“The Worst Airline in the World”: A Reply to Elizabeth Spiers

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Simulated journalism: TV Globo puts a pilot in front of a (Sino-Paraguayan, no doubt) copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator and reports the results.
Ecce TV Globo.

Apparently, much as TAM has cut back on service-desk personnel, leaving passengers out of the information loop and desperate, the Washington Post is now cutting costs by using bloggers instead of real journalists. Real journalists source their information, for example. I am having a hard time finding a single sourcing statement for any of the factoids you trot out.

We need a communications policy and an ongoing dialogue with the mass media that will guarantee that the sense of risk is proportionate to the actual risk. –Rio de Janeiro mayor Cesar Maia.

[U.S.] air travel deteriorated this summer from a combination of severe weather, especially in June, an aging, [an] overtaxed air-traffic-control system and record-high load factors on flights. When storms broke out, the air-traffic-control system couldn’t keep up, and passengers of canceled flights had trouble finding seats since so many tickets had been sold. … changes [designed to cope with these facts] will drive costs higher for airlines. But they reflect a new reality: Late flights, stranded travelers, misconnected luggage and angry customers all have a price, too. And congestion in the skies is likely only to get worse.“Airlines Apply Lessons of Bummer Summer,” W$J, Sept. 4, 2007

Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas
And I have learned how these things work together
I see the parkway that passes through them all
And I have learned how to look at these things and say
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me I couldn’t live like that, no siree!

–Talking Heads, “The Big Country”

Dear Elizabeth Spiers,

Brazilian journo Paulo Henrique Amorim reproduced your article on why TAM is the worst airline in the world on his Conversa Afiada Web log on Brazil’s iG news portal.

I just read it.

I think you are exaggerating, cooking up phony comparisons not even based on soft numbers, and in general engaging in gabbling glittering generalities.

Have a look at the air disaster rates at http://www.airdisaster.com/statistics/, just to start with. First source of actual information that I googled up.

In 2004, the airlines with the highest accident rates in Latin America are Cubana and Aeromexico. TAM and Gol were not even in the top 10, but have each had one fatal mishap since then.

An American Airlines airbus, on the other hand, went down over Long Island in 2001, killing 260. The airline has had six fatal mishaps since 1993, and 16 in its history. I am not sure about this, but I think this might have been TAM’s second — the last being the crash of a Fokker in 1996.

So come on, Elizabeth, be honest: Have you ever actually flown any of the other truly bad airlines of the world?

Aeroflot for example? Done much time in those aging Tupolevs they tool around Russia and the Ukraine in?

So I challenge your comparative methodology, first of all. Establish your bona fides as a dedicated student of bad air travel experiences.

Look, we live in Brazil ourselves, and fly fairly regularly both here and there — back and forth along the Rio-Sampa air bridge, and up and down the coast from Porto Alegre to Salvador and points in between, like Belo Horizonte. (Manaus is a bit of an advanced travel experience, however, requiring careful planning and preparation, so we have not done that yet. )

And we do not really observe the dramatic differences you allege.

In our experience, commercial aviation is dismal all over the hemisphere these days — although actually some of the Northeastern Brazilian airports, like Recife and the refurbished Magalhães in Salvador, have gotten much more navigable for the average passenger.

You want to experience a real Latin American travel nightmare? Schedule yourself a flight with a layover in Panama. Yeesh.

And read up sometime on the state of airport modernization in Colombia. They have very similar problems, both with terminals and runways.

And our own FAA recently announced a vast, systematic maintenance review of our runways as well. With the bridge collapse in cheesehead country and the TAM disaster in Brazil, and the “radar wars” in Argentina, and so on, everyone in the hemisphere seems to be thinking it’s a good idea to make sure these aging systems are up to snuff now.

The W$J, for example, had an excellent series recently on “Infrastructure Woes: How Bad Is It?” They dug into the hard numbers in an attempt to help us figure out whether (1) the end of the world really is imminent or (2) we can eke out personal survival by packing an extra sweater and a sleeping bag and making sure we have a Plan B.

An example from our own experience:

When our VASP flight from Recife lost our luggage last year or the year before — I forget — it took them 8 hours to return it to us, dispatching a courier to bring it to our house.

When our American Airlines flight lost our luggage this week — we were heading to San Francisco, and the conveyor belt at the $1.3 billion new terminal was not working — it took them 28 hours to get it to our hotel.

AA failed to use its PA system to inform anyone on the flight that the luggage was lost. They just let us all mill around for an hour going, “Huh? Wha?”

The service-counter personnel went to lunch during the claims process, leaving a long and winding queue of passengers grumbling and cussing into their cell phones.

People were really, really mad.

WE were really, really mad. So we took a deep breath and then we adapted and we overcame. Illegitimi non carborundum and all that.

What’s more, en route, AA’s inflight information system caused a minor panic among the passengers by indicating that we were heading to LAX, not SFO.

When they went to fix it, the revised flight profile starting indicating that we were now heading to Paris, France.

They finally got it right about an hour out of SFO. A kind purser with a French accent tumbled to the misinformation, got on the horn and repeatedly and calmly reassured everybody that the computer was just having a brain fart and that were all going to get to where we thought we were going.

So really, I think, if you look at the bigger picture, and crunch the hard and soft numbers a little, the Brazilian market and the U.S. air travel markets turn out to be fairly comparable, and are experiencing comparable effects on the level of service.

In Brazil, you have industry consolidation down to a duopoly. Rent-seeking behavior is enabled. Passenger service suffers as a result.

Similar situation in the U.S.

The Brazilian press constantly makes a huge stink over the rate of flight delays, which averages, according to ANAC statistics I saw, in the area of 30%.

It’s chaos! The sky is falling!

But last December, according to federal statistics, more than 40% of U.S. domestic flights were delayed. Half of them by weather. Some airlines had rates in the range of 60%-70%.

So as I am always telling my Brazilian journalist friends, it is astonishing to me that not one single report on the native aviation sector that I have read so far — and I try to read most everything on the subject — compares the Brazilian sector with sectors of comparable complexity and traffic volume elsewhere in the world.

ANAC, the Tupi FAA, is partly to blame because of the lousy statistics it publishes, but if you look at just a few of the hard numbers, you just might find fewer reasons to wax so hysterical.

Didn’t you used to blog for Nick Denton?

It kind of shows, I think.

You had some minor hassles on your travels, you are outrageously indignant at having been inconvenienced, and you have generalized them hysterically, repeating a bunch of stuff that somebody else told you. Without saying who it was.

In other words, your reporting was not much above the standards adhered by a certain kind of Brazilian journalist of the “Novo Lacerda” school.

Apparently, much as TAM has cut back on service-desk personnel, often leaving passengers out of the information loop, the Washington Post is cutting costs by using rumor-mongering bloggers instead of real journalists. Real journalists source their information, for example. I am having a hard time finding a single sourcing statement for any of the factoids you trot out.

Brazil already has plenty of the kind of journalism you are practicing here, so I imagine they will not lose sleep over your “never again” manifesto.

I mean, look, I am certainly not going to defend TAM here. I have been watching the local newsflow on the incident closely, and it seems that the pressure to keep Congonhas operating — pilots call its 5km landing strip (average runways elsewhere in Brazil are 6km-8km) “the aircraft carrier” — was shameful. It seems that those who noted the erosion of safety margins for the record with ANAC were simply ignored. See

Still, rather than swearing off Brazil forever — there are amazing things to see there and fabulous people to meet — you might try flying Gol next time. They are not exactly Air Force One, but we have yet to have a really nightmarish experience with them, either. They operate these very comfy Embraer regional jets and they generally get you there.

With one really awful exception so far, as we all know.

Taking the bus is another option, by the way. Unlike the Trailways-Greyhound monopoly we have in Gringoland, the Brazilian bus sector is diverse and competitive, and there are some good, comfortable options to be had. Executive coaches, ónibus-leito. Roll through the vast, rolling, pre-Cambrian Minas countryside while reading a good book.

It does require a traveling companion who speaks the language, but it is worth the trouble, we find. If you know what you are doing. São Geraldo, for example, is a busline to be avoided — though it is no worse than Greyhound, really. Actually somewhat comparable — you will see rural bus stations and roadside attractions that will astonish, and possibly repel, you, but you will also find most of them with restrooms in very decent shape, at least — but with more comfortable seats, at least.

Having local sources of information can also help you avoid the tourist traps and grotty hotel experiences that you allude to (which you can also find in abundance in Jamaica, Queens, by the way, as we also know from experience).

If you are ever in São Paulo, we could give you some tips on some very decent and affordable accomodations in good, safe neighborhoods. And pack you off to some coastal rainforest pousadas that you will be astonished by.

If we decide you deserve to share this jealously guarded secret, that is. There are some places we prefer to keep for ourselves. If we wanted to travel to the jungles and tropical coasts of South America just to hang around with a lot of pissy, kvetching gringos just like we have (and are, to be fair) back home, we would have booked a Club Med.

In short, we are no more — or less — afraid to fly in Brazil than in the United States, really.

Next week, for example, we are flying TAM on the JFK-São Paulo route. It can be, yes, an unpleasant cattle-car experience. But no more so, really, than the infamous AA midnight flights. We find.

And hey, the price was right, and we will be landing at Cumbica-Guarulhos, which is actually a pretty decent airport, we read. Unless they divert us to Viracopos in Campinas (where TAM is supposed to provide you with ground transport, but often does not. So do your homework, and have a Plan B.)

Our neighbor is going to pick us up.

We have really, really nice neighbors. We all help each other out — even though, for example, some of us are holy-rolling pentecostals who think some of the rest of us are probably going straight to hell for listening to all that rock ‘n’ roll. Or, in the case of some other neighbors, worshipping dark African gods.

No matter. We mind our own business and care for our own souls by trying to follow the Jesus Christ, Superstar Prime Directive as best we know how.

So please:

The real world is not the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland.

Adapt and overcome. Try a little tenderness and common courtesy. This kind of gabbling Ugly Americanism just makes it harder for guys like me to strike up conversations at local cocktail parties. I have to make a point of emphasizing that people like you and Larry Rohter are not close personal friends of mine.

Regards,

Colin Brayton
Brooklyn/São Paulo

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