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This flight featured high points… and some very low points. The pros: excellent onboard product for a narrowbody aircraft, solid IFE and amenities and tasty meals. The cons, the crew gave away my assigned seat, surly gate agents and a lengthy check-in process.
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – Citi Prestige Card
When a great deal on a business-class ticket pops up — especially on airlines I haven’t tried before — it’s hard for me to resist booking it. Although I’d flown at least 55 airlines up to this point, Colombian flag carrier Avianca wasn’t one of them. So, I jumped on the opportunity to book a NYC-Colombia mini-tour flying business class on Avianca’s Airbus aircraft in ascending numerical order: A319 (JFK-MDE), A320 (MDE-CTG), A321 (CTG-BOG) and A330 (BOG-JFK). How’s that for AvGeekery? Anyway, here’s what it was like flying a subbed-in Avianca A320 from New York’s Kennedy (JFK) to Medellín, Colombia (MDE).
The TPG team enjoys cheap flights just as much as anyone else, so when any of us searches for and writes about a flight deal, there’s often an internal debate of whether or not to book. So, when I wrote about this great Avianca deal back in December, I went for it and booked a flight to Colombia.
Unfortunately, this deal didn’t price out on Avianca’s website. So, I wasn’t able to earn 5x Membership Rewards points by booking directly with the airline using my Platinum Card® from American Express. Instead I booked my $698 round-trip flight through Expedia using my Citi Prestige. Not only did I earn 3x ThankYou Points (a total of 2,094) for the booking, but I’d also be reimbursed up to $500 of expenses for a delay of just three hours.
At check-in, I realized I hadn’t added a frequent flyer account to my reservation. So, I quickly whipped out my Asiana Club Diamond account number and added it to the reservation, which earned me 7,304 miles from the trip. In retrospect, since I was flying business class and already had access to lounges, I didn’t need my Star Alliance Gold status from the Asiana account. So, I should’ve credited the flights to another Star Alliance partner — like Lufthansa Group’s Miles & More to get 200% credit instead of the 125% credit from Asiana.
Check-in and Lounge
Having checked-in online the night before and not needing to check any bags, I headed to the Avianca business-class check-in counter just looking for a physical printout of my boarding pass. After working with my reservation for a bit, I was handed three boarding passes — none of which were for this flight. Instead, I received the boarding passes for my return flights (MDE-CTG-BOG-JFK). It took me a bit to explain what was wrong in this situation before the check-in agent fully understood. But, a few minutes later, I was on my way with all four boarding passes for my trip.
Avianca participates in TSA PreCheck and my boarding pass reflected my PreCheck clearance. However, with the TSA PreCheck line looking long, I headed for the much shorter first/business-class security line. While I was able to keep my shoes on and head through the metal detector, this move didn’t work out for me. My bag was pulled aside for additional screening — as were most bags.
The sole TSA agent manually checking bags didn’t clear the bags in order, giving into passenger pleas to accelerate theirs. Finally, the TSA “lead officer” stepped in to accelerate the process. When he pulled my bag, he looked at the scan and apologized. He didn’t see any reason that it was flagged 20 minutes prior. After a quick explosives test, he sent me on my way.
Avianca contracts with the Swiss lounge in JFK’s Terminal 4. Having experienced other Swiss lounges, I had decently high expectations. With the appearance and amenities of a temporary lounge, I found it to be profoundly disappointing. For breakfast, there were a few warm pastry options in addition to a cold yogurt and fruit bar.
Self-serve drinks included soda, canned and bottled juices, three beer options and two wine options. A coffee machine offered espresso drinks, but the machine wasn’t calibrated with the size of the mugs being used, leading to overflows.
Most of the seating options offered large comfortable chairs, which were surrounded by stains and discolored rugs. There were no power plugs in most of the lounge.
Instead, there were two short high-top counters offering a comical amount of power plugs per seat.
The lounge did include a nice quiet room with eight recliner chairs and good views of the gates. However, the bright room wasn’t conducive to sleeping.
In short, don’t bother getting to the airport early for the Swiss lounge; get to the airport early to give yourself ample time for the security screening.
There was an announcement in the lounge declaring that my flight was boarding, so I cut my lounge visit short and headed for the gate. As I left, the lounge agent called down to the gate to report that I was on my way. I’d arrive at the gate with just about 35 minutes until departure to find a “last call” for boarding.
At the gate counter, an agent fussed at me for arriving at the gate so late. Then, after checking the computer, she requested all of the boarding passes I’d received that day. It seems the computer flagged that my BOG-JFK boarding pass had been issued, and that was an issue. “For immigration purposes,” I wasn’t allowed to have that boarding pass yet. So, she ripped it up.
Then, I boarded the flight to find my seat (1A) had been already given away. When I pointed to my boarding pass, the flight attendant pointed to the couple occupying the seats and replied “they travel together.” Looking at the out-of-place passenger’s boarding pass, I was pointed to another occupied seat. After the shuffle, I ended up in another window seat (2K).
Cabin and Seat
When I booked this flight, the aircraft was originally scheduled to be operated by an Airbus A319. It wasn’t until I boarded and saw what I originally thought was an out-of-place A320 safety card. So, I checked the tail number to find that this was indeed an Airbus A320. Still, my A320 was the smallest in T4’s departure crowd.
The business-class cabin consists of 12 plush recliners arranged in a 2-2 configuration. Each offers 40 inches of pitch and measures 22 inches between armrests, providing plenty of width. There’s a curtain in the rear of the cabin to separate the cabins. Note: due to my “late” boarding on the review flight, this is a photo of another Avianca A320. The photo below doesn’t reflect the amenities stocked on the JFK-MDE flight.
Despite the generous amount of pitch at each seat, the overall bulk of the seat’s padding and ample recline can make your area feel tight if the person in front of you reclines fully. Overall, the seats were quite comfortable though — most passengers in the business-class cabin were lulled to sleep shortly after takeoff.
Below the in-flight entertainment screen is a large literature pouch, and each seat has an adjustable footrest. However, one downside of these seats is the lack of under-seat storage. I couldn’t even store my small backpack fully under the seat in front of me.
The bi-fold tray table was wisely designed with a support on the far armrest. While my tray table would naturally hover over this support, it would remain in place when something of weight — such as a food tray or my laptop — was on top of it. The table measured 21 inches wide by up to 10.5 inches deep and could be shifted forward or back.
Two universal power plugs were located below knee height between the two seats. These provided enough power for my phone to “rapidly charge.” There was also a USB plug built into the IFE screen.
Food and Beverage
The menu that was handed out on this flight wasn’t just for this flight, but rather included all of Avianca’s long-haul flights. Passengers were instructed to go to page seven for the breakfast on this flight — the options were the same as the carrier’s flights between JFK and Bogota (BOG) and Cartagena (CTG).
For breakfast, I chose the chicken and cheese burrito. The small but tasty burrito was served with a fresh fruit plate and choice of bread. I chose to have coffee with my meal — a choice that surprised the flight attendant. Powdered creamer was offered when I asked for some milk.
Later in the flight, I inquired if there were any snacks available. It seems there weren’t, as I was rudely told that a snack would be served later. About 30 minutes later, a small warm chicken and cheese sandwich was served, accompanied not-so-elegantly by a bag of mini-pretzels.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
Each non-bulkhead seat has a 11 inch in-flight entertainment screen built into the seatback in front. Entertainment options can be accessed via the touchscreen or a remote built into the center armrest of the seat.
While the screen tilts, it doesn’t do so enough to counter the seat’s recline. That means you’re going to have to recline as well to get a good view of the screen.
Three-prong headphones were available at each seat at boarding. While they didn’t look or feel very impressive, the headphones provided a solid amount of sound and featured active noise-cancellation.
The in-flight entertainment system was loaded with an impressive amount of content. I counted an impressive 109 movies, including “new releases” and “classics” — which were primarily popular movies from the last decade. Despite practically living on airplanes, I was able to find multiple movies I wanted to watch. Movies began with 2.5 minutes of advertisements and TV shows began with a minute of ads.
However, even the impressive IFE system had a downside: any time the crew would make an announcement, the sound would be deafeningly loud. The first announcement seemed to shock many passengers. After a few announcements, we learned to defensively rip the headphones off our ears when an announcement began.
At boarding, each seat was stocked with a plastic-wrapped red blanket, large pillow and headphones. With the boarding door still open, the flight attendants handed out plastic-wrapped Tumi amenity kits.
Inside the amenity kit were: headphone covers, socks, an eyemask, tissues, chapstick, a microfiber cleaning cloth, a mini-pen, lotion, earplugs, toothbrush and toothpaste.
Avianca provided a mixed bag, service-wise. The check-in agent was friendly but had problems issuing the right boarding pass, and the gate agents were about as bad as they could’ve been. Once onboard, there was even a dichotomy between the two flight attendants I encountered.
I was seated in the window, and since my neighbor was asleep (and fully reclined) for most of the flight, it was impossible for me to get out without waking her. Thus, I used the flight attendant call button three times during the flight. Each time, a FA arrived within 20 seconds. I received a drink promptly from the friendly FA in two of the calls. But, I was told to wait for a snack by the unfriendly one in a third call.
Before pushback, this flight experience was “on an impressive pace to win worst flight of (at least) the year” between a check-in agent who gave me the wrong boarding passes, a poor lounge experience, excessively early last call, grumpy gate agents and my assigned seat having been given away with no apology. However, the flight was mostly good from there. With the exception of a grumpy flight attendant and a few minor annoyances, this flight exceeded my expectations for a mid-range flight on a narrow-body aircraft.
I’m left with mixed feelings about this flight. The red flags I mentioned throughout this review leave me unable to recommend the flight — however, it’s the only nonstop from the New York City area to Medellín and features a solid on-board product, so it’s hard to give this flight an F. Let’s call it a C+.
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