Story and Photos by Davis Miller.
What is a VivaAerobus Airbus A320 doing in freezing Buffalo, New York?
Did it have to divert due to mechanical complications or weather?
Gantt Cookson, Vice President of Vacation Express (VE), graciously invited me to experience one of the routine chartered flights from Buffalo to Cancún, operated by VivaAerobus. I will never forget the excitement that surged inside of me when I received this thrilling offer!
On a recent Sunday, I awoke anxiously before dawn, eager for the day’s trip to commence. Since I would be flying back commercially that same evening, I only needed a small pack for the day. I arrived at the Buffalo Airport at 5 a.m. to greet our travel guide that day, Elma, who is the Continuous Quality Improvement Manager at Vacation Express.
Afterward, we checked in at one of three ticket counters that Vacation Express (VE) utilizes for their chartered flights. VE’s front counters are decorated with advertisements, presenting attractive photos of beaches.
As I received my printed boarding pass before entering TSA, I met Jorge, the head of IMAS’s operations at BUF. IMAS handles ground service for the chartered flights at BUF and is headquartered in Tampa, FL. We briskly passed through TSA and re-met Jorge on the other side of the security checkpoint.
Before pacing all the way to gate 1, I grabbed a small coffee at one of the Tim Hortons bakeries. As I was walking down the departures corridor, I observed several aircraft preparing for their departures, parked outside of the massive un-tinted windows. I had an informative time with Jorge and Elma while we waited to board. I was not prepared for what happened next.
Approximately twenty minutes prior to boarding, Jorge shared that he was able to grant me access to the tarmac and observe our VivaAerobus airliner, from a perspective that only few can appreciate. Following Jorge, I became filled with a surge of excitement as we walked down the fuel-scented jetway.
We first entered the aircraft to drop off our packs and meet the flight crew. As we zipped up our jackets, Jorge provided us with neon-printed safety vests as they were mandatory to wear on the tarmac. Accompanying Jorge, I excitedly exited down the stairs on the right side of the jetway.
A blazing, crimson engine loomed in front of us as I stepped foot onto the apron. I immediately gripped my smartphone and started shooting as many photos as I could before heading back upstairs. Our aircraft for the morning was XA-VAH, an Airbus A320-232 with V2500 equipped engines.
We are able to take a few group photos of Jorge, Elma and I in front of our VivaAerobus aircraft. Soon after, our faces were starting to lose feeling and we decided to make our way back upstairs.
Vacation Express’ name essentially defines its purpose in the world of charter-flight travel. Founded in 1989, the small, yet young airline commenced its first flight in 1992 from Atlanta to Cancun.
Throughout VE’s years of service, Cancun has been a long-time destination for the charter company. The thriving business was founded by three individuals, Kevin Hernandez, Gantt Cookson and Meg Deeb. In 2011, the leisure travel company merged with Sunwing Travel Group (STG).
STG’s subsidiary company, Sunwing Airlines, offers chartered aircraft through Vacation Express. Other airlines that lease aircraft to the Atlanta-based company include Aeromexico, VivaAerobus, Miami Air, Interjet, Swift Air and some of TUI’s family aircraft.
Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) recently became a south-bound origin for Vacation Express in the last few years, servicing two cities down south including Cancun, Mexico and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Mexican LCC VivaAerobus operates the Buffalo-Cancun service every Sunday in the winter months, with Miami Air operating to Punta Cana the next day.
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VE solely services their flights out of gate 1 at BUF, one of two international charter gates. With few seats in the waiting area at gate 1, I was able to dodge the lines of passengers, eager to board their south-bound flight, while observing our colorful Airbus outside.
From Snow Flurries to Sandy Beaches
The boarding process took place at 7:40 a.m. while we were out on the tarmac, so we were the last to board. 148 winter-trapped souls were on board our flight, which was a light load, given that A320-232 can accommodate up to 180 passengers.
My seat for the flight was 1F. Jorge helped direct our pushback as he was the ground guide on the right side. As we completed our push back and our engines began to rev up, he waved a cheerful goodbye to me as he was making his way back to the terminal.
After the captain queued up the second engine, we made our way to Runway 05 and shortly after, rotated smoothly, southbound. We departed exactly at 8:17 a.m., just 17 minutes behind schedule. Thirty minutes into our flight, the FA’s paced up and down the aisle with a beverage cart. I selected my usual Coca-Cola and noticed all drinks and snacks were labeled in Spanish. The safety briefings as well were voiced in Spanish with an English interpretation following shortly after.
What I also found very interesting was that the flight attendants requested that all windows were to be open during takeoff and landing. I am not sure if this is a common request by airlines, because most of the time, I really do not pay much attention to the safety briefings. VivaAerobus does not install IFE nor WiFi on their aircraft.
After hearing a word about that, I went to reach for a magazine to glance through, but there were only the snack menus and the usual safety card. I was personally fine without the IFE or WiFi because I tend to gaze out the window often. Having much legroom in row 1, I was able to stretch out and recline. This may not have the same result for taller passengers since I am a tad short for my age.
Soon after receiving our beverages, the FA’s passed out snacks including potato chips, popcorn chips, pretzels and some salted peanuts. I enjoyed a few bags of potato chips, as they were only serving light snacks on this particular flight.
The Spanish LCC also offers alcoholic beverages such as tequila, vodka and some light wines for small additional costs. The tray tables in VivaAerobus’ first class rows operate a touch differently than most airlines. The first class tray tables are accessed from the left armrest and included a two-fold function.
I tried to rest a bit on the flight but I have always had struggles to fall asleep when airborne. So instead, I chose to read for a brief time and explore a bit more of my surroundings. What I found very fascinating was that there was no barrier on the left side between the main door and the first row of seats.
Because of this interesting style, I was able to observe the FA’s open and close the door. The seats inside this aircraft were updated and had a slim, modern feel to them. Even though they were on the smaller side when it comes to first class seating, I felt very comfortable in it throughout the duration of the flight.
Our aircraft began its descent about 30 minutes prior to touchdown. FA’s made one last cabin check before taking their seats in the front. We gently touched down onto 12L and made a right turn onto the busy, exit taxiway, seconds later.
We continued to taxi for another ten minutes before reaching our assigned gate B22. Elma and I were the first to de-board and were escorted by a jetway employee through a maze of corridors and escalators to the customs checkpoints.
Before reaching the immigration centers, I met two more delightful individuals, Felix and Magdalena. Overseeing all of VivaAerobus’ ground ops, Magdalena is based in Cancun, which is a crew base for the Mexican LCC.
Felix works under Sunwing Travel Group and assists passengers with ground transportation details and helps escort them to assigned vehicles and departure gates. The two friendly employees accompanied us through the Mexican-functioned customs and guided us to a small-tangerine colored van, labeled in Sunwing titles.
When I stepped foot outside, I received a blast of warm, yet soothing Cancun heat. The car park was a sea of many bright colored drivers, eager to find their passengers who would later head to hotels. In the passenger van, Magdalena offered scented, cool towels to help freshen up, while we rode a short way to the opposite end of Terminal 2.
Soon after, we arrived at the far left end of T2, ready to experience a taste of Mexican airliner action and explore some of the duty-free shops and other picturesque scenery within the departures hall. Terminal 2 was very spacious, having an updated feel to it.
Several shops are lined along the outer sides of the terminal, full of beach gear and travel accessories. As I exited an escalator that descended me to the lower level of departures, Felix excitedly informed me that I was granted ramp access onto the T2 tarmac, which solely operated with air stairs and hardstands. I felt a blast of warm, yet soothing Cancun-air hit me when I stepped foot onto the tarmac.
We observed a VivaAerobus A320 arrive from El Bajio and pull up to its assigned parking stand. As passengers disembarked from the colorful aircraft, Magdalena graciously gave me access to the cabin of the arriving A320. I could not believe the amount of excitement that rushed through my body at that moment. I climbed inside and the pilots invited me into the cockpit. I delightedly met the arriving Captain and the crew who would be flying the aircraft to Mexico City.
The arriving Captain offered to take some photos of me in the captain’s seat and shared his history with VivaAerobus. Since the next crew had to prepare for its upcoming routine flight, it was time to make my way back to the terminal and transfer to T3, where my Atlanta-bound flight would be departing. It felt just a short time with Felix and Magdalena in Cancun, but the experience will be treasured forever!
Overall, the charter flight was executed very professionally and arguably had one of the finest groups of FA’s I have encountered when traveling. The lack of IFE and wifi was not a disappointment at all since I was occupied by other attractions in the aircraft.
I would highly recommend this flight if you are desperate to find warmer climates or want to vacation on tropical beaches, breached by the sun. Thank you so much Vacation Express and VivaAerobus for an unforgettable day-trip with you! I will forever treasure this memorable journey!