Depending how the ancestry of airlines is determined, Avianca is the world’s second oldest airline, born two months after KLM. Columbia’s flag carrier dates back to the 5 December 1919 when Austrian owned SCADTA was registered in Barranquilla, using German aircraft and ex-WWI pilots. It grew to becoming the leading carrier in Latin America. In 1940 SCADTA and rival Columbian carrier SACO merged and the joint carriers chose the new name Avianca. Following WWII Avianca’s leading position in Latin America declined as the airline focused on Columbia’s local travel market. In 1961 Avianca joined the jet age, leasing two Boeing 707’s. Since 1994 the airline coordinated operations with other regional carriers to remain profitable but following 9/11 the airline experienced loses which forced the carrier to enter bankruptcy protection in 2003. The airline reorganized itself and developed a new strategy which led to the 2009 merging with El Salvador’s TACA Airlines and admission to Star Alliance in 2012. Avianca adopted an attractive new livery in 2009 as part of the airlines move up-market. They also own six subsidiary airlines including Avianca Brazil which competes against TAM Airlines.
Avianca is a functional airline designed to get passengers from A to B. The nicely dressed crew, wearing a designer red uniform that matches the airline’s logo perform their jobs but seldom go the extra mile. Cabin interiors are fine and comfortable but seldom will staff interact with passengers or make them feel genuinely welcome. Crew look like they are just doing their job and are just as much looking forward to land as the passengers are. Flight attendants tend to be middle aged and the novelty of flying has obviously worn off for most of them. Most crew speak Spanish first and English second, if at all.
Avianca has a comprehensive domestic network linking all major destinations to Columbia’s capital Bogota. Flying from one side of the country to the other will usually require a transit stop at their hub. Internationally Avianca offers good connections to the US where they serve three cities in Florida plus Washington DC, New York and Los Angeles. They also fly to three cities in Spain. To the rest of the America’s and Caribbean Avianca fly to most important cities and they also fly to several other European cities. Avianca’s main passengers are Columbian citizens so their network focuses on meeting their travel needs. Columbia’s security has improved considerably but few Western tourists travel there, yet.
Avianca is a mid priced legacy airline. Seldom are prices very cheap but rarely are they expensive. However as Avianca’s target market is price sensitive Columbian’s, Avianca will usually offer better fares than rival US carriers between the US and Columbia. Given the fact Avianca provides a better flying experience than carriers like Air Canada, Delta or United and are more generous with baggage, they’re usually a better choice.
Avianca provides passengers in all classes with free meals. Apparently meal sizes have struck as a budgeting measure but when compared to US carriers like American Airlines or United, Avianca compares favourably. In Business Class Avianca’s cutlery and meal presentation is superb while Economy/Coach passengers will be served a hot TV style dinner on long haul routes and small snacks on domestic routes. Avianca takes pride in serving passengers a really decent cup of.
As part of the airlines move up-market Avianca has invested in a modern individual seat back entertainment system in Economy and individual larger moveable screens for premium passengers. However the airline has a large number of older planes which have not been fitted with these systems so passengers will just have access to a single film choice from the drop down screens. The airline’s in-flight magazine en Revista! Is mostly in Spanish and is an interesting read with fine photography. Most audio and video channels are in Spanish with English subtitles. Other than Portuguese there practically no choices for other language speakers.
Passengers without luggage can check in on-line without visiting airport counters but everyone else will be required to drop of bags. Avianca is generous with its baggage allowance so if you are travelling with a lot of gifts this can be the deciding factor to booking them. While most other airlines have cut back in recent times Avianca continues to allow Economy passengers 64kg of baggage. Avianca’s check in procedures can be slow as frustrated staff negotiate with passengers carrying too much luggage which is a common Columbian trait. Baggage is not handled particularly carefully anywhere in Latin America and the US and pilfering is a genuine risk. Travel Insurance should be a priority as your trip could be ruined without it.
Avianca’s Business Class is called Executive Class and their lounges are called VIP Lounges. Avianca have recently jazzed up their premium products chasing the business dollars however the full experience is only available on their newer larger aircraft. There Executive Class passengers will enjoy colourful interiors, plenty of space, extra entertainment options and an almost lie flat extendable seat for sleeping. Meals are considerably better. The airline’s VIP Lounges can be crowded and resemble hotel lobby’s. Where Avianca does not have its own lounge they use third party Star Alliance lounges which are often superior to their own.
Avianca’s Tourist Class is very good, especially if passengers are travelling with their full baggage entitlement. As part of the general upgrade of the airline, Avianca has improved the interiors making them more cheerful but generally the airline provides a very standard experience in coach. Meals, entertainment, an average seat, indifferent staff and plenty of baggage allowance all at a reasonable price.
Avianca’s LifeMiles frequent flyer programme which is also used by TACA is designed for Latin Americans and is fully integrated with other Star Alliance airlines. Miles can also be earned from hotels, car rentals and in other ways. The loyalty scheme is being extended so seems likely to only improve. Like other frequent flyer schemes benefits are only real for members if they do a considerable amount of travel. Infrequent travelers get nothing but a warm feeling by having a card.
Columbia has a very ‘them and us’ mentality between managers and workers and it shows in Avianca’s corporate culture. Executives have a superiority complex yet often stoop to low levels to achieve goals. Most staff are low paid and managers seem to be determined to keep it that way. Joining Star Alliance has helped the airline clean up its act or at least move it out of the limelight. Management has a confrontational style, unions are seen as the enemy and despite an attractive new livery, the airline can still be ugly to its staff.
Between the 1960’s and 1990’s Avianca was a risky airline to fly and had an appalling record. Not only was poor maintenance and management to blame for aircraft problems but warring drug gangs and political groups decided to target opponents on board aircraft. Numerous bomb threats, real and imagined occurred and there were several hijackings. In the 1990’s a change of tactics and improved security largely put a stop to this and today Avianca’s passengers are as safe from terrorism and accidents as any airline. Star Alliance membership has also risen the priority of aircraft maintenance and renewal.
Avianca has been steadily improving and lifting its game and provides the best services to and around Columbia.
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