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Flying over the Alps onboard LATAM Brasil’s A350-900. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

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

This is Part Two of a two-chapter story about international travel during times of COVID-19. This article reports the second and third legs — the transatlantic flight from São Paulo to Frankfurt with LATAM Brasil, and a hop from Frankfurt to Florence with Lufthansa CityLine. Part One is available here.

LATAM Flight LA8070 (GRU-FRA)

Some two hours before departure, the A350-900 deployed to my flight was towed to the assigned gate. It was PR-XTD. According to Airfleets, it was delivered brand new to LATAM Brasil in August 2016. The A350-900 had a stint at Qatar Airways as A7-AMD from April to December 2017, when it returned to LATAM.

Obviously, demand for international travel was — and still is — very low at the time, and LATAM could have easily deployed the 767-300 in the route and there would still be many empty seats. But I figured the cargo demand was enough to justify the large airliner.

Indeed it was: several pallets were loaded in the Airbus’ cargo belly before boarding was cleared.

Cargo pallets are loaded in PR-XTD before boarding to Frankfurt. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

I asked the gate agent to board some minutes before the other passengers so I could photograph the empty cabin, and after approval from the crew, I had the opportunity to take the photos. The cabin was really good-looking with the mood lighting and was also very clean. PR-XTD looked like new.

Economy class had 309 seats — 63 of which have additional space and are sold as “LATAM+” — in a 3-3-3 configuration. I had taken seat 24A, in regular economy.

Economy Class of LATAM’s A350-900 PR-XTD. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Business class, on the other hand, had 30 seats in a 2-2-2 configuration — pretty outdated for today’s standards, where generally airlines prefer granting aisle access to all passengers. LATAM’s first A350 was delivered in 2015 and even then, this was already a problem. However, it seems the airline is committed to fixing this, as their newly-refurbished long-haul fleet of 777-300 has direct aisle access in business class.

Nevertheless, the seats could go full-flat and seemed wide and comfortable.

Business Class in LATAM Brasil’s A350-900 PR-XTD. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

As I later discovered upon boarding, though, almost no passenger would worry about having an unknown seatmate on that flight. Of the 339 seats, only 138 were occupied — 13 in business (a 43.3% load factor) and 125 in economy (40.5%). A total disaster, but a sign of the times.

My seat, 24A, had an awful wing view, so I asked if I could swap it after boarding ended. The flight attendant allowed me to do so and asked me to wait in seat 16K — the first row of LATAM+ — until I had an answer. As people got in and the load was so light, she invited me to stay there for the flight. Obviously, I accepted it without thinking twice. That was a very nice touch by them, but it came with the sad reminder of why it was possible.

With a light load factor and after a very smooth boarding process, doors were closed at 11:53 p.m., two minutes ahead of schedule. Quickly, PR-XTD was pushed back, and the pilots started its pair of Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines.

After a quick taxi to Guarulhos’s 09L runway and with no traffic ahead, the A350 lined up and at 12:05 a.m. stormed its way out of São Paulo to the 11-and-a-half-hour transatlantic flight. It was not surprising, but the pair of engines was really silent, even though I was sitting right alongside one of them.

Before service started, each passenger was handed a health declaration form to be returned before arrival asking where they came from, where they would go once in Germany, if they had any symptoms and so on. The crew also distributed a LATAM-branded pen so we could fill the form.

Next came dinner. I went for the meat option, and it all arrived in a single tray: water, Coca-Cola, the wrapped-up main dish and a side sweet, an alfajor.

Dinner service in LATAM Brasil’s São Paulo-Frankfurt flight. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

And imagine my surprise when I discovered the plate was a meat stroganoff — possibly my favorite dish in the world. And seriously, it was absolutely delicious, especially considering it was an economy class meal.

Strogonoff was the main dish of the flight’s dinner service. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Another highlight of the flight was the crew: they were always attentive, helpful and lovely, all appearing happy to be there and to help. Really impressive across the board.

After the deed was done, I went to sleep in a free row just a few rows behind mine so I could try to get some sleep. It turns out there was more coming, however, and the crew passed by serving a wrapped dessert consisting of a muffin and water.

Post-dinner dessert. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

After that, I lifted up all armrests in my row and found a good, less uncomfortable position where I could lay down and sleep properly. The pillow and the blankets were relatively comfortable, and I slept for six or seven hours before waking up. Afterward, my body was aching a bit as those seats were certainly not designed for sleeping like that, but it was well worth the rest.

Flight map before entering Europe. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

While the windows were still closed and breakfast was still not served, I tried to explore a little the A350’s entertainment system. LATAM seems to offer a wide range of movies for all tastes. I settled on an Argentine one, “La Odisea de los Giles” (“Heroic Losers” in the English version), directed by Sebastián Borensztein and starring Ricardo Darín. It was a great watch.

Watching a movie in LATAM’s A350 AVOD system. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

The system, besides having a broad array of entertainment options, was also modern, with quick responses to the touchscreen, and fairly well-sized for economy class.

After the movie, I decided to turn on the tail camera. The angle was superb, but it was a shame I couldn’t have it on for the arrival since the first row’s screens must be stowed prior to landing.

A tail camera was available in the AVOD system. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

The only problem I found was the remote control which, being on the internal side of the armrest, could be pressed accidentally if I didn’t watch out. However, being on the first row, there were not many other places where the control could be placed anyway.

The remote control in LATAM Brasil’s A350-900 Economy Class. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Soon the breakfast service was started. It was composed of a wrapped plastic bag with a small sandwich and a glass of water, as well as on-demand beverages. I asked for an orange juice. Honestly, I was expecting a little bit more for such a long flight, but it’s okay.

Breakfast service in LATAM Brasil’s São Paulo-Frankfurt flight. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

One thing that shined through the flight was, again, the great service by the crew. Whenever I called them, they treated me with a smile and were more proactive than I would ever have expected in economy class — offering me, for instance, another alfajor. This was a highlight of the flight for sure.

After breakfast, I went to the toilet to brush my teeth and wash my face. Even after the long hours of Atlantic crossing, the lavatory was maintained reasonably well. Aside from that, there was nothing much else to add. The lavatory, in the middle of both economy class section, was well-sized, too.

LATAM Brasil’s A350-900 lavatory in Economy Class. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Meanwhile, we were cutting across Europe’s beautiful landscapes. We flew almost exactly over Geneva, and the Swiss Alps filled our windows. I just can’t wait for COVID-19 to dissipate so people can get back to discovering the beauties of the world.

Soon, though, we arrived in German airspace and began our descent. Seatbelt signs on, seats in the upright position, and at 4:26 p.m., 24 minutes before scheduled time, the A350-900 made a smooth landing in Frankfurt.

A quite long taxi to the terminal followed. Deboarding, again, was done on a row-by-row basis, very slowly yet very orderly. For some reason — I guess because of my request to board first back in São Paulo — the crew had mistaken me as some sort of priority passenger, so I was asked to deboard after the other passengers, so I could be accompanied by a LATAM ground agent.

I was received by a LATAM agent that had previously worked for LAN. She guided me through the customs process and presented my papers to the immigration officer, explaining, my situation and the reason for my trip.

After that, all I had to do was reclaim my luggage and meet my relatives. Before, though, I had to take a PCR test — as I mentioned before, passengers coming from high-risk countries like Brazil had the test provided for free. The testing facility in Frankfurt was run by Centogene, and it required an enrollment through the laboratory’s website. After this was done, I presented it to a worker at the counter and he provided me my number.

In just a few minutes I was done, thankfully with a throat test.

After that, I could head home and wait for my result. In 18 hours, I had the negative confirmation in my hands, which meant I was free from any quarantine. That efficiency was just staggering — I just wish Brazil had 1% of that organization and commitment. It was not until December that a negative PCR test became mandatory upon arrival in my home country.

Now I could enjoy my days in Germany and wait for my flight two weeks later.

Lufthansa Flight LH314 (FRA-FLR)

The two weeks passed like lightning, and in the blink of an eye, I already saw myself checking in at Frankfurt Airport for what would prove to be my last flight of the year.

The airport was empty, so check-in and luggage dispatch were fast, as was the safety screening. Another sign of the times, unfortunately.

Departures from Frankfurt. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

My gate was empty even shortly before the flight, so I assumed the aircraft would make a quick turnaround. Indeed, Lufthansa’s mobile app had this information and said that my airplane was coming from Zurich, staying in Frankfurt ground for only an hour before taking my flight.

On Flightradar, I could track my ride to Florence: D-AECF, an Embraer 190 operated by Lufthansa CityLine and painted in Lufthansa’s old colors. According to Airfleets, AECF (named Kronberg/Taunus) was delivered to the airline brand new in June 2010.

D-AECF arrives at the gate. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Soon, boarding for my flight was called. This time, it had no gate agents controlling it, presumably as a way to reduce contact. The boarding pass screening and successive opening of the gate were all done with a reading machine, with priorities and boarding section order controlled by the passengers. Honestly, it didn’t make much of a difference — the Embraer is already small, and I think the load-factor was at 60-70%, so boarding was smooth, quick and organized despite the lack of control.

Boarding D-AECF in Frankfurt. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

As a Brazilian, it’s always a feeling of pride to see an Embraer flying on the other side of the world — let alone travel in one. But really, it’s a fantastic airplane, whatever the operator may be.

Lufthansa picked a two-class configuration for its 190s, with 16 seats in business class (in the euroBusiness configuration, half of them are blocked) and 92 in economy in a standard 2-2 configuration. The seat pitch was awesome. It looked better than even in the long-haul configured 767 I took from Porto Alegre, Brazil. I also got lucky that nobody was by my side so I could stretch my legs a little bit more.

Seat pitch in Lufthansa CityLine’s Embraer 190. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

After boarding was completed, the flight attendants passed out a small sanitizing wipe, which, albeit small, was better than nothing.

Small sanitizing wipes were offered before pushback. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Doors were closed without delay and pushback was soon started without delay. After a quite long taxi to the active runway, take-off took place at 4:30 p.m, followed by a steep turn to the right toward Italy.

As in the flight from Brazil, we were handed a health declaration form to be delivered before arrival, reporting basically the same kind of information I presented upon arrival in Germany.

When I opened the tray table, I discovered that the sanitizing wipe was seemingly not for the hands, but apparently for the table, which was in a sad state of cleanliness. I can only imagine how the cleaning would be in non-COVID times, then.

After cleaning the table, the “onboard service,” so to speak, began. It consisted only of a water bottle. Before COVID, they would serve a sandwich as I’d seen from older reports. This time, and for a very important reason, there was no food service.

Water bottle in Lufthansa’s CityLine Frankfurt-Florence flight. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Then there was a coffee service, which was much appreciated.

Coffee service in Lufthansa CityLine’s Frankfurt-Florence service. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

After that, I went to the lavatory. Luckily, at least this part of the airplane was clean. I guess this bathroom “design” is an Embraer first-generation standard, as it was not at all different from what I saw for years flying Azul’s Embraer E1s.

Bathroom of Lufthansa CityLine’s Embraer 190. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

After that, I went back to my seat and enjoyed the flight and the views from the window. The flight proceeded smoothly, but as we approached Florence, we reached some heavy clouds.

Cabin overview of Lufthansa CityLine’s Embraer 190. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Descent began, and soon after, we made a quite smooth landing at Florence Airport’s short and challenging runway at 5:44 p.m., six minutes before schedule, followed by some heavy braking.

Immediately after the Embraer stopped in its parking position, heavy rain fell over us, and we needed to take the cramped bus to the terminal.

Honestly, it’s absolutely ridiculous to promote safety inside the aircraft so much, then cramp all passengers on a non-ventilated bus. I’d have preferred going on foot in the rain — the airport it’s not big at all, so it would be a short walk anyway. It was really an uncomfortable experience.

Deboarding in Florence under heavy rain. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

After I was inside Florence’s small terminal, it was all about retrieving my luggage and making my way home. Unfortunately, it looked like we were in the peak hour of a big hub because it took more than half an hour until the first bag was thrown on the belt. This all despite the fact we were the only arrival in more than an hour.

Luggage retrieval in Florence started really late. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Bottom Line

After this experience, it was quite clear to me why air travel (especially international and long-haul) will take quite a while to recover.

That said, flights with LATAM were quite nice, and my experience with Lufthansa CityLine would’ve been okay-ish if we were in “normal” times. But the airline must put its money where its mouth is: it is completely silly to chant the mantra of “safe and clean air travel,” only for a passenger to be confronted by a dirty (translation: non-sanitized) tray table and then is thrown from a HEPA-filtered jet into a cramped bus with dozens of people.

I was disappointed, but not surprised. It is just the dire reality: airlines may talk as they about how flying is safe — and there is enough reason to believe inside the aircraft it is — but the problem is not flying itself. The problem is the acts that one must do when flying, such as getting on a cramped bus when deboarding.

So finally: would I travel by plane again during COVID? Not as long as the pandemic is out of control at either end of the flights I’m considering — like it was in Brazil then and like it is both in Europe and Brazil right now. But at least it was an experience I’ll remember for years to come.

João Machado
João Machado
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