Is TAM the Worst Airline in the World? Further Data Points

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Is Brazil’s TAM Airlines the worst airline in the world?

Elizabeth Spiers wrote recently in the Washington Post that it was.

I begged to differ, mostly because I questioned whether Spiers has adequate experience of lousy airlines to be slinging around superlatives based on travel nightmares that really did not seem different in kind or degree to what we ourselves have experienced flying outside of Brazil. See

On the other hand, notice that I did not say that TAM Airlines is the world’s best airline either, or even that it was adequate.

Brazilian TV news, as I have mentioned before, delights in showing lurid scenes of road-rage at TAM counters when flights are cancelled or delayed or when reliable information is not forthcoming in a timely manner.

In our experience, as I noted there, you experience many of the same technical fubars traveling in Brazil that you do in the United States. Lost luggage, flight delays, overbooking, poor communication, labyrinthine routes inside the airport without proper signage. All that nonsense.

What may set arguably set TAM apart, we think — we do not have the widest basis for comparison, but we do travel a fair amount — is the human factor.

It can sometimes seem like the employees of U.S. airlines and airports are scandalously indifferent to your fear, uncertainty, doubt, disorientation and weariness.

I am sure this is probably true in other countries as well, and may vary from facility to facility. (Houston, for example, Neuza and I agree, is quite an airport.)

Dealing with TAM today, however, we found ourselves faced with one of those situations in which someone seems to be experiencing active sadistic satisfaction at making things worse.

Not the check-in clerk, mind you, who was a perfectly proper and polite young woman. Her freaking supervisor.

Now, we may have mentioned that we are exporting Iggy to Brazil, where we hope he will be happy hunting lizards and basking on the laje with Aladdin and Chouchou for the rest of his days. I was against it, but Neuza had her heart set on it, so off we go. See also

Here are the instructions for checking the beast in for embaque [sic], from TAM’s [spelling-challenged] Web site:

Para solicitar sua reserva, contacte nossa Central de Atendimento . O prazo limite para solicitação de reserva de seu animal é de até 24 horas antes do vôo;

To request your reservation, contact our Service Center. The deadline for requesting a reservation for your animal is up to 24 hours prior to your flight.

Após confirmação do embarque pela nossa Central de Atendimento, compareça com 03 horas de antecedência ao vôo reservado; …

After getting confirmation of your embarkation from our Service Center, show up 3 hours prior to your reserved flight …

That is all it says on the subject.

We followed those sketchy instructions, and showed up this morning with all our complex paperwork in order.

The cat is thoroughly acclimated to his Society of Cat Fanciers feline transportation module and actually seems to enjoy hotel life (though for the life of us we cannot understand how hotels can bill themselves as ‘pet-friendly” and not provide a litter box. Not even one of those disposable ones you can buy at the supermarket for $3.)

What we seem to have misunderstood from our dealings with TAM is what constituted a confirmation, and the ready availability of checking the beast as baggage as Plan B. We thought we had been assured that Plan B was available in any event.
Clearly, we would not have reserved a flight that did not have a space available for the cat.

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What Iggy taught me in the ten years we have shared a chow bowl: “Adapt and overcome, mother*@&#!!”

In its instructions for traveling with pets, for example, American Airlines makes the following fairly clear:

… capacity is sometimes reached, and checked pets are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Define “sometimes.”

What is confusing — and risky for the traveler — is that the pet carry-on cannot, apparently, be booked at the same time you reserve the flight.

In other words, you pay up front for a service which the airline may or may not be able to provide you.

What we understood, however, was that once we made the reservation, we could make the request for bicho carry-on and learn immediately whether we could be accomodated.

So we made our reservations well in advance and called immediately to serve a spot for the Igmonster.

First come, first served, correct?

Apparently that was not enough.

As we discovered when we showed up at the gate this morning.

The attitude of this TAM supervisor seemed to be that if we misunderstood, this was because we are stupid, stupid, stupid.

We had faced the litmus test of social Darwinism and were found wanting.

Worse, when we asked her what she could do to assist us, she launched into a reflexive list of all the things that she could not do for us. With a smirk on her face.

She also apparently disinformed us, informing that our error had been trying to reserve the carry-on cat through the U.S. 1-800 number.

Only the São Paulo office could handle requests to embark small beasts as hand luggage, she told us, launching into an explanation of why TAM’s convoluted organizational chart makes this so. She seemed proud of the absurd fact that, as she (dis)informed us, you cannot call a number in the U.S. to reserve a space on a flight departing from there.

Because, see, we had been informed otherwise, including by TAM’s U.S. service line and personnel at its New York office.

And by the nice Uruguayan lady in line with us, with a small dog that Iggy was deeply inclined to maul. (Iggy hates freaking dogs. Memories of his misspent youth as a street-fighting cat in the Bronx.)

Then, when we arrived at the reservation desk to try to book a later flight today, we were informed that we had not been misinformed, as the TAM supervisor had disinformed us.

Or had we? We are still getting conflicting stories on this. When we called to São Paulo from JFK, the office there put us on hold. For 15 minutes. The muzak: “The Girl from Ipanema.” Over and over again.

So we have retired to the Ramada Inn JFK for the day — where the WiFi service, by StayOnline, works like a charm, by the way, unlike most of the hotel and airport WiFi we have “war-driven” on this trip — in order to phone around to get things straightened out.

With luck, we will get on a flight this evening. If not, we will work something out. If we had a smaller contigency fund, however, we would be totally, totally upgefukt.

One of the wisest things I have heard anyone say about the so-called “air travel crisis” in Brazil is that many Brazilian terminals and airlines are not state of the art in terms of information systems.

It reminds me of a segment we saw on Globo’s Fantástico earlier this year on a researcher in Minas Gerais working on humane cattle chutes for slaughterhouses.

Because what really upset me about this morning’s bagunça was the panic reaction it inspired in my wife.

Neuza had labored heroically to get this transaction together, fretted endlessly over it, and found herself with her pulse racing and on the verge of tears to be told that somehow she had not done something right.

Normally, I am the more hysteria-prone of the two of us, but at such moments we tend to trade off roles.

So yes, this seemed like a peculiarly Brazilian moment to me in some ways: You try so hard to do everything right only to get screwed with a smirk by some gabbling martinet with a rubber stamp just short of your goal.

Is it any wonder that Brazilians have evolved the famous jeitinho? (Related item today in the Estado de S. Paulo: Chinese trade negotiators tell Brazilian diplomats that if Brazilian labor law were not so absurd they would be more eager to invest there.)

I mean, look, my wife is a college-educated responsible adult. Less college-educated than I am, but more responsible, practical and organized. We know how to follow instructions and color inside the lines. This does not make us immune to confusion and error, such as all naked apes are prone to, of course. But we are reasonably well-trained in methods for minimizing those risks.

All we needed was a detailed — and accurate — checklist of what to do. What we actually got was (1) vague information, (2) conflicting stories about what that information implied in practical terms, (3) smirking attitude and (4) elaborate excuses rather than clear instructions on how to proceed.

Note to TAM: When investing in new information systems, invest in employee wetware.

And try to promote public-facing service personnel based on a demonstrated capacity for sympathy, courtesy, and detail-orientation.

Heros of Soviet labor so far today: The van driver from our hotel this morning, the young woman at the hotel booking desk in Terminal 4 at JFK, and the Ramada’s shuttle driver.

And, to be fair, the young woman at the TAM reservation desk we were sent to next, who was at least polite, efficient, honest with us about what we had to do next, and apologetic about the confusion. Despite the fact that she was obviously having a bad day handling a long line of people who had dealt with the same perua from hell we had just dealt with.

It is often the case in Brazil — and not only Brazil, I imagine — that the quality of labor is actually quite good. Our construction guy at home, for example, is astonishingly hard-working, organized, honest and diplomatic.

The weak link: management.

Signs of the decline of the work ethic generally in bourgeois capitalism, therefore: the TAM supervisor — who did not give her name and did not seem to be wearing a name-tag.

She was blonde, but not really. She was exceedingly unpleasant to my wife. She was on duty in Terminal 4 at 6:30 am.

May she be transferred to a job selling tickets at the bus station in Ô do Borogodô.

Seriously: Give me 5 billion dollars, a license to do business in Brazil, and labor laws that allow me to bork or demote the incompetent. I will hire you a bunch of talented, currently unemployed but highly overqualified Brazilians just busting to show you what they can do.

I will then reward the most competent ones — the communicators, the diplomats, the efficient, the problem-solving, the compassionate, the honest, the dedicated — by promoting them to positions where then can influence and weed out the next crop.

There are many such Brazilians to be had, from illiterate housecleaners living in favelas to junior executives with Wharton MBAs. People who take pride in their work.
More power to them.

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