MIAMI — Over the last couple of months, I had an opportunity to sample six domestic segments aboard Brazil’s GOL Airlines, two by myself and four with my family. GOL was founded in 2000 and began operations in 2001 as a low-cost carrier (LCC) with a model similar to the one Southwest had at the time. However, like Southwest over the last few years, GOL has adapted to economic realities by establishing price tiers that resemble those of legacy carriers. Join us on a sampling of flights aboard GOL and find out if the airline scores as the name “GOL” implies.
Brasilia to Sao Paulo Congonhas
My first experience with GOL was a business day trip from Brasil’s capital Brasilia to Sao Paulo’s Congonhas Airport (CGH/SBSP), which exclusively serves regional and short-distance domestic flights, while the larger Guarulhos Airport (GRU/SBGR), which opened in 1985, serves a mix of international and longer domestic operations. The cities are 540 mi (869 km) apart and flight time averages 1h15m.
With GOL’s different price tiers. based on availability and purchasing two weeks in advance, my early morning flight cost $108 USD and the evening return cost $54 USD. I paid for the trip in the local currency (the Real), which is R$3.9 for each dollar at the time of this report. Brazil is currently in an economic slump, and this exchange was under R$2 to the dollar only a couple of years ago.
GOL also charges an additional $25 USD tax per segment, and I opted to pay $10 USD each way to get the roomier seats in the front of the plane. GOL has no premium cabin. The first seven rows of seats, called “GOL+ Conforto”, offer 36 inches of pitch, compared to 32 on the standard seats, and the front seats also offer 50% more recline. The total cost for my round trip was $232 USD.
The extra price for the front seats also entitled me to board with Group 1, the second group after elite GOL and SkyTeam passengers board. GOL signage at the airport and inside the aircraft displays the logos of Delta and Air France-KLM, which are minority holders in and frequent flyer partners with the airline. I received credit on my Delta SkyMiles account for the GOL flights, the full 540 mi for the outbound leg, but only 50% (270 mi) on the return leg because it was the most discounted fare.
I arrived at Brasilia’s Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek International Airport (BSB/SBBR) one hour before scheduled departure and took only a couple of minutes to pass through security. Boarding by groups began 35 minutes before departure. GOL operates a mix of Boeing 737-700/800 aircraft, and my ride to Sao Paulo was aboard an -800 that seats 177 in a single class configuration. I quickly settled into a very roomy seat 3A.
GOL also keeps up with technology and offers mobile device boarding passes with check-in available seven days before departure. The airline also offers the option to receive text messages with flight status. Furthermore, the GOL mobile app not only has the boarding passes ready for scanning but also has a feature that tells the passenger the status of street traffic to the airport on the day of travel, as well as flight status.
Pushback was on time, but taxi to RWY 11R took about 20 minutes with the morning rush. BSB has two runways and typically uses one for departures and the other one for arrivals. Once airborne, the cabin staff offered complimentary water and a small bag of organic chips. They also provide a menu with food and drinks for purchase. With the current exchange rate, the prices are very reasonable (for example a soft drink for just over $1 USD and a sandwich is under $4 USD).
GOL’s flight attendants displayed a very positive and friendly attitude. Soon we were on descent to CGH. Again, a morning rush meant a bit of a delay vectoring the flight to go far to the south of the vast forest of high-rises that is Sao Paulo and turning back north to land on RWY 35L, which is a relatively short 6,365 ft (1,940 m). CGH is a small airport surrounded by many of the tall buildings that are part of a megalopolis of 20 million people, and the largest aircraft permitted to operate there are the 737-800 and its main competitor the Airbus A320.
Sao Paulo Congonhas to Brasilia
My workday in Sao Paulo was about eight hours, and my flight back to BSB had a departure time of 18:55. Like BSB, security at CGH was a very fast process. I took some time to get some airplane pictures before boarding. I had another 737-800, this one sporting Boeing’s “Sky Interior” which features curved overhead bins, the illusion of larger windows, and mood lighting. We pushed back on time and were airborne a few minutes later with a northern departure.
The flight to BSB consisted of another crew of very friendly attendants. My 5ft, 11in (1.8 m) frame enjoyed the extra space on seat 2A. About 50 minutes into the flight, the flight crew began the descent to BSB and landed on RWY 29R, 23 minutes ahead of time. I was very satisfied with my two flights that day. They were nothing extraordinary, but friendly ground and cabin staff helped make for an enjoyable experience. The next test was to experience GOL traveling with my wife and two daughters.
Brasilia to Salvador
My family and I decided on a weekend getaway in the city of coastal city Salvador da Bahia, famous for being Brazil’s first colonial capital and a key hub of Afro-Brazilian culture. 674 mi (1,084 km) separate Brasilia from Salvador. We bought our tickets one month before the trip.
Our base fare from BSB to Salvador’s Deputado Luis Eduardo Magalhaes International Airport (SSA/SBSV) was $83 USD per adult and $58 per child, and each ticket had an additional $6 USD tax. It is nice to see an airline still charge less for children than for adults these days when most airlines are so focused on maximizing revenue.
As with my previous experience, security at BSB was speedy, plus families with small children have a dedicated lane. We paid $10 USD each at the last minute to get the “GOL+ Conforto” seats. Moreover, I gambled correctly on no one taking the middle seat by going with two windows and two aisles, which made for an even more comfortable ride in which my young children could lie down during flight.
Aboard a 737-800, we experienced a very friendly crew of attendants who were also very good with kids by talking a lot with them and making them laugh. Flight time was just under 90 minutes, and we landed 37 minutes early. We only had carry-on luggage, so after landing at SSA, we went straight to the taxi stand.
Salvador to Brasilia
After enjoying a weekend of highlights, such as the very colorful and festive historic city center of Salvador, it was time to fly back to Brasilia on a 737-800. The return segment cost $61 USD per adult and $43 USD per child, with each passenger paying an additional $6 USD tax. Again, I paid the extra $10 USD per passenger for us to sit up front with more space and again guessed correctly that no one would fill the middle seats.
The flight took place right at lunchtime, so I decided to try a combo meal consisting of a turkey sandwich, soda, and chips for about $8 USD. The meal was nothing to write home about, but it hit the spot. The average roundtrip fare overall covering BSB-SSA-BSB, including taxes, for each of us was a bargain at $134.55 USD per passenger. These deeply discounted fares entitled me to 50% of the actual miles on my SkyMiles account.
Brasilia to Sao Paulo Congonhas
I had another trip to Sao Paulo, this time with my family. A 30-day advanced purchase meant $52 USD per adult and $37 USD per child on the outbound leg and $58 USD per adult and $41 USD per child on the return leg. With additional taxes included, the average roundtrip ticket price per person was yet another bargain at $95 USD.
Our flight was scheduled for 20:30 departure time. One unique feature about Brasilia is that it is a relatively new capital created in 1960 to encourage migration to the interior of the country. This means that many public servants still have family or live in other cities. The result is a big rush of people leaving the city on Friday nights.
Our flight to CGH had a 30-minute delay because the crew was coming in late on another flight. Passengers were lining up in their respective group rows 30 minutes before boarding, but for the next hour, no agents bothered to update the status board or make an announcement about the delay. We figured out what happened after seeing the pilots and attendants briskly make their way to the aircraft.
After pushback, we taxied and were number five for take-off on this very busy evening. Once airborne, the total flight time was about 80 minutes from wheels up to touchdown. CGH was also experiencing an evening rush, and many flights have to park remotely during these times since there are fewer gates than airplanes on the ground. We deplaned using stairs and boarded a bus that took us straight to baggage claim, which we bypassed since we only had carry-on bags.
Sao Paulo Congonhas to Brasilia
Our return to BSB was set for 16:05 on a Sunday afternoon. Security was a breeze and traffic was traffic was starting to build up for the evening rush. We pushed back 26 minutes late since some connecting passengers were late, and had to wait for a couple of landings and take-offs before we were airborne.
My kids were wondering where all the “TVs” were on the airplane. GOL thus far has opted not to install IFE on its airplanes. Even the attendants give their safety briefing the old-fashioned way. There is a power outlet available for passengers who bring their own electronic devices.
This was an uneventful 80-minute flight and the crew made up 20 minutes meaning an arrival six minutes behind schedule. My children soon forgot about the lack of IFE since they fell asleep as soon as we were airborne. I reflected on my six segments aboard GOL over this four-week period and jotted down some additional notes for this report.
Last year Brazil hosted the World Cup, and next year it will host the Olympics. These major events are exposing thousands of international tourists to domestic air services in Brazil. GOL’s main domestic competitors are Avianca Brazil, Azul, and TAM. Based on my experience so far, GOL generally offers the best fares.
GOL continues to receive new 737-800s every month and will also receive the 737 MAX 8 in the future. On three of my six segments, I flew on virtually brand new and clean aircraft, and the older airplanes I flew on had very tidy interiors. Furthermore, all the cabin crews I encountered were very courteous and friendly, which helps make the flights enjoyable.
The only ground staff I saw were gate agents who were very efficient at getting people quickly on board and enforcing group boarding rules, but it would be helpful if they kept us informed on delays. IFE is probably not necessary for the short segments I flew but can come in handy for the longer flights, considering Brazil’s very large size and the fact GOL mixes hub and point-to-point operations in such a vast country. On the other hand, I was very impressed with GOL’s use of mobile technology, from getting to check-in a week in advance to getting real-time traffic conditions to the airport straight from the GOL app.
I noticed that the priority lines for GOL and SkyTeam elite travelers were very long on each segment, which suggests the airline has a very loyal customer base, plus the agents are quick to turn those in the wrong boarding group back. With Brazil’s current economic crisis, airlines are struggling to fill seats, and I have seen a lot of price cuts to encourage more travel. This is especially advantageous to foreigners in Brazil.
Fifteen years ago, GOL was the popular new kid in town with its low-cost model and friendly service during a time when some Brazilian legacy carriers, like VARIG (now part of GOL) were sinking and had poor customer service. The airline has adapted to economic realities and has welcomed investment from major SkyTeam members. It also unveiled an updated livery earlier this year. GOL’s product is far from fancy or unique, but passengers have control of their wallet when it comes of additional amenities like meals and more legroom.
Above all, GOL’s crews strive to provide friendly service, and it shows. The airline even sends a mobile phone survey (if customers consent at the time of purchase) a few minutes after touchdown, which gives passengers the option to rate the flight on a scale of 0 to 10.
As an elite member of American Airlines’s frequent travel program, I technically benefit more by flying TAM, a Oneworld partner, but would not hesitate to fly GOL again. That said, I will be working in Brazil for a few years and look forward to trying GOL’s competition. Stay tuned for a trip report on TAM’s domestic operations.