BRASILIA — Between work and leisure, I have had several opportunities to sample domestic air travel in Brazil in the three months since I moved here, and this time I tried TAM Airlines on six different segments.
The airline has been part of the larger LATAM Group since the approval of its meger with LAN Airlines three years ago, and is an established legacy carrier in Brazil. Let’s take to the skies with TAM and experience its service. I have a very vague recollection of my first time on TAM back in 2001 because it took place during a very tragic week.
My travel then was from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo; Sao Paulo to Rio; Rio to Sao Paulo; and Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires. When I landed in Rio it was September 10. The next day, like many U.S. tourists abroad, I was in shock and trying to figure out how and when I would return home in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
From Brasilia to Porto Velho
Fourteen years later, I was back on TAM, this time for a business trip. My office paid full-fare for a round-trip between Brazil’s capital Brasilia and Porto Velho in the heart of the Amazon. As a Platinum member of American’s frequent flyer program, I was looking forward to seeing what the additional perks would be for oneworld alliance elite members. Once my trip was booked, I went to TAM’s website and mobile app to see what my options were, as far was managing the trip was concerned. The results were a bit disappointing.
Seat selection and the option to enter my American Airlines number were not available until 72 hours before departure, which is also the window for the start of online check-in. The next disappointment came during the seat selection. TAM has been advertising a scheme virtually identical to the economy plus (W) products being offered by other airlines around the world, where passengers up front get more room. However, this is a gradual transition, and my aircraft turned out to be one of the older A320s in a single-class configuration with 30 inches of pitch in each row.
TAM’s Assento Conforto (Comfortable Seat) is the new premium economy option and offers an additional two inches of pitch, which seems stingy compared to other competitors. I still was able to select seat 3A for the 2h46m flight to Porto Velho’s Governador Jorde Teixeira de Oliveira International Airport (PVH).
I arrived at Brasilia’s Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek International Airport (BSB) an hour before the scheduled 10:55 departure. I only had hand luggage, and security was a breeze. At the gate, TAM has lines for four boarding groups: first, elderly (over 60 years old), people with children aged two and under, and any other passengers in need of extra time to board; second, TAM and oneworld elite members; third, rows 16 to 29; and fourth, rows 1 to 15. I began to line up at my row about 25 minutes before departure.
After 40 minutes, I was still there. The gate agent did not explain the delay, but once boarding started, things moved quickly and efficiently. The staff never gave an explanation for the delay, and we pushed back 28 minutes behind schedule. The flight crew taxied to RWY 11R and waited another 10 minutes for other departures and landings before rolling. Once airborne, the cabin crew began food and beverage service. They offered complementary beverages and a snack box consisting of cheese and crackers and a chocolate cake.
On this older Airbus there was neither overhead screens nor seatback screens for IFE. The rest of the flight was uneventful. With the unexplained delay, the pilots managed to make up some time and we landed 19 minutes behind schedule. PVH typically sees 10 commercial take-offs and landings per day consisting of flights operated by TAM, GOL, and Azul. We quickly deplaned with stairs in the forward and rear doors. I personally enjoy this old-school experience of getting to walk on the ramp, as well as take some pictures of the aircraft.
From Porto Velho to Brasilia
After work and an overnight stay, it was time to head to PVH for a scheduled 12:34 flight back to BSB. I arrived an hour early, and there was only a few people in line at security, which was a flash. The waiting area is at ramp level and provides a good view of the parking stands and has a snack bar, where I got a light lunch. Our plane was not there, and, again, the ground staff did not bother to mention that there was a delay.
The inbound flight was the same one I took the day before. Once the plane landed and deboarded its passengers, we were called to board using front and rear stairs, which helps speed up the process. By push back time, we were 20 minutes behind schedule. The flight again had a snack box service consisting of the cheese, crackers and cake.
This flight took place on a newer A320, which had the Assento Conforto W configuration upfront, but since that section was full, I chose a very empty row 28 of the 29 rows available. With no one seated in my row, I had a very comfortable ride. Also, this new aircraft had slimline seats. One redesign feature was moving the seatback pocket from leg level to the on top of the tray table. This opens up a couple of inches of legroom.
Just when it appeared we had made up most of the delay, the aircraft entered a holding pattern. There was no announcement explaining it, but just by looking out the window, I could see a massive thunderstorm right on top of BSB. After about 15 minutes the crew got its landing clearance, and by the time we got the gate, the flight was officially 34 minutes late.
From Brasilia to Rio de Janeiro (connecting in Sao Paulo)
Only a few days after my roundtrip from BSB to PVH, it came the Thanksgiving weekend. Two months earlier, I went on Expedia and Iooked into the option of spending the holiday in Rio de Janeiro with my family. With a very favorable exchange rate, each roundtrip ticket was a great bargain at $95 USD per person. There are direct flights from BSB to Rio’s domestic Santos Dumont (SDU) or Galeao International (GIG).
One of the catches of the $95 fares was connecting in Sao Paulo’s domestic airport Congonhas (CGH) since direct service was about twice as much the price. I was more than happy to pay $380 USD for a family of four to enjoy four days in Rio. Flights from BSB to CGH range from 75 to 90 minutes and from CGH to SDU 35 to 45 minutes. On both the outbound and return legs our connecting time in CGH averaged an ample 90 minutes.
We arrived at BSB early on Thanksgiving morning. Since this is not a holiday in Brazil, it was a typical weekday morning rush at the airport in terms of the number of flights leaving and arriving BSB. I walked by the TAM counter and saw a priority line for TAM and oneworld elite members but bypassed it since we only had carry-on bags. Security was also quick, and we got to the gate just as boarding began. With the morning rush, we taxied for about 20 minutes before getting take-off clearance.
Thinking of my PVH trip from earlier that week, I told my children that we would get the snack box on our flight, However, the snack service on this flight featured what looked like a prepackaged bread roll. I bit into it and it had a filling consisting of chopped ham at room temperature. My kids also took and bite and gave me that “do I have to eat this?” look, and I agreed with them, so we would have to wait to grab a better snack during our connection in CGH.
The crew on this flight was very friendly with my kids, as well as the other small children aboard. They had a tray with candy and offered it to them. This older A320 had no IFE, but the flight was quick, and we were soon relaxing in CGH enjoying a light breakfast and planespotting. We then boarded a bus to the airplane since it was parked in a remote stand.
The next segment is probably one my favorite flights, and it was the third time I was doing it. The reason I enjoy it is because of the usually very scenic approach to Rio de Janeiro. In addition, SDU resembles an aircraft carrier, given the short runways, the longest being 4,340 ft (1,320 m) surrounded by water. The weather cooperated, and the experience did not disappoint and never gets old.
The approach offers a view of the major landmarks, and the aircraft overflies the airport and finishes with a turning descent to line up with the runway. With full flaps and maximum autobrake, deceleration is very quick and leaves little room to spare. Take-offs require a higher flap setting and weight restrictions, especially on very hot days, and an immediate left bank to avoid the famous Sugarloaf Mountain.
From Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia (connecting in Sao Paulo)
After enjoying some amazing sights and weather, including photographing SDU from Sugarloaf Mountain, we arrived at SDU at 11:00 on Sunday, well ahead of our 13:17 departure time. Security was quick, and we sat down for some lunch. I also took some time to take more aircraft pictures.
The great weather made for a spectacular view of Rio after take off. The captain estimated 40 minutes to CGH. However, 25 minutes into the flight, I felt the familiar racing track feel of a holding pattern. The captain explained that torrential rains closed CGH, site of the TAM 3054 tragedy in 2007, when that A320 was unable to brake on a very wet and short runway and crashed into a building killing all 187 aboard and 12 working at the building.
The captain added that he was waiting for guidance as to whether to wait for a slot to land at Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport (SBGR/GRU) or return to SDU. GRU implemented more spacing for arriving flights because of the heavy rains and low visibility. We had plenty of fuel for the preplanned alternates, and GRU has long runways to handle heavy aircraft servicing international destinations.. This flight was on a new A319, which had LATAM’s new IFE. This IFE requires a mobile Apple or Android mobile device that can download and install the LATAM Entertainment app. Once aboard, passengers just have to turn-on WiFi and connect to the LATAM Entertainment signal. This IFE includes movies, TV shows, and a moving map display.
TAM has power outlets in its newer planes below the armrest, but I noticed that they were not working in any of my flights. Fortunately, my phone was fully charged and I was able to try their new IFE out. The variety will keep all members of a family entertained. This A319 also displayed the moving map on its overhead screens. The captain finally informed us that he had clearance to land at GRU and the cabin crew advised connecting passengers to see an agent for rebooking.
Since we were not supposed to land at GRU that afternoon, we parked remotely and were bused to baggage claim. We went straight to the counter and took advantage of the oneworld elite line to start to work on modifying our itinerary. When we got called, the agent redirected us to a sales and rebooking office. When we got to that office, they redirected us to a rebooking and connections counter by baggage claim.
Feeling like hot potatoes and bit annoyed having to walk a lot with small kids, we finally encountered a knowledgeable member of the ground staff. The next direct flight from GRU to BSB would not be until after 22:00, but she found a departure out of CGH in the next couple of hours. We had to take a courtesy bus from GRU to CGH (23 miles / 37 kilometers). Fortunately it was Sunday, and we did not have to deal with Sao Paulo’s infamous traffic jams. It took 40 minutes to get to CGH, which was open for operations after the heavy storms passed.
Our flight departed at 19:11. The A320 was about 60% full, and we took advantage of all the empty rows in the back of the airplane. The inflight snack was another one of those rolls stuffed with room temperature sandwich meat, this time turkey, but we knew better than to eat the less than desirable meal. With the rebooking, we arrived in BSB about three and a half hours later than originally scheduled.
The Bottom Line On TAM
Many visitors have experienced and will continue to experience Brazilian domestic services in light of important sporting events like the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. TAM, GOL, Avianca Brasil, and Azul are the main travel options for domestic flights. Oneworld customers benefit from flying TAM, SkyTeam customers from using GOL, and Star Alliance passengers can take advantage of Avianca and Azul to get their respective frequent flyer programs.
So far I have only experienced TAM and GOL. As a long-time oneworld passenger, I will get the most frequent flyer benefits from TAM, which offers very frequent and reliable services. Even with the deeply discounted fare from BSB to SDU, I got full mileage credit as an elite member of oneworld. Ground staff could do a much better job informing passengers about delays and knowing where to direct those of us who need rebooking. Cabin crews also seemed a bit disengaged, but were pretty good when it came to making kids feel welcome.
TAM’s extra room up front, which requires elite status or an additional fee, could be a bit roomier. Otherwise, this supposed perk is not much different than its standard economy seating. It is nice to see TAM starting to install an IFE option on its aircraft. Passengers can watch a single program or moving map on the overhead screens, but the best option is to connect to the LATAM Entertainment signal and use the app to get a nice range of complimentary entertainment.
Finally, having free meals aboard is rare these days, but the rolls stuffed with sandwich meat live very little to be desired. The snack box offered on the longer flights was by far much better. In the near future I hope to fly Avianca and Azul to see how they measure up to my experiences so far with TAM and GOL.