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This is by far the most challenging flight report I have ever written. So much so, that I'm trying to build something coherent upon the ashes of a previous, aborted Sky Airline flight that I had booked as a way to celebrate what I thought would be the beginning of the end of the pandemic when the vaccination program started in my country, but came down in flames after my town was put in a quarantine.
Yes. The first six months of 2021 were like a crazy roller coaster, going up and down from phase to phase of the government plan to manage the pandemic, and many plans simply had to be cancelled even when things seemed to be beginning to improve.
En fin, even though my intention is to document what flying was like in times of pandemic, I'll try to keep things as simple as possible.
Everything started last…
I have just learned that my country will embark in a Covid-19 vaccination campaign. According to this calendario de vacunación released by the Health Ministry, vaccination will proceed by age groups, starting with those aged 90 and more. Health workers and other essential staff will also be vaccinated first.
The name of the vaccination program is Yo Me Vacuno (I Get Vaccinated) Here's a screenshot of the Health Ministry website.
I feel so relieved! I'll be able to fly again! My first impulse is grabbing my cellphone and planning my next flight. A flight just for the fun of it! A flight to celebrate that Chile has made headlines for its vaccination program and the end of the pandemic is in sight!
I tell my family about my plans. They just stare at me with blank faces for a minute and then go back to what they were doing, shaking their heads slowly. I can almost read their minds: "We lost him. A long time ago."
Anyway, they won't ruin my joy, even though I'm a bit worried by the fact that the government has insisted that school must start on March 1st, despite teachers not being included in their list of essential workers in order to be vaccinated promptly. I have no intention to lock myself in a classroom with a group of potentially asymptomatic virus-transmitting teenagers. I have told my family that I'm willing to quit my job and sell sopaipillas in the street for a living if the government insists in starting the school year before teachers have got both doses.
Good news!! After lots of pressure, the President has announced that teachers will be vaccinated from next Monday!
If I get the first dose next week, I should be fit to fly by mid April. Woo - hoo!
The vaccination program for teachers has started!
So… the time has come! The big day is here!!
Of course! I'm purchasing my ticket!
I think I'll fly Sky Airline from Osorno for a change. April 17 will be OK. That will give me enough time to have a strong immune system after getting my second dose.
Just some clicks and Pago exitoso! (Successful payment)
Bon voyage, Pilpintu!
Ahh… life is good.
Just for the record, just like any other airline around the world, Sky has been forced to make changes to their policies during the pandemic.
These are the requirements to fly within Chile as of February 2021. Unfortunately, I didn't find an English language version.
So, everything is ready for my flight. I have my ticket, and I will get my jab this week.
OR SO I THOUGHT!
I will never learn to read carefully before acting.
In this opportunity, I have read the news about the vaccination for teachers this morning, but I don't have a look at the official vaccination schedule until after lunch. As I said, teachers would be vaccinated starting today…
…but not ALL teachers!!!!
Teachers will be vaccinated by age group, too! And the whole first week will be dedicated to those over 60! So God knows when it will be my turn!
When I see the calendar I'm like…
What will I do?! On one hand, school will start in two weeks. On the other… my flight!!
I see dark clouds in the horizon.
The next day - Tuesday 16 - my sister and I accompany our mom to get vaccinated. I'm so relieved, so thankful. My worry for her has been wrecking my nerves for a whole year.
I take the chance to approach the lady at the reception desk in the clinic. I ask her if I can get the jab.
"Sorry. It's not your turn today."
I argue that I live with my mother, so I'm officially her carer and I should be vaccinated.
But I have comorbidities! I'm overweight, prone to developing bronchitis, er… high blood sugar and blood pressure. I wouldn't have a chance against covid-19 if I caught it!
But that woman has no heart.
I keep an eye on the Health Ministry Twitter account. How is it possible that they'll spend a whole week vaccinating teachers who are older than 60? As if half the teachers in Chile were over 60!!
Eventually, almost at midnight, they update their calendar. My turn comes on Wednesday 24.
Phew! That's soon enough.
A colleague gives me a nice surprise via WhatsApp:
She: "Did you get the jab?"
Me: Next Wednesday.
She: They are vaccinating ALL teachers today.
She: Have a look at the city council's website.
And this is what I find: In spite of the request from the central government for city mayors to attach to the official vaccination calendar, Valdivia's mayor made arrangements for all the local teachers older than 40 to be vaccinated at once. I have to be at the Coliseo (the municipal sports center) at 2.
I call an Uber and get there in minutes! I see I'm not the only one interested.
About an hour later, this certifies that I got the first dose. I should get the second one on March 15, which means that I should be fit to fly by April 17! Woo - hoo!
Yes. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand that Valdivia + cuarentena + total = very bad news for me. In spite of the speedy vaccination process, infection rates soared after the summer holidays and my city will go into strict lockdown on Thursday 4 - and eventually will stay like that for two months!! Boo - hoo….
And that's how my celebratory flight crashes even before taking off. :'''(
I can't leave the city unless I have a very good reason, and flying to celebrate the vaccination program is not one of them. So I ask Sky Airline for a return, and they give me a voucher that I can use within the next 365 days.
In spite of all this, there's a chance that things will get better before my next scheduled flight - my winter holidays, which I have been planning since last year. Yes, call me an optimistic pilpintu.
In the middle of this rapture and hope for a quick end of the pandemic I decide the circumstances are ideal to start planning my next winter holidays.
I have visited almost all places around major commercial airports in Chile. One of the few still remaining is Calama, which is not a tourist destination in itself. In fact, it's no destination for ANYONE at all, except for boorish, foul-mouthed miners from the huge copper and lithium mines (who - I've heard - visit the city only when in need of some company. And I'm not talking about the Mining Company)
That's why you'll find that Calama's airport is conveniently located just south of the city, from where a transfer van will take you straight to San Pedro de Atacama - a tiny picturesque town - skillfully circumventing the city in order to avoid any damage to your venerable retinas.
From San Pedro de Atacama you can visit a range of tourist attractions in the heart of the Atacama desert, or in the (very high) heights of the Andes.
But we'll leave that for some future tourism bonuses.
For the time being we'll deal with leg 1 of 4 of this trip. The complete schedule goes like this:
LATAM • Valdivia > Santiago • Premium Eco (You are here)
Sky Airline • Santiago > Calama • Economy
Sky Airline • Calama > Santiago • Economy
LATAM • Santiago > Valdivia • Premium Eco
A week in San Pedro de Atacama will be enough to get acquainted with the beauty of the desert and the mountains without being away from Rucio (my cat) and Klaus (my dog) for too long, so I think that leaving on Tuesday, July 13 and coming back on Friday 23 will do. Well, that's more than a week, but I have some important stuff to do around Santiago before going home.
So Tuesday 13 it will be.
LATAM informs that - due to the pandemic - all tickets bought since last October are flexible. You can make changes without paying a multa.
Two flights leave from Valdivia on Tuesday 13. Quite a lot for such a small town. The price is less than 30USD.
"Our planes include… seatback screen?" Never on domestic flights in Chile, at least. "Light menu with an extra charge, depending on the cabin"? I'm not sure if those in the Economy cabin had to pay for their coffee. Mercado Latam seems to be defunct.
I'm traveling to a place with temperatures below zero at night and as warm as 23°C by day, so I need light and warm clothes. Will a backpack and a small bag be enough? I'll take the risk.
Not many people are planning their holidays this early, it seems. I pick seat 24F.
And I'm done! LATAM rewards me with an improbable - almost oneiric - sight of Santiago under a clear sky. Don't try to fool me, LATAM. I know that you can't see the tip of your nose in Santiago because of the smog this time of year. And we have been in a drought for over a decade, so there's almost no snow on the mountains.
LATAM has a little surprise for me. They cancel my flight and suggest I take one the day before. Gee. Well, one more day won't harm. I guess I can talk to my Airbnb host.
My flight back home was also cancelled, but the alternative is just one hour later. It's OK.
Then, on February 26, they hit me with this:
They make no suggestions for an alternative flight this time, but I head to their website and pick flight LA0241 for the same date at 14:05.
I understand that we are in a very particular situation. It's been a tough time for airlines, so all these changes are comprehensible. I'll keep my fingers crossed and hope there will be no more changes that might ruin my trip.
"We can't let him get away with his peace of mind," LATAM say. So on March 1st they drop another bombshell. Outbound flight modified…
…and inbound flight modified, too.
Is this some kind of psychological warfare, LATAM? Here they go again on May 27…
STOP IT, LATAM!!! Have some mercy for my nerves!!
They seem to offer a truce and invite me to bid for an upgrade.
An upgrade? On a domestic flight in Chile? That's something completely unheard of. Cabins have always been full Y down here.
They offer a blocked middle seat, exclusive baggage bin, and a "preferential experience at the airport."
I'm sold. I'm bidding… 15 bucks. Yes. I hear you laughing, but I didn't pay 10 to carry an extra bag, so this is real generosity on my part.
Few days before my holidays I'm told that my bid has been transferred. My flight was rescheduled for the umpteenth time, this time to its original date - Tuesday 13. Gosh.
Early the morning before my flight, I'm notified that I'm flying on Premium Economy!
Who would have said. Pilpintu flying on a cabin other than Y for the first time EVER.
Well, it might not mean a single lousy extra point in flight-report.com's member status system, but it still is a giant leap for a budget traveler.
Let's see how it goes.
Mom and sis drive Pilpintu to the airport this morning to minimize exposure to the virus.
I was expecting crowds outside the terminal building, as has become normal outside any shop or public building during the pandemic. But no. I'm welcomed by two Health Ministry officials who ask for my pase de movilidad - certifying that I have got both doses of the vaccine - and my pasaporte sanitario - a sworn statement of fitness for traveling, which is obtained online. Valdivia is currently in fase 2 of the government plan to contain the virus, which means that only those who have got both doses can travel between regions (the Chilean equivalent of states or provinces)
Once my papers are checked, the official outside shouts fiscalizado! to the officials inside the building (those two figures you see at the far end) and they let me in.
Of course, wearing a mask is mandatory.
Airports should learn that an information desk makes all the difference. In a previous flight from ZAL I almost missed my flight because I didn't know if I should queue up or go straight to security check. This time that plump lady at the salida (exit) prevents me from queuing up in the line for the next Sky Airline flight.
Don't blame her for the extra kilos. We have all put on a lot of weight during the pandemic, especially in Valdivia, where the aforementioned sopaipillas are a staple on cold, rainy days, i.e. most days.
Safety check has not opened yet, so Sky Airline and LATAM passengers start to crowd the small hall.
But we still keep our social distance, you see? We're an obedient, orderly bunch. I find a nice place at the bottom of the hall, by the baggage claim exit.
Talking of baggage, this is LATAM's light fare baggage allowance. With the cheapest fare - basic - I could carry the red bag only.
Oh, the Sky Airline flight has arrived and the baggage claim doors have been opened. It will soon be turn for LATAM's passengers to go to the boarding room…
…so I'll pay a visit to the landside restroom first. I still remember the bad, smelly experience in the airside restroom!
I had never seen such a spacious restroom! Well, this corner used to be a cafeteria years ago.
Half an hour later all Sky passengers have gone…
…and it's our turn to go through security check. This is airside now.
The same as landside, every other seat has been clearly marked with yellow boundary tape reading No pasar (No tresspassing)…
…and other messages asking to keep your social distance and stating that "we care for each other."
CC-AZF is still sitting on the apron. I suppose they're giving the saftey speech and that kind of stuff.
Sky Airline has this brand new A320 neo fleet but, as we'll see in the next report, it does not guarantee the best experience.
Time passes quickly in our socially-distanced boarding room. One minute after 4…
…I can hear the roar of our avión landing outside.
Seeing them pulling into the gate…
is always an experience…
While the staff get to work outside…
…we scramble inside. Let's see what my Premium Economy experience will be like. My boarding pass says I'm in group 1.
Hmf. I'm not feeling very exclusive today. About half the passengers in the boarding room queue up in this line!
We have to wait a little in the jetbridge…
…which gives me time to check that ZAL is in real need of a manito de gato. In fact, I reported this previously.
C'mon, ZAL! Are you waiting for the jetbridge to fall into pieces before you do something??
Aerocardal is a Chilean airline I have not tried yet. They make short flights around Patagonia.
There you are, CC-… gasp!
Er… So I'm going to fly in… in one of those??
Take that, Jeff Bezos!!
This is it. Blocked middle seat…
…and quite a lot of legroom.
However, I have always been wary of first rows because my feet always bump into something when I want to stretch my legs. Even with all this legroom my knees would begin to hurt in long flights if I am not able to stretch my legs.
As a precaution, I clean the whole seat, the tray table, and the wall and the window next to me with disinfectant towels. Compare the used towel with an unused one. Shocking!
After a Spanish-only safety speech (they only thing they say in English is that you can find the instructions in the safety card in front of you) we head for the runway…
…and take off punctually.
Ahh… So delightful! I was so scared I would never see the world from above again.
In a matter of seconds we are swallowed by the low clouds…
…and quickly emerge above them.
Beautiful! I'm happy to see volcanoes Villarrica, Quetrupillán and Lanín again.
In a couple of minutes we're flying above Temuco…
…and the onboard service starts. I'm offered some Juan Valdéz coffee (superb)…
…a bag of Tika crisps made of red and blue potatoes from Chiloé island…
…an apple - cinnamon cereal bar that is more like fudge than cereal (very good, anyway)…
…and a disinfectant towel.
I'm curious about the plain economy cabin. I see there is some sort of service for them, but I wonder what's the difference with Premium Economy. The crisps? Not the blocked middle seat. There are lots of vacant middle seats today!
One thing is for sure. There's no Mercado LATAM announced today. It seems to be defunct.
For the rest of the flight I just enjoy myself as the cabin gets flooded with the golden hues of the sun setting behind the Cordillera de la Costa.
Down there, the toxic cloud of smog that usually covers the Santiago valley this time of year.
We make it to SCL at 6 sharp.
Wonderful. I bid farewell to CC-COK and emerge at gate 23B of the domestic terminal, precisely the place that will be my house and bedroom for the next 12 hours.
Yes, I'm planning to spend the night here. My next flight to Calama departs at 6 a.m. There's no point in exposing yourself unnecessarily traveling to and from Santiago if you can stay in the domestic boarding room at SCL. It's really comfortable. You have plenty of services…
…like my beloved Maxi-K…
…with its prices abnormally low for an airport…
…a chicken sandwich for 1500CLP, for God's sake! (2USD)…
…and nice corners to sleep, like this soft cushioned seat at the far end of the room, where nobody will bother you (or so I thought until now. Look at that guy in a baseball cap on the left. I learned to hate him)
In the meantime, not wanting to go to bed with an empty stomach, I head for McDonald's and order something light. I bang my fist softly on the counter when I order a TRIPLE - grand - mcnífica…
…and a diet Coke, please.
Thanks for reading! :)
This flight should be in all newspapers - Pilpintu flying a class other than Y for the very first time! Was it worth the extra 15 bucks? Hm... maybe. At least I made sure that the middle seat would be blocked, which was an imperative for me in these times of pandemic. I'm not so sure about the rest of the experience. I didn't notice any special treatment at the airport (my group boarded along with two other groups), and the snack for the economy and premium economy classes must have been quite similar - a cup of coffee and something else.