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TPG Managing Editor Eric took advantage of those amazing deals on TAM back in November to book a roundtrip flight from Miami to Buenos Aires via Sao Paulo for just $339. Here’s his review of the flight experience.
Although I’ve never flown TAM before and didn’t know what to expect, when I saw the low prices on sale back in November for itineraries from Miami to Buenos Aires, I thought that getting down to $339 was worth it, even if it meant flying 14 hours in coach (I’m getting spoiled!). My fare booked into V class, which, according to TAM, is not eligible for Star Alliance upgrades using United miles, but earns 1 award mile and 1 EQM on United, which was where I was banking my miles. All in all, I’d be earning 10,200 miles for my $339 fare, for a breakdown of 3.2 cents per mile. Not bad!
The first leg of my itinerary would be on one of TAM’s four 777-300ERs departing from Miami at 8:35pm on a Sunday evening and then the connecting flight from Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires was aboard an A330.
I was able to select seats as soon as I had bought my ticket by logging into the TAM site with my confirmation number. The 777-300ER has just four seats in a single row of first class, two business class cabins arranged in a 2 x 3 x 2 configuration with 8 rows for a total of 56 seats, and then three aft economy cabins.
The 305 economy seats are in a 3 x 4 x 3 configuration and the little front cabin with four rows (in the middle, three on the sides) as well as the first row of each of the back cabins and the emergency exit rows are listed as premium seats and cost $75 each way for a couple extra inches of legroom, so I decided against it. I chose the aisle seat on one of the side rows as far front as possible and just left it at that.
When I got to the airport in Miami about 90 minutes before my flight, there was a huge TAM line…but it turned out to be for their Rio flight and no one was in line for the Sao Paulo flight so I went right up to the counter to check my suitcase. It was here that the agent told me I’d need to pay the Argentina reciprocity fee in advance and present proof of it before he could process me and print out my boarding pass. You used to be able to pay it when you landed in Argentina, but that apparently changed about 2 months ago. Luckily, I was able to do it on my laptop right then and there and he had me email it to his colleague down in the TAM office to print out for me so I could board the plane.
That added an extra 20 stressful minutes to my check-in, but I got to the plane with plenty of time, just after boarding had started, though all the monitors in the terminal were saying “Final Boarding Call.” That turned out not to be true. Although the plane was filling up, it looked to be about 25% empty when I got on and settled into my seat.
The economy seats are just 17 inches wide (Brazilians are thin!) and have 32 inches in pitch. Each also comes with a nine-inch entertainment screen that was loaded with a surprisingly wide range of new movies as well as some old US television shows, music and games. All the websites I checked said power outlets were only available in business and first class, but as far as I could see, all the side rows had 2 outlets with international adapters in them and the middle rows had 2 as well, so I was able to charge my computer and phone while we flew, which was helpful.
The plane continued to board right up until the 8:35 departure time…and then for about 10 minutes after that until every single seat was taken. At that point, we still weren’t moving and no one explained anything to us.
Finally, about 15 minutes after that, the pilot came on the speaker and said we’d have to wait another 15 minutes or sow while they rebooted the plane’s computer system.
Once that was done, we remained at the gate for another 20 minutes or so before finally pushing back and heading out onto the tarmac…where we were held for another long interval. When we finally did take off, we were leaving a full 90 minutes late. Good thing the entertainment system works on the ground…and that I had a 3-hour layover in Sao Paulo.
The flight itself was uneventful and smooth. The cabin crew was courteous and quick and came by often with water apart from the main services. The food, however, was absolutely disgusting. I eat a lot of airplane food – and yes, food in coach – and this was still awful by those standards. The dinner choices were some sort of chicken scraps coated in rubbery beige gravy, or mushy fusilli pasta with tomato paste and dried-out bits of ham plus a wilted side salad, a roll and a piece of chocolate cake that was sawdust-dry. All told, not a great experience. In the morning, breakfast service included a fruit cup and a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
One bright spot was that, unlike a lot of airlines these days, the crew handed out little amenity kits even in economy that included socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste and a comb.
When we got to Sao Paulo, we deplaned via staircases and were shepherded onto buses and deposited at the customs and immigration checkpoint. I was pretty close to the head of the line from my plane, but five other international flights had arrived right around the same time, so the hall was packed and it took me the better part of an hour to get through. I also had to present my Argentina reciprocity form to prove I was transiting, but luckily I didn’t have to retrieve my suitcase and recheck it before sprinting two terminals and ducking through security and another immigration checkpoint to get to my next flight on time.
When I arrived, I was one of the last passengers to board and found a man occupying my seat. I was asked to take my bag to the front door of the plane and to wait along with about a half-dozen other passengers whose names were called. After about four agents and 20 minutes of haggling, the other displaced passengers and I were told just to pick a free seat in the business class cabin. Well, that turned out nicely! And it gave me a chance to test out the business class seats, which were the same as aboard the 777-300ER with 63 inches in pitch, 20 inches wide and about 165 degrees of recline.
I picked a window seat and waited to snack on the economy breakfast (naturally they only had business meals for those passengers who had actually booked business class), which was a dry ham-and-cheese sandwich, and reclined the seat to its flat but angled position for a nap on the way down. A flight attendant actually woke me up to give me a pillow and duvet. I was kind of annoyed, but it did make things more comfortable. I slept the rest of the three-hour flight and arrived in BA feeling better than when I’d boarded.
Apart from the long, unexplained delay in Miami and subsequent rush in Sao Paulo (and the dreadful food), I would actually say my TAM experience was nice. I liked that it was aboard a newish, clean plane with all the bells and whistles and a great entertainment system, and there are worse things than being accidentally upgraded to business class. That said, I’m not relishing my return trip – good thing I have another few weeks down here to psych myself up for it!