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Arnur Jan 26, 07 2:50 pm

CGN-EWR-BOG and back on CO in Y/C
It has been a while since my last trip report and I actually did not take any notes while flying, so some details might be a bit blurry. During the past 14 months I have done four business trips to Colombia from Germany, twice on Air France, once on Delta via Atlanta and finally earlier this month on Continental (via EWR). The reasons for trying CO were threefold: (1) CO is the only airline with a direct daily service to the USA from my home airport CGN; (2) connections via the USA in my experience are significantly cheaper than the direct AF flight; and (3) after visiting Bogotá, I had another business meeting in upstate New York and felt like reducing the overall travel time by combining two trips. For the purpose of this journey, I bought a fairly cheap economy class ticket CGN-EWR-CGN (reflecting the low load factors on this route), while my client bought a much more expensive ticket EWR-BOG-EWR (outbound sector in Y, return in C).

08 JAN 07 CO 111 B757 dep 1100 arr 1355 seat 11F

The key advantage for flying CO on this sector is the fact that it eliminates a connection (in FRA, MUC, AMS) and that it allows me to check-in at the user-friendly airport in CGN. Having checked-in via the internet the day before, I arrived at the airport one hour before the scheduled departure time. Using the "elite access" line courtesy of my FB Platinum card, I was asked the usual security questions and proceeded to bag drop. CO operates four check-in counters at CGN, two for economy class and one each for businessfirst and elite access. There were about two people in front of me in the elite line, while there were about 10-15 people waiting in the other line. The agent had some problems printing my luggage tag because of the fact that I was travelling on two separate tickets and finally wrote the tag by hand. The whole process took about ten minutes, which I thought was quite long given the fact that I already had my seat assignments in hand (she actually re-issued the boarding passes on CO stock). Using the 'elite' security line, I was airside five minutes later and proceeded to the lounge. CO uses the airport business lounge in terminal 2, which I'm usually using when flying KL (one of the few other non-*A scheduled 'legacy' carriers still operating from CGN). Unfortunately, the combination of my coach boarding pass and FB Platinum card did not impress the lounge warden and I was turned away (I only learned later that it was only good for CO's own lounges), but since my flight was already boarding at that time, this was no big issue.

Boarding via the jetway (a rare treat in terminal 2 these days), I found CO's Boeing 757 surprisingly full. Sitting in seat 11F I was hoping that the middle seat would remain empty, but all my hopes were crushed when a rather large lady was moved from one of the back rows and queezed into into 11E. This was the moment things were starting to go south, as the a few seconds later a PA announcement was made that due to strong headwinds over the Atlantic we would make a fuel stop in Goose Bay, Canada. With only 1 hour and 25 minutes for my connection in EWR, it was quite clear that I would miss my flight. We were assured by the crew that we would be reaccommodated on other flights (not very helpful in my case - there is only one flight per day from EWR to BOG) and took off a few minutes behind schedule.

Onboard entertainment was 'Little Miss Sunshine' on the overhead monitors, a fairly shocking downgrade after the AVOD I have grown attached to on KLM and Air France, but a decent movie anyway. A few hours later, the clear view of Greenlands icebergs provided unparalled entertainment outside of my window anyway and I had a book and an iPod to tide me over. Memories of my first transatlantic journeys on a German Airforce B707 further sweetened the trip for me. The meal options were 'chicken' or 'beef', and my beef dish (accompanied by a side salad and a non-memorable desert) turned out to be fairly ok. I'm not terribly picky about airline food, so my only two gripes about CO's meal service in coach compared with most European carriers are the fact that (1) servings are fairly small; and (2) one has to pay for alcoholic drinks. Even Delta is still offering free cocktails with the meals, so this was a minor disappointment. About seven hours into the flight, we landed at Goose Bay, which is basically a large military airbase in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. The captain had informed us that Goose Bay had been chosen for the quick refuelling service offered and indeed, we spent less than forty minutes on the ground. While waiting, we actually saw another CO 757 being refuelling (the flight from HAM/TXL, I think) and we had also been told about the service from CPH having made a pit stop earlier on. While CO use of the 757s allow them to serve more secondary airports in Europe, the problem with tailwinds in winter is an obvious setback and when I though about my connection, I had thought about how convenient it would have been to fly a larger bird out of, say FRA or AMS. The remaining flight time was three hours and we passed the time watching 'The Queen' and chatting about all the connections we would miss. Despite the cramped company, my seatmates turned out to be pleasant fellows, so I won't complain about an uncomfortable flight. One hour out of EWR, we were served some form of snack. I seem to recall a sandwich of sorts and a bag of chips, but it was quite forgettable.

We finally arrived at EWR at 1600 hours and proceeded to immigration, where we waited for more than ninety minutes (non-US residents anyway). It seems the backlog of late arrivals from Europe had created major bottlenecks at immigration. When I finally found my luggage at 1730 hours, my flight to Colombia was long gone and went to search for the customer service desk. Here I found another enormous line of passengers waiting to be rebooked, stretching all the way into the terminal. After I was turned away at the dedicated businessfirst line (it seems elite status does not get you much at CO in this situation, KLM and Air France have special counters for their elites at their hubs), I proceeded to wait... and wait... and wait some more. I was about 2000 when I got a voucher for the Doubletree Hotel, meal vouchers for 26 US$ total and a reservation on the next flight out on the next day. All things considered, I thought this was a fair deal even though I felt that the International Transfer counters were quite understaffed given the volume of affected passengers. As CO had plenty of advance warning, I'm surprised that they could not have opened other positions. There were maybe 6 agents dealing with 150+ affected passengers and with EWR being a major hub, I would have thought that CO could have done better.

To be continued..

Arnur Jan 26, 07 3:26 pm

EWR - BOG on CO in coach
After some well-deserved rest at the Doubletree Hotel (which I found quite nice), I returned to terminal c at about 1000. With my flight no scheduled to depart until 1520 that afternoon, I dropped off my luggage and headed into Manhattan on the Airtrain/NJ Transit combo. On the return, I made it to the airport only at about 1440 and was starting to worry about missing my flight to Colombia again, but made it to the gate well before the doors were being closed, despite the dreaded SSS on my boarding pass. Given their fearsome reputation, I found the TSA screeners fairly courteous and professional when they gave me and my luggage the full treatment..

09 JAN 07 CO 881 EWR BOG B737-700 dep 1520 arr 2120 seat 6C

The six-hour flight from Newark to Bogotá was operated by a B737-700 which for my European taste was an awfully small plane for such a long flight. It was also exceptionally crowded with very few empty seats to be seen in the main cabin. Imagine my delight, when 6B remained empty after the doors were closing. I wonder whether this is actually some form of elite benefit, as the middle seat on my previous flight had also remained empty until a very last minute seat change.

The flight itself was rather uneventful - inflight entertainment was again of the old-fashioned overhead monitors - and the movies shown were 'The Lake House' and 'Lost in Translation'. The food service on this flight was a hot beef sandwich and some chips (no choices offered), followed by some form of soft biscuites. While the sandwich itself was quite ok, I found the quantity of food served again below par for such a long flight and more in line with what one usually expects on a 2-3 hour sector in Europe. There was also no snack offered before arrival, so I was rather hungry when arriving in Bogotá. I again had a very enjoyable conversation with my seatmate - triggered by some documents I was reading - about Colombia's civil war, drug trade etc. I'm usually not a fan of small talks and prefer my seatmates mute, but on CO I have been quite lucky with regard to company.

Arrival in Bogotá was ahead of time but we had to wait for some 20 minutes until our gate became vacant, eating up any time savings. However, compared with my previous visits there was virtually no waiting time at immigration and I left El Dorado airport with my lugge some 30 minutes after arriving at the gate - a new record for me. In conclusion, this was a decent sector - departure and arrival were on-time, my main gripes being the lack of AVOD and the meagre food offerings.

Arnur Jan 26, 07 4:29 pm

A detour to Santa Marta on Avianca
From Bogotá, my business trip took me to Santa Marta on the Carribean coast and as there are not many trip reports featuring Colombia's national airline Avianca, I figured I give it a shot.

12 JAN 07 AV 8484 BOG SMA Fokker 100 dep 0725 arr 0855 seat 7A

Avianca's domestic flights don't leave from the main terminal building but from a dedicated terminal called the 'Puente Aereo' some two kilometers away. Both terminals are connected by an Avianca shuttle bus operating airside (thereby avoiding traffic on the highway). Clean and modern, the Puente is in a different league from the main terminal building and despite the huge passenger volume on AV's domestic services, I have always found it fairly user-friendly. I arrived about one hour before departure, checked-in after virtually no wait with a friendly agent and proceeded to one of the numerous café bars for a much needed tinto and a flaky croissant (previous experience tells me that usually no food is served on domestic sectors in Colombia).

Avianca has what (from the outside) seems to be a very nice business class lounge at the Puente, but I doubt that my Flying Blue Platinum card would get me entrance there (Avianca is no member of Skyteam even though it is possible to earn Flying Blue miles). Passengers board at the domestic terminal by walking to the planes, even though there are covered walkways to the planes. The Fokker 100 was pretty full (as a matter of fact, all my Avianca flights have been very full), as many most people prefer the plane to the car/bus for long distance travel in Colombia. After an on-time departure, service on-board consisted of the usual choice of coffee, juice or water. No food is being served in coach, nor are there any other drinks available. I have never experienced Avianca in business class so any insights on that product would be appreciared. Arrival at Santa Marta's tiny airport was ahead of time and I was out of the airport less than 15 minutes after touch down.

14 JAN 07 AV 9767 SMA BOG M83 dep 1520 arr 1638 seat 9A

Santa Marta's airport is a small affair, a single strip of taramac next to the sea, a small open air terminal building with two jetbridges and a café overlooking both the beach and the approach to the airport. In addition to Avianca's four daily jet departures to BOG, it is also served by Avianca from Medellin by Fokker 50s and by AV's main competitor Aero Republica by B737s (also to BOG). I arrived about one hour before departure and check-in was very fast. The return trip was the mirror-image of the flight from BOG, service was again coffee, juice or water and we touched down pretty much on time. After a quick walk to the baggage claim, we waited some 10 minutes for our bags and I was off to my hotel.

In conclusion, after 8 domestic sectors on Avianca (Medellin, Cartagena, Santa Marta) in the last 14 months, I'm quite impressed with the airline. The Puente Aereo terminal is much preferable to the crowded main terminal (which is used by all other domestic airlines), Avianca offers numerous daily departures and an impressive route map with Colombia. While I had my fair share of delays with them (often caused by bad weather in BOG), they have never lost my luggage and I do get Flying Blue miles when using them. Now, I only wish they would join Skyteam, so that I could use their lounges and the priority check-in. And yes, a bit more variety in the drinks department would also be appreciated :-)

Arnur Jan 26, 07 5:17 pm

BOG - EWR on CO in BusinessFirst
This flight was supposed to be the highlight of my trip, as I very rarely travel in paid business class and this was a first for me on CO. I had checked-in by internet the evening before and arrived at El Dorado airport about 90 minutes before the scheduled departure time.

15 JAN 07 CO 880 BOG EWR B737-700 dep 1005 arr 1602 seat 2C

Check-in was smooth and after paying the annoying 25 US$ airport tax (I don't understand why you have to pay that tax in cash), I headed for the departure area in the international pier. After passing three separate checks (emigration, security and customs), I quickly found lounge. CO uses the Avianca lounge for their two daily departures, which is conveniently located close to the security check points. It was very crowded this morning (rush hour for Avianca), but it offers a decent selection of sandwiches and other breakfast food items, as well as various internet work stations and a nice view over the tarmac. Compared with the other international lounge in BOG (AA's Admirals Club, which is also used by AF and IB), this lounge offered much fewer space but much better food offers.

After an additional security check at the gate, I was among the last passengers to board the Boeing 737 for the return flight to Newark. I assume the BusinessFirst seats on this plane were similar to domestic First class in the United States: plenty of space, but the decline certainly would not have been impressive had this been a night flight. Also, I was surprised that even in business class there were no additional IFE options - I had expected that they would hand out individual DVD players or similar. As it was, it were the same movies which I had already seen on the transantlantic sector playing on the overhead monitors.

In contrast, the service on this flight was much better than in coach. The FA went out of his way to refill our glasses and to be of assistance. Unfortunately, I forgot to take the printed menu, but I seem to recall that lunch was a decent Salmon starter and a green salad, accompanied by rather unimpressive white bread rolls. I chose the Chataubriand as the main course, which was very well prepared and tasty. Desert was an icecream sundae - not my prefered way of ending a business class meal, but clearly a favorite of my fellow passengers. The red wine served with the food was also quite nice, even though the postprandial coffee was as bad upfront as it had tasted in coach.

In summary, I find it very hard to compare this flight with my other business class experiences. Usually, I find myself flying either on very short European flights of 60-90 minutes (say on AF or LH), where the only distinguishing feature on the narrowbody flights is the better meal and the empty middle seats. Or I fly long-distance in widebodies for 7-10 hours, enjoying all the bells and whistles (lie flat seat, AVOD, very refined cuisine). This flight on CO somewhere falls in between - in terms of seats and food - even though I feel the airline should offer their premium customers more in terms of IFE.

We arrived on-time in EWR and this was again when my troubles started. Spotting a fairly empty immigration area, I was looking forward to be reunited with my luggage in a short while.. And then the lady from Homeland Security looked at my passport. And looked some more. Clearly something was bothering her. It turned out to be the numeous entry stamps from Sudan and other dubious countries. Mind you, this is the same passport I had used on four previous occassions to enter the United States, but whereas my travels had been the subject of friendly banter ("how's the food in Colombia") with her colleagues, she took a dimmer view. In no time, I found myself escorted down the escalator to Newark's special holding area for less than welcome visitors. Here, without an opportunity to leave or to use a phone ("no cell phones" barked one of our minders to one unsuspecting fellow) and without my passport, I found myself sitting among some 50 other people, virtually all of them Muslim by the looks of them. Some of them had been there for quite a while and were called repeatedly for further questioning. Seeing myself either being deported or on the next flight out to Guantanomo, I therefore approached the desk with a slight feeling of trepidation when my name was called after some 90 minutes. Imagine my surprise, when the officer stamped me in after asking a single sentence about the nature of my work, after which I was allowed to leave the holding pen and re-join the rest of humanity at the baggage claim. What they did with my passport and my data during the enforced delay is anybody's guess.

Arnur Jan 26, 07 6:18 pm

EWR - CGN on CO in coach
19 JAN 07 CO 110 EWR CGN B757 dep 1845 arr 0825 seat 11C

This time I actually arrived at EWR about ninety minutes before departure and after dropping of my bag in the elite access section of terminal C and a quick stop at the TSA screening line, I arrived at the Presidents Club about one hour before departure. After a lengthy delay at the reception when the warden was trying to read the small print on my FB Plat card, I was finally let in. While the lounge was certainly large and reasonably well appointed, it was also very crowded and it took me a while to actually find a place to sit. I'm generally not very impressed with airline clubs in the USA: it seems that most of them feature free booze (including staffed bars, which is very rare elsewhere), they seem lacking in the food and newspaper department. Other than pretzels there was nothing to munch on, or to read, so I decided to enjoy the bar instead.

After checking out at the nifty US VISIT terminals - a routine that includes fingerprinting yourself - I headed over to my gate where boarding was almost complete. To my delight I found a rather empty plane and discovered that I would have a whole row to myself. The flight itself was uneventful: the dinner service consisted of another 'beef' meal (I remember mashed potatoes and an uninspiring salad), IFE was again the overhead monitors (featuring 'Spanglish' and 'The Lake House'). However, I managed quite a few hours of decent sleep until 'breakfast' was served one hour out of Cologne. As I'm sure you have noticed by now, I'm quite cynical about the food on CO, but this transatlantic breakfast was a joke: a stale croisant and five wedges of fruit? I was not really hungry at this hour, but I somewhat felt cheated here.

The arrival was uneventful. A short taxi into an empty airport on a Saturday morning 30 minutes ahead of our scheduled arrival time. Virtually no wait at immigration and after maybe 15 minutes my bag was among the first on the belt.

Rating my four international sectors on CO in that week - and comparing them to my usual choice of KLM/Air France - here are the pros and cons.

  • Out of Cologne, CO offers very convenient schedules to EWR and back
  • Internet Check-In worked very well on all sectors
  • The fare out of Cologne was quite competetive
  • As a member of Skyteam, CO allows me earn valuable FB status miles

  • While I found the quality of the food ok, the quantity leaves something to be desired
  • The IFE was not up to the standards of most of the European competition
  • No lounge access in CGN :(
  • The Boeing 757s used to Europe don't have sufficient range to make it back without refuelling with strong headwinds
  • The fact that immigrations needs to be cleared and bag re-checked makes international connections through EWR unneccessarily difficult.

In conclusion, the last point would be the main issue for me, i.e. I would not use Continental again to connect at EWR (or anywhere else in the USA) to another international flight. The hazzle is just not worth it. Interestingly, my experience with Delta in this regard has been more positive as they offer check-through luggage at their Atlanta hub. So, Air France is likely to get my business in the future when going to Colombia. If my final destination is New York, I think the very convenient schedule of CO 110/111 would outweight any disadvantages in terms of service and IFE for me. I value a few extra hours of sleep before departure and using CGN rather than a hub airport means much fewer airport-related problems. Plus, the fact that the loads are light at the moment means decent fares and plenty of space to stretch out.

aw Jan 26, 07 7:03 pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this informative report. I agree with most of your points and as a matter of fact when I took my SFO-CGN trip last year concluded not to do this again via CO. It is far more convenient to catch an European flight and connect from there. You stated that CO meals in Y are OK but I tend to disagree. While CO is applauded for offering "food" on domestic flights, I find that its international Y meals are the worst of the Skyteam carriers. Not only are they lacking in quantity but the quality leaves a lot to be desired.

Arnur Jan 27, 07 3:24 am

Originally Posted by aw (Post 7100350)
You stated that CO meals in Y are OK but I tend to disagree. While CO is applauded for offering "food" on domestic flights, I find that its international Y meals are the worst of the Skyteam carriers. Not only are they lacking in quantity but the quality leaves a lot to be desired.

Absolutely, the 'ok' actually reflects my very low expectations based on previous flight on US-carriers (United, Delta) and not what I'm expecting or am used to on other Skyteam carriers. Plus, as I wrote, I'm not very picky in that department (can't be in my line of work). So the quality of the food, albeit unimpressive, would not be a reason for me to avoid CO if their schedules and prices were competetive (as they are out of CGN for flights to EWR).

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