(Barely) Surviving Avianca Airlines

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Long-haul buses in South America can be painful but it can’t compare to the nightmare of delayed and cancelled flights combined with very poor service from the airline. Finding some unwelcome time on my hands, I have taken the chance to write this blog on our experiences!

We had a fair share of air travel during the past seven months and, for one reason or another, we ended up travelling with Avianca all the time. Half the flights were delayed and when things go wrong, the arrogant attitude and incompetency from the staff was appalling. Instead of boring you with pages of accounts of bad service, here are some examples that surprised and frustrated us the most:

  • When our flight was delayed from Pereira to Bogota, the only three foreign travellers (including us) were singled out and forced to go home without any compensation and come back for a flight 12 hours later despite the fact that there were a later connection to Bogota. After much persuasion, they finally allowed us to go on the later connection on the condition that we sign a piece of paper waiving our rights to hotel and food compensation while in Bogota. Being forced to choose between no compensation, or travelling 6 hours round-trip to the airport at our own costs, we signed the papers under duress.
  • We made from Pereira to Bogota only to find out that they wouldn’t let us on the connection to Santa Marta even though it had not left the airport. There were 6 other locals travelling from Pereira to Santa Marta as well and they fought with the airline for solutions. Only after much tears from one of the locals and more than an hour at Bogota airport, we were promised hotel and food. Even then, the hotel shuttle took another hour and half to come.
  • Our flight from Lima to Bogota was delayed 2 hours due to “technical problems” and we arrived in Bogota half an hour before the scheduled departure time for our London flight. Again, we were refused to board while we stared at the parked plane at the gate. The reason is that they insist that we cant board without the luggage they could apparently not manage to get the luggage on the flight fast enough! (Half an hour in the same terminal!!!) Two different staff on two different occasions assured me that I will be able to enter immigration and got to a hotel even after I pointed out that I do not possess a valid Colombia visa anymore. Of course, when we took all the trouble to go through immigration, I was denied access into the country. We ended up being trapped in the airport in Bogota for 16 hours and they changed our flight from a direct one to a connection via Madrid, adding another 2 hours to our travel.

Through various delays, all we got was misinformation and a shrug of shoulders saying that there is nothing more they can do at this point. No apologies at all and no help unless you put up a good long fight for your rights and demand to see their superiors.

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After a sleepless night, we finally found the most comfortable place to spend our (hopefully only) 16 hours trapped in airport!

During our long hours of waiting and agonies in the airports, we can’t help but wonder: how can the airline be so arrogant? Who protects air travellers’ rights?  

  • Travelling from EU with any airlines or to EU with EU airlines: You are in luck! EU laws has specific rules that protect your rights: http://www.caa.co.uk/default.aspx?catid=2211&pagetype=90&pageid=15443 Besides accommodation, food and Internet access, the airlines are obligated to compensate you for the travel delays depending on the length of your travel and the delays. You should try to file the complaint with the airline first. You can also file complaint through CAA or other private agencies that are specialized in air travel compensations.
  • Other cases: Most of the countries ratify Montreal Convention 1999 (http://www.jus.uio.no/lm/air.carriage.unification.convention.montreal.1999/) although the treaty mandates airline to compensate travellers for delays, it does not specify the amount and the means to compensate. Some countries may have their own laws protecting travellers’ rights but most of the developing countries do not! That is why airlines like Avianca treat their clients with utter lack of respect. It is best to travel with reputable airlines so if things go wrong, you are not left at mercy of the airlines. Check the reviews for airlines for the country you are travelling to before you decide.

Travel Insurance: Most policies include some sort of compensation though it may not come to much, but the cover appears to be most commonly (and certainly for our policies) limited to actual expenses occurred for things not provided by the airline. This could include; food, accommodation and taxis to a hotel etc. But it does not normally include compensation for things like; your time and loss of earnings, reduced comfort of travel because you are trapped in an airport without luggage etc. Check the small print!

What to do when thing do go wrong?

CAA is a very good reference: http://www.caa.co.uk/default.aspx?catid=2226. From our experiences, it is also helpful to take photos of the announcement boards at the airport that indicate your flight is delayed and note down the names of the employees who you spoke to.

We hope you all have better luck flying than us! And avoid Avianca at all costs!!