On Saturday afternoon I left for Rio de Janeiro, slightly concerned about the volcanic ash cloud which has been terrorizing much of South American air travel for the last month. It had been clear of late, but the day before canceled all air travel in and out of Buenos Aires. That day, however, flights were cleared. With Pluna Airlines, we took off around sunset, and I became more unsteady as I could see the skyline getting hazier and hazier. It was clear that something wasn’t right, and as the sun ducked behind the haze it turned into an orange-red blur. Nothing was visible.
My fears were tested as we landed in Montevideo 50 minutes later, and the airport became more and more backed up. At first you could see that they were desperately trying to get the flights out, but as my 8 pm departure time came and went, it was obvious that things were getting complicated. We were alerted to the fact that ash was in the air, and every half hour until 9:30 we were told to keep waiting. Then everything was canceled, and a collective groan went throughout the terminal. Now, it started out normal enough, with Pluna calling people up one flight at a time to orderly be admitted into Uruguay, collect baggage, and be transferred to a hotel. Yet it soon got far out of hand and was one of the worst displays of management I’ve ever seen.
The ash cloud was obviously not the airlines fault, though they offered to lodge us in hotels and pay for food, which was a nice gesture on their part. However, the execution of the plan was as poorly put together as if high school students were behind it. My flight was one of the last to be called, and after getting through Customs, I went over to a large crowd gathered around one employee. There we were supposed to wait as he checked off our names one by one, flight by flight. It was a mad rush as people crammed in and shoved their boarding pass in his face. He was sick and sniffling, and obviously not entirely sure what to do. Everyone someone asked if their flight was being done he said not yet. Impatience grew higher and higher until the mostly Brazilian passengers lost control.
Brazilians can be very emotional and have been known to put on a show. The passengers started to form little circles within their respective flights, and together they yelled at the Pluna staff relentlessly. The staff looked legitimately afraid, as if a mutiny was on hand, and soon a border guard showed up. One flight was told they wouldn’t get a hotel because they had to be at the airport at 4 am, so when a woman with her baby in her hands asked what she was supposed to do, the employee shrugged and walked away to find information. We were not given water and by 1 am a woman passed out. A manager came over and took abuse from a man who screamed at the top of his lungs, throwing his jacket to the floor with a great boom, all the while screaming in front of the guard who did nothing. I thought that if this was an airport in the U.S. and he acted that way, he would most definitely be taken away.
Slowly things were sorted out and we were told which hotel we’d been assigned, and then we had to wait for a bus to arrive and take us. As luck would have it, our flight got the last bus and we waited in the airport until 3 am. Bad as it was, the flight grouped up well and apart from myself and another woman from Oklahoma, they were all Brazilians who joked around and wanted to give me advice on what to do in Rio. One of them was like a ring leader or camp counselor, pooling together the group and organizing with Pluna. It turns out he was a university professor, and after talking with him he told me that the reason so many Brazilians act that way is because they aren’t accustomed to much air travel. As the middle class has boomed, many people can now afford to fly and travel abroad, but since they’ve never had much experience with it, even a little speed bump seems like an injustice. Regardless, I’ve flown all my life and found the way Pluna handled it to be very amateur-like. Airlines have contingencies and the ash cloud has been disrupting travel for over a month.
We were taken to the Holiday Inn in the center of Montevideo and by 3:30 am I was crashing from exhaustion. The next day we were treated to a free lunch at a parrilla next to the hotel, courtesy of Pluna. I helped myself, as well as my compatriots, to a lavish feast, and then went back to the hotel to rest up. It was far too cold to walk around and I’d already visited Montevideo in 2007. We were transferred to the airport in time for our flight that night to Rio, yet again we were delayed. As we began to board we were told there was a 40 minute delay, and a rumor spread that it was the ash cloud again. It turns out it was a mechanical problem, and soon we boarded a bus, then were told to get off the bus, and again people started to groan. But in a minute we were back on track to the plane, and as we took off people cheered. On to Rio de Janeiro.