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Flying over São Paulo’s endless “stone jungle”. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Trip Report: An Intercontinental Odyssey in Times of COVID-19 (Part One)

This is Part One of a two-chapter story about international travel during times of COVID-19. This article introduces the routing, flights and reports the first leg — a domestic widebody sector from Porto Alegre to São Paulo/Guarulhos with LATAM Brasil. The second part should be published in the next few days.

The sun had barely shined when I woke up for my first international flight since February. Back then, when I went to Madrid with Boliviana de Aviación (BoA), things had just started to get ugly in Italy, and I would have never imagined that two weeks later the world would have stopped to contain COVID-19.

This time, however, my flights were not for non-essential purposes. I was moving to Italy to start my undergraduate studies in a reopening Europe — if aviation had already played a huge role in my life, this time would not be different.

And I was very much looking forward to it, being a 16-day, 7,000 miles plus odyssey composed of three flights on three aircraft in two different airlines. I would leave my hometown Porto Alegre and go to Frankfurt with LATAM via its São Paulo/Guarulhos hub, then proceeding to Florence 15 days later with Lufthansa CityLine.

Such a trip would also be an accurate picture of international travel in times of COVID, not only because of the reduced traffic in the airports or anything. As at that time anyone coming from Brazil was banned from Italy besides really specific cases, I had to wait for 14 days in another country that accepted incoming Brazilian travelers, then head to Italy.

My ticket was bought using LATAM Pass points. Originally, I bought the ticket so I could fly Lufthansa’s 747-8 from São Paulo to Frankfurt, then connect immediately to Florence. With these restrictions still in place, however, I needed to change my reservation, and LATAM’s system only showed flight to Europe operated by LATAM.

This meant I could choose between the destinations in Europe the airline connected at the time: Lisbon, London, Frankfurt or Madrid. Germany was the only country that didn’t require a negative PCR test to be shown in advance. Unfortunately, agile testing in Brazil, even made privately, was virtually nonexistent, and I didn’t want to risk not having a negative result in advance. As Brazil was deemed a risk country by Germany, however, this required me to be tested upon arrival.

Also, I had relatives living in Germany so I could stay there for 15 days before heading to my final destination.

The flight to Frankfurt was operated three times a week with LATAM Brasil’s A350-900, so it was not at all a bad option – even though I would have preferred flying the Queen of the Skies, of course!

The routing of my journey between Brazil and Italy. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado, created with Great Circle Mapper)

I arrived at my home airport feeling very anxious about my new life abroad, but also thrilled about the incoming trip; it would be my first time flying a LATAM 767, my first flight in an A350 and, 15 days later, my first time flying Lufthansa.

LA4596 POA-GRU

Still, there was some more anxiety upon check-in, because before dispatching my luggage to Frankfurt, the check-in agent needed to check if my travel was considered “essential” or not with São Paulo’s LATAM headquarters. In COVID times, airlines want at all costs to avoid passengers being denied entry in foreign countries, so they don’t need to spend money with hefty fines and with the returning trip expenses.

Photos of all my authorizations, declarations and my passport were taken by the friendly check-in agent. Some many minutes later, with my flight already being boarded, me waiting at the entrance of the check-in area, I received the green light from the agent with a hand sign. I returned to the counter, my luggage was sent to Germany and I received my boarding passes.

Lots of goodbyes and photos before, I accessed airside. Thankfully the x-ray checks were empty because my flight was on the last call and they were already nominally calling me. I rushed to the gate and was the last passenger to board flight LATAM Brasil 4596 to São Paulo/Guarulhos.

My flight would be operated by Boeing 767-300ER PT-MSV. According to Airfleets, it was delivered brand new to Chile’s LAN in October 2012, being transferred to TAM less than a year later.

Boarding PT-MSV in Porto Alegre. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

A widebody connecting Porto Alegre to a Brazilian hub daily was something I would have never imagined would happen again — yet COVID-19 brought this back. Until the early 2000s, Porto Alegre was the starting destination for a handful of intercontinental flights that would stop in either Rio or São Paulo, then proceed to Europe, so it was a common sight.

Amidst airlines picking up on hub-concentrated operations, Porto Alegre became a mere spoke in the national airlines’ systems, with a huge number of narrowbodies connecting the city to the nation’s large airports every day. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the only domestic narrowbody flight we had was a TAM A330-200 to Guarulhos on Saturdays, which brought cargo to Brazil’s Southernmost capital. This flight ended years ago.

With COVID-19, passenger demand shrank much more than demand for cargo. This made airlines find creative solutions to meet the need for freight transportation. Since LATAM’s widebody fleet was grounded with international flights almost zeroed, it started to deploy its double-aisle jets domestically, benefitting from their larger cargo holds, as this AirlineGeeks report from June better explained.

The flight was almost full, even in Business Class. Frankly, it was not surprising; since May, airlines in Brazil had been quickly adding capacity to their domestic schedules, with demand replying satisfactorily.

As this aircraft is used for long-haul routes, the interior was better than that used in the narrowbodies. The seat pitch was very satisfactory and there was seatback entertainment.

Unfortunately, though, my IFE touchscreen did not work, so I had to content myself with the view from the window. Honestly, it was not that bad since the 767 is my favorite aircraft, and because the flight was short anyway.

Anyway, pushback was started on time and the safety instructions video was played on our screens.

LATAM’s safety instructions video. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

At 09:48 a.m., just three minutes after ETD, PT-MSV roared its way from Porto Alegre’s 29 runway, and I officially left my hometown for good. Less than a minute after the 767-300 was airborne, we entered the cloud layer that covered the city’s metropolitan region.

The flight overall was kind of uneventful. Due to a determination from the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa), domestic flights in Brazil are not allowed to offer onboard service. So after take-off, the flight attendants passed on the aisles offering hand sanitizers and water bottles. Despite the small amount of contact, they seemed to be in a great mood, very happy to be there.

My IFE system didn’t work anyway, so it was all about watching the 767’s majestic wing view, which is one of my favorites in the world — there’s nothing compared to these giant winglets! — and rest a little, since my layover in São Paulo would be really long.

Soon, already flying over the Brazilian coast, PT-MSV started its descent into Guarulhos. After an approach over São Paulo’s “stone jungle”, at 11:06 a.m. — 19 minutes before schedule — the 767-300 made a firm touchdown at the airport’s 09R runway.

 

Surprisingly, after the aircraft went to a complete stop, nobody got up to grab their belongings. As we were notified by the flight attendant via the PA system, deboarding would be done on a row-by-row basis, with the crew calling each row, from front to back, via the PA. So the process was slow but really organized. I was not in a rush anyway —  after all, my flight would leave 13 hours later.

Leaving PT-MSV after my flight from Porto Alegre. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Whilst domestic flights in Guarulhos leave from Terminal 2, LATAM’s international operations depart from Terminal 3, which is basically interconnected to the domestic one, but at a far walk away. Unfortunately, though, for some reason, airside connections were halted, so I needed to leave the safety area and walk my way to Terminal 3 via the outside zone.

After the walk, safety and migrations clearing took no time, as, at that time of the day there were basically no international flights at all — most intercontinental flights leave São Paulo at night. I took my time to do some planespotting, as the airside of Terminal 3 has very clean windows that face the runway, until the sun went down.

Part II, with the flights to Frankfurt and Florence, should be published in the next few days.

Author

  • João has loved aviation since he was six-years-old when he started visiting his home airport in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil. As he always loved writing, in 2011, at age 10 he started his very own aviation blog. Many things have happened since then, and now he is putting all his efforts into being an airline executive in the future.

João Machado
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