Is TAM The Worst Airline in the World? Final Thoughts

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Last set of notes in a series:

The answer based on our recent travel — your results may vary according to circumstances, of course — is, no, judging from our recent comparative travel experiences, TAM is not the worst airline in the world.

In terms of customer service it proved itself to be pretty goddamn awful in spots, but no more so than American Airlines. An important corollary, therefore: There is probably nothing specifically Brazilian about TAM’s way of totally sucking at certain key parts of its operation. The underlying business model — get the money in advance, fight like hell to keep it, whether you provide the services advertised or not, and above all, let the buyer beware — seems to be global.

I think the horrors of this trip might be summed in terms of a phrase like: “the fear, uncertainty and doubt principle,” or, “the massive psychological collateral damage of (planned and unplanned) failures to commun’cate.” I need to think of something catchier, but you get the gist, right?

The most vivid example: When Neuza went back to the JFK terminal the day before yesterday to seek more information on boarding with an animal than had been provided on the very sketchy page on the subject on the American Airlines Web site.

A page like this really, ideally ought to lay out a step-by-step procedure — a workflow diagram — for doing the thing you want to get done. In this case, the absurd task of flying a cat to South America.

The people Neuza talked to at the American Airlines desk in the terminal were relying on the exact same Web site page to provide us with the more detailed answers and instructions that the reservation operator told us they could provide us.

What is worse, as these AA personnel were navigating through their Web site for the same information we had already read for ourselves, THEY COULD NOT FIND IT.

WE, who had already been to the Web site and discovered by time-wasting brute force exactly where that information was tucked away, HAD TO HELP THEM. Because there were a lot of people behind us in line, and they were grumbling and sighing.

Which is why we immediately canceled our fallback reservation with American Airlines.

Eduardo, the evening supervisor for TAM at JFK, apparently blistered someone’s ears when he discovered our troubles boarding that morning, because when we boarded the next morning, the case of the enormous flying Brooklyn cat seemed to have acquired legendary proportions.

Adriana, the morning supervisor whose face and voice — enumerating repeatedly, with a smirk, exactly why our problems were not her problems because we are simply too stupid to live — is seared into our imaginations permanently, could not look us in the eye.

Overall, the pleasures, and bearable pains in the ass, of the trip came from people we met along the way who treated us kindly and fairly and above all who gave us straight answers, whether the news was good or bad.

“Here is the reality of your situation, and here are your options for dealing with it.”

And to be fair, there were folks at TAM and American Airlines who did sincerely try to help, and did treat us with courtesy. The problem here seems to be one of management, training, and recognizing the crucial role of information and information systems in preventing riots at the help desk.

So anyway: we have now arrived safely at home in São Paulo after landing safely in a TAM Airbus 330. Once we got on the aircraft, the flight in economy class was remarkably comfortable — a welcome contrast to the old cattle-car 747s run by some of the international carriers, which were apparently designed for the days of yore when NFL linemen averaged 220 pounds and basketball centers were 6’1″.

I read The Looming Tower on the trip. Excellent book.

We celebrated the 9-11 anniversary moment of silence in the CNN-branded departure lounge along with Mayor Bloomie on the Wolf-Blitzeristic “still the most trusted name in news” network.

Not! See, for example,

Why is Osama bin Laden still alive again? As an irate taxpayer, I just cannot seem to get my head around that.

Iggy peed on me at the moment of take-off, as a form of farewell to the North American continent. The official Cat Fanciers portagato held up well.

Iggy, being a cat whose capacity for being amused by getting scritched and scratched in the right spot has no limits we have been able to discover, held up pretty well, too. He ate, he drank, he poked his head out to look around then went back to his fleece-lined womb on his own steam and sacked out in his patented Iggy sprawl position.

There was a glitch in passport control coming into Brazil, but the Brazilian federal policewoman was helpful and polite and we got past it.

TAM did not lose our luggage, and it unloaded the aircraft promptly. In our trip to and from San Francisco, American Airlines did lose our luggage on one leg, for more than a day, and on the other leg took more than an hour and a half to unload.

Some of our fellow TAM passengers say they missed their connecting flight to Argentina because the cabin steward read out the wrong gate information for the flight over the PA.

One of those characteristic little TAM scrums was forming at the desk as we exited the system; people were demanding that TAM send someone down and give them some straight answers about what to do next.

I happen to have a Procon [Tupi consumer protection agency] pamphlet on my laptop on the subject. Maybe Brazil needs a movement of airport Hare Krishnas who, instead of handing out flowers, hand out tip sheets for getting TAM and Gol to send someone down and provide straight answers.

Seriously. Go down there, collect horror stories, distribute informational literature, run a consumer Web site on the subject. That could be an actual project.

Once we finally got curbside, the Guarulhos taxi coop whistled us up a Fiat panel van whose driver knew exactly how to get where we were going. Which is actually a pretty obscure little nook, off a tree-lined afterthought known as Avenue of the Owls, in a neighborhood that could not be less like the Salt Lake City street grid. He even knew the name of the obscure little street that even we know only as “the fourth left after the metro station.” Off the top of his head.

Before we loaded up, our driver showed us an official rate card. They charge you a flat fee by zone. So the driver has an incentive to get you there quickly and efficiently. And he does.

Paulistas are always shocked when I say this, but I find the São Paulo taxi system astonishingly old-school good. Old-school taxi drivers who know the city like the back of their hands. Cab-driving is still considered a profession. Our guy was actually wearing a tie. He drove with his hands at 10 and 2 o’clock and commented on his strategy for spotting and maneuvering around the insanity of the average São Paulo driver. Who can be very, very insane indeed.

Arriving in Brooklyn from San Francisco, meanwhile, as usual, our cabbie had taken us on the roundabout scenic route through Long Island City rather than getting on the Van Wyck and just cruising down Atlantic Avenue.

They do this to run up the meter. Technically, they are supposed to provide you information on the shortest route, but they will often feign ignorance, or lie.

Look, we suffered greatly on this trip from having broken the prime directive of traveling comfortably: Travel light. I told my wife so, but she got ambitious. But I was able to avoid starting that quibble during the trip.

At certain moments, we would look at one another and sing a little snatch of Brigas nunca mais [“no more fighting,” a kind of Peaches ‘n’ Herb romantic ballad] to remind ourselves: It was us against the world.

It was interesting how we wound up swapping the role of the calm one and the hysterical one, back and forth, as needed.

Yesterday, for example, I was extremely calm and cheerful at the beginning of the day, during the transport from the Ramada to Terminal 4, then turned darkly digruntled during check-in — I dropped a 40-kg suitcase on my toe; I was wearing sandals — while Neuza turned on the charm and patience.

But I was cheerful, wisecrakcing and calm during the flight and the take-offs and landing while Neuza was muttering fervent vows to her santos. She cannot eat ice cream for an entire year on pain of being struck by lightning. That is how freaked out the poor dear was.

One of the worst moments of the trip: The TSA security checkpoint in Terminal 4. Inefficient, hysterical and unbelievably fucking rude.

Pardon my French.

Your outsourced tax dollars at work.

Neuza took over the calm and purposeful role during our passage through Brazilian passport control, customs — we were waved through, because apparently they have an institutional memory of having checked us out before and are pretty confident now that we are not skeevy Paraguayan Marlboro men — and the negotiation of the fatal last mile.

Conclusion: Outwardly, Guarulhos is something of a Third World concrete bunker, with decorative gymnosperms, while JFK New York is a shining palace of Reagan Revolution postmodernity.

But in terms of getting from Point A to Point B, JFK was actually even more of a Third World experience than its ugly, Tatlin-designed concrete bunker of a peer facility.

They budgeted $1.3 billion for the new American Airlines terminal, for example. The luggage conveyor still does not work. The elevators and escalators are constantly out of commission.

(And unless I am mistaken, I think I saw the poor skycap having to pay off various people at a certain airline check-in desk. That is, I saw him making the rounds and putting small pieces of paper into the hands of various persons there. There was no paperwork involved in the service, so I am guessing they were banknotes? What was that little side action all about, anyway?)

The Tietê River seems to be stinking a little less now.

But it still stinks.

Back at home, meanwhile, I find that Marcão and friends did a simply amazing job constructing my bookshelf-lined high tower for incredibly cheap, from a design by our architect neighbor.

A pictorial later.

My NET cable broadband fires right up. Our electrical contractor built the cable into my new workspace. Which again, is just incredible. I got a little Yiddish verklempt [variant: ferklempt] when I first saw it.

So, yeah, it is good to be home. You would not believe the birdsong I am hearing right now. It’s like something out of a locus amoenus in a medieval dream-allegory.

No more freaking travels, unless it is by bus to that rustic pousada in the middle of the mat’atlantica along the litoral norte that hopefully no Elizabeth Spiers types have discovered yet.

I think I need to commune with the malandros urubus, with the twittering sabiá and saíra and bem-te-vi, with Iêmanjá (Dona Janaina) and Santa Barbara, for a while, just to get the insanity of this last trip through the international human cattle chute out of my head.

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