SAN SALVADOR — TACA Airlines, now Avianca El Salvador after merging Colombia’s Avianca, traces its history back to 1931. Its hub is in San Salvador’s Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport (SAL), serves now 24 international destinations, eight of them in the small Central American region. From this main hub, Airways had a chance to experience short hops to and from Guatemala City (GUA) and Belize City (BZE). Jump aboard with us on these quick flights, and see how the airline stacks up.
Avianca El Salvador is part of Star Alliance. I used my United Airlines online account to purchase my tickets through a very simple process. United offered me full and discounted fares in economy and business class. One-way segments on economy started at $71 USD while business started at $270 USD. I opted for the business fares, which gave me a chance to experience the airline’s lounges.
San Salvador to Guatemala City
My first flight was from San Salvador to Guatemala City. I arrived at the airport two hours before my 20:15 evening departure. Although I used online check-in, I stopped by the self-service kiosks and ticket counters to get a feel for these options. The kiosks are quick and easy to use, and the check-in counter at SAL has two lanes, one for business and elite frequent flyers and the other for economy.
After security screening, I checked out shopping and dining options. The airport has several duty-free and souvenir options, and a variety of sit-down and fast-food restaurants. My business class ticket entitled me to use Avianca’s VIP lounge. The facility has plenty of drink and snack options, as well as small cooked meals. Other amenities include WiFi, a TV area, a resting and sleeping area with recliners, an open area with tables for dining, and desks for the use of electronics. For parents, the kids’ area is very useful to keep the little ones entertained. Compared to the lounges of mainline airlines in the U.S. the lounge offers a superior product.
My aircraft for the 30-minute hop to Guatemala City was an Embraer E190. I opted for Seat 2A, a recliner with 37 inches (93 cm) of pitch and 20 inches (51 cm) in width. Business Class on Avianca’s EJets has a 1+2 seating arrangement, so I had no passenger next to me.
Boarding starts with those needing special assistance or more time to board, followed by business, and economy in groups. The process was very orderly and quick. Once aboard, a friendly flight attendant offered champagne, orange juice, or water, as well as a plate of warm nuts.
Economy Class has a 2+2 layout, which means no middle seat. IFE in business class consists of a pop-up screen with various video, audio, and game options, plus a moving map display. Some of the options had a “coming soon” message since the E-190 fleet is being retrofitted with this new technology to match the Airbus narrow-body fleet.
Avianca uses the “banking” model in its San Salvador hub. This means there are waves of departures and arrivals three times per day consisting of about a dozen inbound and outbound flights within roughly a 45-minute period. San Salvador uses one runway, but there are rarely any long waits during taxi. We pushed back on time and were quickly airborne. The 30 minutes of flight time only allow for a quick drink service in both cabins, and we were descending just a few minutes after leveling off.
Arrival in Guatemala City’s La Aurora International Airport was uneventful. The airport has a terminal built in 2007, which is very comfortable and modern, and it is the hub for Avianca’s regional ATR72-600 fleet under the “Avianca Guatemala” brand, which was formerly known as Aviateca. TACA absorbed Aviateca before its merger into Avianca.
Guatemala to San Salvador
On the return flight to San Salvador, I decided to use the check-in counter. The agent was very courteous and efficient, and informed me that while Avianca did not have its own lounge at the airport, I could use the independent “Los Añejos” lounge. At the lounge, one of the attendants offered to prepare a breakfast to me. Since I had eaten at the hotel, I politely declined, but this was definitely a nice option. I settled for a beer and got some work done on my tablet.
Boarding again was very quick and smooth. This time our aircraft was an Airbus A320. Every seat on the aircraft has IFE screens with the same options as the Embraer, except that these are fully operational. Once again, the welcome aboard for business class consisted of drinks and nuts.
Departure was quick. With good weather, the majestic volcanoes near Guatemala City were clearly visible during departure. My business class seat had 38 inches (96 cm) of pitch, 22 inches (56 cm) in width, and a foot rest. This was another uneventful 30-minute “up and down” flight. Avianca uses its Airbus fleet for longer segments to North and South America, so the IFE options are enough to keep passengers entertained in both cabins.
San Salvador to Belize City
A week later I booked another flight on Avianca from its San Salvador hub, this time to Belize City’s Philip S.W. Gordon International Airport (286 miles / 460 km) with a flight time of 50 minutes. I had a morning 8:35 flight and arrived at 7:00. After a quick check-in at the kiosk and a short security line, I went to Avianca’s VIP lounge for breakfast. I had orange juice, yogurt, fried eggs, and toast.
Boarding was quick and efficient. I had Seat 2A on another A320. With a 45 to 50 minute flight, I had low expectations in terms of meal service. I would be in for a surprise. We pushed back after some welcome drinks and were quickly airborne. Even with the morning banked Avianca rush, we were number three tor takeoff, which did not take long.
As I mentioned, I was surprised by the meal service on such a short flight. The flight attendant presented a tray consisting of quiche, bread, cheese, cold meats, and fruit. Had I not been full from breakfast at the lounge, I probably would have enjoyed it more. Considering the short duration of the flight, the crew did not rush anyone to finish. The service was rapid and efficient with a very friendly cabin staff.
Arrival in Belize City consisted of stair disembarkation since there are no jet bridges. I always enjoy the old-school deboarding experience, and the ramp had a Delta Airbus A319 and a United Boeing 737-800 loading up for Atlanta and Houston respectively. The most common sight at the airport are Cessna Caravan’s operating for Belize’s two airlines, Maya Island Air and Tropic Air flying to nearby smaller cities and islands in the small country.
Belize City to San Salvador
For my return to San Salvador, I showed up two hours ahead of our noon departure. After a quick check-in at the counter, which is handled by locally-contracted airport staff, I headed to the observation deck, which provided a view of the entire ramp. My Embraer E190 was already there, as well as an American A319 from Miami and the Delta and United flights I saw when I arrived. The buzzing of the Cessna Caravans inbound and outbound was constant.
Security was quick and the open waiting area has decent shopping and eating options. During my walk to my aircraft, I was able to get some good pictures of the other aircraft parked at the ramp, including mine. Another very friendly cabin staff greeted me. Pushback and takeoff were quick and provided great views of the coastline.
For this flight I saved my appetite. The captain predicted a 48-minute flight. This time the meal consisted of penne pasta, cheese, chicken breast, a roll, and chocolate cake. From the alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage choices, I went with a soft drink.
I honestly was expecting an average service from TACA, especially considering the short duration of these four segments. To my pleasant surprise, I was wrong. The flight and cabin crews in particular are very friendly and show their pride in the original Salvadoran airline by welcoming us aboard Avianca “operated by TACA”.
During the last few years Avianca has been busy integrating the original Avianca in Colombia with AeroGal in Ecuador, and TACA’s subsidiaries in San Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Peru, and standardizing not just the liveries but all aspects of service under a single brand. Business passengers will not be disappointed. While I did not seat in economy, it was good to see the Airbus fleet with an IFE screen in each seat, and the pitch is generous at 33 inches (84 cm).
I have flown short business segments in the U.S. on American, Delta, and United. On flights of similar duration a drink and a small snack are the most likely option. The meals I had in Avianca (TACA) clearly surpass the equivalent service in the U.S. Finally, I expect passengers from other Star Alliance airlines to have a good experience connecting in San Salvador. Avianca ground staff assistance to United, and Copa passengers was friendly and seamless, and Star Alliance business and elite customers will not be disappointed by the VIP lounge as they wait for their next flight.