High Flying in Brazil

Last week, I returned home to Brazil, and was struck once again by how pleasant it is to fly in this country. My Continental flight from Newark actually managed to arrive around 45 minutes early at Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo. As I was breezing through customs, immigration, and baggage claim – all smooth sailing, as is usually the case – a gaping 5-hour wait at the airport for my connecting flight to Salvador loomed before me.

Ignoring the temptations of Duty Free – (Brazilian airports allow international travelers access to Duty Free shops upon their arrival, as well as prior to departure) – super-strong cafezinho, and melt-in-your-mouth pães de queijo – I sped up to the TAM check-in counter and within seconds was steered to a “Lista de Espera” (Waiting List) counter where within 5 minutes, I was given a new boarding pass for a flight departing within the hour and my luggage was dispatched. Did I mention I didn’t have to pay for the privilege of switching my flight?

While in the U.S., journeying through the skies has become about as appealing as a long slog in a Greyhound bus, Brazil still clings to the concept of air travel as a special experience in which passengers pay to be pampered.

When I boarded the small, but spacious aircraft, where I had the luxury of three sprawling faux-leather seats to myself, a charming flight attendant passed around a basket chock full of old-school, chewy caramels – twice! Once in the air, a warm snack – ham and mozzarella sandwich on beet (!) bread – was bracketed by service of complimentary drinks (including a choice of three local beers). While nursing my dark Xingu ale (elected “Best Dark Beer in the World in by All About Beer magazine), I leafed through the TAM Nas Nuvens in-flight magazine, a thick, glossy, photo-studded affair, next to which my scrawny Continental magazine was a but a sad little pamphlet.

You get the point. While in the U.S., journeying through the skies has become about as appealing as a long slog in a Greyhound bus, Brazil still clings to the concept of air travel as a special experience in which passengers pay to be pampered. Of course, this ethos is in large part a hangover from the fact that, until 10 years ago, flying was largely a privilege of the upper classes, the only ones who could fork out the lofty sums commanded by the 2 or 3 national airlines that presided over Brazil’s airspace.

However, the booming of the economy, which propelled millions of Brazilians into the lower echelons of the “middle class,” coupled with the arrival on the scene of a handful of leanly run charter airlines that proceeded to undercut inefficiently-run old dinosaurs such as VARIG and VASP (both of whom bit the dust), made the Brazilian skies a much more democratic place. With more companies competing for an expanding number of passengers, fares plunged (it also helps that in Brazil, those with credit cards can pay for airfares in up to 12 (or more) monthly installments. Overnight, people whose most intimate airplane experience was watching dignitaries alight from private jets on the nightly news were flying down to Rio (and other points) with the crème de la crème.

For a while, there was too much traffic – line-ups were endemic as were late and canceled flights. However, in the last couple of years, expanded airports, re-routings, and new hubs have made flying in Brazil a much more streamlined experience. And I’m not just talking in terms of efficiency. There are also the attitudes (or lack thereof) of the professionals working both on and off the ground.

Overall, airline crews and airport staff, customs and immigration officials, are amazingly pleasant, unofficious, and courteous. They don’t scream at you to take your shoes off more quickly (in fact, you don’t even have to take off your shoes when you go through security). Nor do they subject you to Inquisition-worthy questions such as “Where does your mother live?”, “What does she do?” and “Why are you visiting her?”

Oh, and have I mentioned the fact that there are no luggage fees for either your two carry-ons or your two checked bags?

Heavenly…

Currently, there are 6 national airlines operating in Brazil:

TAM
Gol
Azul
(Brazilian version of JetBlue)
WebJet
Trip
Avianca Brasil

If you’re planning a trip, check out their websites for promotional fares (TAM, Gol, and Avianca Brasil all have English sites).

Meanwhile, for up-to-date news and information, in English, concerning Brazilian airlines and airports as well as help finding cheap flight to, from, and around Brazil, check out D Airfare, a great site run by Brazilian travel specialists Rodrigo Purisch and Tony Gálvez (who contributed fabulous photographs to Moon Brazil).

(Note: the aerial arrival in Rio de Janeiro featured in the clip is accompanied by Samba do Avião (Airplane Samba), a soaring composition by Tom Jobim, whose lyrics describe his joy at flying over Rio and landing at Galeão airport (which now, suitably, bears the name Aeroporto Tom Jobim in his homage). The song is interpreted by Miúcha, who is not only a member of Brazilian musical royalty – she’s the sister of Chico Buarque, ex-wife of João Gilberto, and mother of Bebel Gilberto – but an accomplished singer in her own right.

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