launched A350 U.S. service to Philadelphia in January. TAM bestowed the honor upon Miami of being only the third gateway for the A350 XWB after Philadelphia and Boston.
TAM’S BIG PLANS
With a cabin layout for 348 seats, the Airbus A350-900 is not a direct replacement for the Boeing 767-300s and Airbus A330-200s, it slots in neatly in terms of capacity between those smaller gauge aircraft and the higher capacity 777-300ERs. The larger gauge A359s are not intended to at first open “pioneer” long-thin routes such as the coming São Paulo – Johannesburg service. Instead, it will overlay existing intercontinental services to North American and Europe supplanting A330s, 767s and 777s on routes to Miami, then expanding to Madrid (from April 2016), New York and Orlando (from July 2016).
TAM, who just took delivery of its second A350 on March 18, 2016 – coincidentally the morning we arrived, expects five more delivered this year for a total of seven on strength by the end of the year. Miami, which began as a 3X per week A350 service will upgrade daily by April. Other new destinations and additional frequencies will be added as more aircraft come on-line.
As for whether, the new LATAM will cross-utilize the TAM’s A350s and LAN’s 787-9s between the Santiago and São Paulo bases? That remains an open question. But for now, Daminelli confirms that Guarulhos will remain the focus base for all A350s flying. Nor will the A350 be deployed to Rio de Janeiro Galeão Airport, to provide additional lift during the Summer Olympics.
The virtues of the Airbus A350 XWB are well known to the industry and our readers: reduced greenhouse gas emissions, 25% reduced operating costs including fuel burn, ultra-efficient Rolls Royce Trent XWB84 twin engines, the use of advanced fuselage materials reducing weight, lower cabin altitude, refreshed cabin air every 3 minutes, 25% larger windows then its Airbus predecessors, and a capacious wider cabin than that of its direct competitor – the 787. The flatter vertical sidewalls and high flat ceilings certainly support the manufacturer’s “eXtra Wide Body” claims.
TAM is also using the arrival of the A350 to usher in new branding and passenger experience features to the carrier. From the first A350 forward, TAM is introducing the LATAM harmonized Priestmangoode designed Premium Business Class cabin – first introduced by LAN on its 787-9s. The fourth A350, arriving in June will see the introduction of TAM’s new Economy Plus type product which will feature a lengthened but undisclosed seat pitch, beyond the 32” in standard Economy.
The fourth aircraft was at one time supposed to be one of the first, if not the first TAM aircraft to be adorned in the new LATAM livery, but this is now in question. The A350 is also rumored to be TAM’s first platform for Wi-Fi inter-connectivity but the airline isn’t confirming this yet.
Clearly, the story is just beginning and Daminelli and his team is reveling in it, but are aware of the significance: “Being part of the future is very meaningful and motivating. The decisions we make now will have effects for 20 years.”
Airways was invited to participate in TAM’s long-haul inaugural A350 flight from the U.S. – MIA-GRU scheduled for March 17, 2016. Would the introduction of TAM’s newest flagship mirror the up and down fortunes of its home country?
TRIP REPORT: TAM’S INAUGURAL A350 LONG-HAUL FLIGHT
March 17th, 2016 is a day typically associated with St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish, and drinking green beer. For those covering TAM’s A350, the plan was we would be toasting the launch of the first long-haul flight from the U.S. of the America’s first operator of the Airbus A350 – not with a pint Guinness but instead a Capirinha.
At first, things started off well enough. TAM’s Special Services at Miami International Airport provided a seamless, quick check-in and escort to the LATAM Lounge and then on to the gate for an 11:10pm local time departure of JJ9611. The event was decidedly uneventful from the start. Absent were the banners, cakes, VIP’s, and crowds normally associated with such events. Also, absent at the gate was TAM’s Airbus A350 XWB. We would discover later that TAM’s low-key approach had perhaps unintentionally been the prudent one.
Under the watchful and excited eyes of photographers and media, TAM’s first A350, PR-XTA had arrived into Miami to much adulation just before sunrise on March 17th to a water cannon salute. Like much of the long-haul fleet that arrives from deep Latin America in the morning, TAM’s glistening new A350 sat on a remote stand across from Miami’s J Concourse for nearly 12 hours awaiting its return mission home. Any wonder why fleet utilization for aircraft operating to deep South America?
BRAZIL OR BUST: AN INAUGURAL UP IN THE AIR OR GROUNDED?
With boarding to commence in just 30 minutes, the airplane was finally towed from its layover perch around to gate J-11. Though the flight information data screens (FIDS), indicated an on-time departure everyone came to the realization that this wasn’t going to be the case. The light 96-passenger load, consisting of paying passengers, TAM evaluation teams, and 12 crew would ensure a quick boarding process. No one expressed any concern or apprehension of an impending delay. The two TAM pilots and Airbus check pilot, along with the balance of the TAM team were not showing any concern, but rather enthusiasm and excitement in spite of the late hour.
As the clock ticked beyond the departure time, we noticed ground operations personnel in yellow vests seated in both seats of the cockpit. Though the FIDS still indicated an on-time departure, clearly something was amiss. The flight crew boarded, while the cabin crew remained at the threshold of the jet-bridge. It dawned on us quickly that there would be a delay and that’s in fact what happened when the departure was pushed back 1 hour and 20 minutes to 12:30AM local time.
These kinds of delays aren’t unheard of, and if anyone was worried they were keeping it to themselves – passengers included. The clock ticked forward to 12:30am, then 1:00am when the departure time was updated to 2:00am local time. Given the flight duration and flight crew duty time-out, 2:00am would be a pivotal moment where the decision would be made on whether to scrub or move forward with the flight. With TAM’s next flight at 10:30AM the next morning, the passengers didn’t seem upset at all if they had to be rebooked – it was still a scene of absolute calm and serenity.
However, we as journalists and the bloggers who had flown in to cover this event, were becoming increasingly antsy that this inaugural would be delayed until well into the next day or worse. With just a few minutes left on the clock, the decision point had arrived. Would we fly or would we cancel? Thankfully, word came down that we would indeed be flying the original flight albeit delayed. The mystery problem had indeed been solved.
So what was this mystery malady? It turned out to be an error message for a faulty air bleed valve. This had become apparent only when the aircraft was powered up after sitting all day, and is in fact a known issue. The valve was functioning according to specifications. The error message turned out to be a false warning. Better safe than sorry, the error had to be cleared by Airbus personnel. According to the Airbus check Captain, this is not an unknown error message but does “take somewhat time to clear, despite it being a straightforward process.”
Nobody loves a middle of the night departure, much less a nearly 4-hour delay, but it was of little matter to us. We were relieved just to be on our way even though our time on the ground in São Paulo would be less then 24 hours before the return to America. Boarding began shortly thereafter with crew and passengers as positive and enthusiastic as ever.
There is something special about smartly presented, smiling cabin crew, the hint of cabin awash in inviting LED lighting, and that new aircraft smell that never gets old. This occasion would be no different. Understanding the importance of first impressions, TAM sets a stage of hospitality with what they call a “Welcome Panel” in the L2 galley inscribed with the word “Welcome” embossed on a plaque in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The wood laminate flooring, inspired by the Amazonian Rain Forests, provided a nice natural effect. The LED mood lighting for boarding was set to a time appropriate blue and magenta hue. Brazilian somba music provide the musical backdrop to the process. The IFE screens during boarding were even coordinated with graphic images evocative of the Amazonian rain forest as well.
We took a few minutes to inspect the two cabins of the TAM A350’s 318 seat economy class. Unlike the derided 787 when configured with 9 abreast 17” seating, the 18” width seats of the A350 is where the “eXtra Wide Body” really lives up to its marketing mantra. The economy seats arranged at a 31” pitch were comfortable enough, and certainly not the Slimline seats some long-haul airlines have adopted. The use of straighter horizontal and vertical surfaces is the catalyst that makes the A350 cabin appear less like a tube then any other airliner flying today. This is especially welcome in the denser rear cabins.
TAM’s use of elegant finishes, inspired by Latin America, and lighting extends from the front to the “back of the ‘Bus” giving all passengers a sense of calm dignity. With the load factor as light as it was, nearly everyone had multiple seats at their disposal if they so desired. The low passenger load magnified the sense of space, if not a bit artificially, though no one was complaining.
A VERY LATE, EARLY DEPARTURE
With pushback quickly approaching, I took my seat in the new harmonized LATAM Priestmangoode designed Premium Business cabin. The designer’s touch is seen here with understated muted grey fabrics highlighted with red accents and tasteful use of wood textures on the tray table surfaces, floor laminates, and seat dividers.
Arranged in five rows of six seats in a 2-2-2 configuration, this 30 seat cabin seemingly runs counter to the new 1-2-1 Business Class international standard. Sure, there’s the issue of no direct aisle access for those sitting by the window but every airline and market is different. TAM wasn’t able to justify the real estate taken up by the short-lived 1-2-1 First Class cabin on its 777 fleet that lasted less then a year. The 180-degree flat bed seats, generous pitch, and ottoman which double as a storage cubby and visitor seat comes close to, but not quite compensating for the lack of direct aisle access. From this measure, the TAM’s A350 Premium Business Class is a massive improvement, however on the 2-3-2 Business Configuration of the 777s.
Opting for higher seat capacity and personal space for individual passengers, TAM decided not to consume floor space with common areas and stand up bars – A flourish that fellow OneWorld member and Latin America competitor American is using on its refurbished 777 fleet.
Speaking of bar service, what would a trip be without Brazil’s national cocktail of choice, a Caipirinha? TAM didn’t stock the sugar cane hard liquor, cachaça, which is the foundation ingredient of this beloved beverage. Undeterred, the TAM mixologists whipped up a tasty Caipiroshka, which replaces the cachaça with vodka. Drinks were followed up with the cabin crew presenting us stylish Salvatore Ferragamo amenity kits, natch.
At 2:55AM under the cloak of darkness it was finally time to push back for our planned 4,243 mile sortie. With a planned 7 hours, 26 minutes flight duration and the middle of the night departure time, we were all sorely in need of sleep. And yet, we still had a flight review to do!
Our crew sincerely and profusely apologized for the protracted delay as we began our seemingly interminable taxi out to MIA’s Runway 12 lining up for a south-easterly departure from the airport’s South Complex. There was nary a mention of the occasion except on the public address system when the purser announced “We are proud to offer you the most advanced aircraft in the Americas.”
Finally, at 3:10AM local time after a ground tour of Miami International, the mighty Rolls Royce Trent’s were spooled up as we fled terra firma bound for Brazil. Provisioned with 48 tons of fuel and at 198 tons, the crew was able to do a derated take off thrust. Our lightly loaded A350 rotated at 136 knots and leapt into the air after an eerily quiet 91 decibel roll lasting just over 30 seconds. Within 22 minutes, we were already in the cruise at 41,000 feet and a ground speed of 643 mph. The serene cabin of the A350 measured just 84 decibel in the cruise, and was very welcome at this late hour.
TAM serves a multi-course meal consisting of soup, salad, main course, and desert but I opted to partake in the express option where everything except desert is served at once, thus ensuring maximum sleep. A choice of Mahi-Mahi and Orzo Risotto, Roasted Red Snapper with Gnocchi, and a Grilled Steak were offered. Of course, I chose the contrail culinary litmus test of the steak. If there was one significant disappointment with the flight, it was this arid piece of beef. I ordered steak and leather was served. In fairness, given the delay the steak had been flash frozen and consequently dehydrated for nearly 4 hours longer then expected. The sides of rustic mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables were very satisfying though. The extensive wine list, led by a pairing of a Chilean Malbec, placated our culinary desires extensively. I passed on the desert selection fresh fruit, flan, or ice cream being in dire need of sleep.
Similar to a fine hotel, the attentive TAM cabin crew passed out an extensive breakfast menu to select from a voluminous choice of breakfast options if we so choose, 90 minutes before arrival.
TAM’s Panasonic eX3 in-flight entertainment system with it’s 18” screens was absolutely stuffed with a robust catalogue of music, movies, TV series, games, an interactive moving map, and fuselage belly camera, but alas I was too tired to partake. The 2 USB charges and AC power ports worked the night keeping our devices charged. A short coming of the IFE is that TAM has reverted to old school 3 prong headphone jacks which require a converter to utilize your own noise-cancelling headsets. TAM’s provided headphones are a relic of the 1990s.
Our in-flight entertainment would be our own dreams, accompanied by the soothing, sonorous sounds of the taciturn Trent’s through the night. With expediency, the blue and magenta LED lighting was extinguished into nearly complete darkness.
The attentive cabin crew transformed our seats into full lie-flat beds with the placement of a full mattress, pillow resulting in a full turn-down service. This alone was a decided improvement over the previous TAM angled-flat hard product present in the long-haul fleet. Pretty much the entire plane submerged into slumber mode for the next five hours. The cabin crew elected to retreat to the galley and let us be for the duration of the night. Some of them were able to get some well deserved sleep in the crew rest at the rear of the cabin as well.
The overnight hours were occupied by just occasional light chop and the taciturn Trents. However, when I did awake in the middle of the night I was surprised at how dry the cabin felt in comparison to other A350s and 787s, I had flown. As I later found out, TAM for some unbeknown reason had decided not to order the cabin humidification option which was a surprise. This is a signature feature of both aircraft and was something I thought it was a standard equipment. However, the 6,000’ cabin pressurization delivered as billed, rendering us more relaxed and later alert then previous generation hard product. The extremely late early morning departure had manifested itself in a cadre of passengers who did what you would expect them to do: sleep in, well past the Amazonian sunrise.
At exactly 90 minutes before our arrival, I was awakened with a gentle tap on the shoulder by a smiling flight attendant. The morning ritual had begun with a cabin bathed in warm, orange LED lighting.
The clinking of a breakfast service in progress stirred us awake. I had pre-ordered a fluffy omelet accompanied by potatoes, fresh fruit medley, and a muffin. Breakfast is an art form and the eggs were the best we’d ever experienced in the air.
Our flight was nearing its end as the Rolls Royce Trent’s spooled back, followed by speedbrake deployment, and 10 degrees of flaps. We began our very gradual initial descent into the metropolis that is São Paulo. Despite the number of times we have visited, the sheer vastness of the city never ceases to amaze. It’s epic scale is on par with super cities like Tokyo and Mexico City.
At 11:35AM São Paulo time (one hour ahead of U.S. Eastern Daylight Time), after 7 hours, 26 minutes and 4,298 miles aloft, TAM’s inaugural Airbus A350 long-haul flight gently touched own on its home soil at Guarulhos … settled on to the runway is actually a more apt description.
As the bogeys greased the asphalt, there was no applause. No hazzahs. But, despite being over 3 hours late, there was clearly appreciation from the passengers of a flight done right. The “Magic Red Carpet” did not disappoint as it welcomed its flagship, the Airbus A350 XWB into the fleet. Obrigado and Parabéns, TAM!
TAM Airways paid for our airfare, lodging, and transportation. As always, our opinions are our own.