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Pilot Report: LAN

PILOT REPORT: Sky Airline flight H2 021

Route: Santiago to Punta Arenas, Chile
Class: economy
Length of flight: four hours (one stop)
Fare: $150

The airline of Chile is LAN, founded in 1929. Operating 50 aircraft over a network spanning four continents — from Sydney to Frankfurt to Easter Island — LAN was an early partner in the eight-member oneworld alliance, and is among the industry’s most consistently profitable players. Its 2003 profits were the highest in company history, ranking 25th in the world overall. Formerly known as LanChile, the carrier went transnational beginning in 1999, starting up subsidiaries in Peru and Ecuador after the collapse of those countries’ home carriers. LanChile, LanPeru, and LanEcuador have consolidated under the simple LAN moniker (now capitalized for impact, but still pronounced “Lan”). Spinoff LANexpress was formed four years ago, offering low-fare services up and down the Andes, mainly with high-density, single-class 737s. And although I’ve never quite warmed to the airline’s awkward livery — its logo portrays a star caught in a fun-house mirror — LAN’s inflight service is, well, stellar. You might recall my gushing recap of a flight I took between Cuzco and Lima a while back. Indeed, LAN’s pampering is considered by some to be the best of any carrier in the Americas.

All good, but the trouble is I’m not flying on LAN. I’m flying on something called Sky Airline.

If you’ll grant me a short boast, I’d venture to say my knowledge of the world’s airlines is fairly comprehensive, so it’s saying something to admit I’d never heard of Sky Airline before stumbling up to their ticket counter on this warm Wednesday morning in Santiago. My first question for the agent, who like everything in Sky’s repertoire is decked out in a fetching ensemble of navy and melon, is what happened to the missing “s”. My second question is about the fare to Punta Arenas, 1,400 miles to the south.

My heart is set on LAN, but I’m eager to switch allegiance when the fare she quotes is, to my pleasant surprise, less than half of the competition’s.

Another pleasant surprise, to divert just a moment, is the Santiago airport itself. Aeropuerto de Santiago, a.k.a. Arturo Merino Benítez International (SCL) has to be the most handsome and functional facility anywhere on the continent. The central building is typical of what you’ll find in Europe and Asia, with check-in kiosks for all carriers consolidated within a single atrium. It’s a spacious glass and girders affair full of natural light, overhung dramatically by a bowed ceiling. And for a change, the shops and stores feature a bevy of options the average traveler might actually have use for. You can still help yourself to some duty-free perfume or a gold Rolex, but there’s also a post office, pharmacy, and several newsstands, all open late and conveniently situated.

SCL’s two drawbacks are lack of a tarmac view and, much worse, the inescapable preponderance of Chile’s foremost national pastime, which isn’t winemaking or soccer, but smoking. Smoke ’em if you got ’em, whether checking in, grabbing a snack at Dunkin Donuts, or standing in queue for security. And that goes for employees as well as passengers.

Sky Airline docks at the domestic end of the main hall. From here its brightly painted 737-200s, of which it owns eight, strike out for Arica, Antofagasta, Coyhaique, and other main cities north and south along the great mountainous zipper that is Chile. Sky’s game plan is, by now, a familiar one the world over: only three years-old, its affordable fares and spunky attitude are engineered to take a competitive bite from the dominant and haughty LAN.

Sky’s planes are configured for 124 all-economy passengers, and I’m given seat 3B. This morning’s trip is scheduled to last four and a half hours, including a brief stop in the city of Puerto Montt, approximately halfway (no haggling on the distance please) between Santiago and Punta Arenas.

Almost at once I notice an odd conflict of forces. These forces will become more starkly apparent, and increasingly polarized, as the journey unfolds. A journey that features tasty onboard meals and a slew of well done personal touches — as well as a prolonged delay, total lack of accountability, and theft from my luggage.

A smiling attendant hands out candies at the end of the boarding tunnel, and once settled in there’s a choice of daily papers El Mercurio or La Tercera. If only there were space enough to read. This particular 737, constructed in 1972, boasts what is possibly the smallest amount of legroom I’ve ever experienced on a jetliner, and what appear to be the original, 33 year-old overhead bins, designed for the days when passengers’ most obstructive carry-ons were briefcases. As a result, the underfloor spaces are jammed, and it’s elbow to elbow with the spillage of shopping bags, pocketbooks and coats.

Like the Venezuelan DC-9 I rode last September, the old Boeing has an heirloom feel. It’s clean and well groomed — certainly cleaner than many US aircraft of newer vintage — but just the same it’s antiquated and totally unsuited to the task at hand. I take a liking to Sky’s cloud-patterned seatbacks and stylish uniforms. I also notice deep vein thrombosis setting in before we’re pushed from the gate.

All public address announcements are made in Spanish and Spanish only, which is peculiar and somewhat unprofessional. That might sound grossly Americentric, but an airline that plies popular tourist routes — like it or not English is the lingua franca of international tourism — and especially one attempting to wrassle with the likes of LAN, needs to address customers bilingually.

But we leave on time. And hey, what’s this, food? Mind you the leg to Puerto Montt is less than two hours duration, but the minute we level off at cruise altitude staff are coming around with a full hot breakfast. I tend to be an easy grader, and consoled by eggs, coffee, and a glorious panorama of Andean peaks and volcanoes, I’m thinking good thoughts about this colorful Chilean newcomer.

Then we put down for what is supposed to be a 35-minute layover in Puerto Montt.

Four hours later, we’re still there, without so much as a word, in any language, as to what’s going on or when we might be leaving. Nothing tests an airline’s customer service mettle like a drawn-out delay, and Sky fails on every count. We’re simply ushered off the plane and left to loiter in a smoke-filled concourse until almost three in the afternoon. The only explanation is some vague mumbling about “problema técnico.”

During the wait, I thumb through a purloined copy of Sky’s inflight magazine, and suddenly I’m having second thoughts on my recommendation that the airline learn English. Perhaps it’s better to keep with the native tongue. Here’s a helping from page 15: “A tour to the Aysén region is in certain way a travel through time. Who lives in a developed city and is used to be a dynamic protagonist in front of an environment that seems to be immutable, will find an energetic and powerful nature in this region that creates a changing environment and leads human beings to question their real dimensions.”

That’s one heavy translation, and it’s hard not to extrapolate: “Ladies and gentlemen, a trip aboard Sky Airline is in certain way a travel through time. Very much time. Who flies on a developed airline and is used to a timetable that seems to be immutable, will find an energetic and powerful hassle in this region that creates a ruined schedule and leads human beings to question their choice of carrier.”

Finally a replacement 737 arrives and a Sky agent appears. Listlessly, as if doing us a favor, he waves his 75 or so refugees to the boarding zone. A microphone crackles and we’re paraded out to the plane. The process is chaotic, made more so because a large portion of passengers are foreign tourists unable to understand the orders being barked by Sky employees. My Spanish is rudimentary at best, but I happen to know the words for sorry, delay, and apologize, and not once do they appear in any of the gateside announcements.

Sky is one strangely manic outfit, for what comes next on the 70-minute hop to Punta Arenas but another full meal. This one is even bigger than the first, with complimentary cocktails and a double helping of hot rolls. (This second feast was not, as I initially suspected, merely compensation for the holdover; returning to Santiago several days later — this time without a hitch — the spread was identical.) The stand-in aircraft is also spotless and newly refurbished, with extra legroom and expanded bins. Like the disabled 737, it’s an ancient dash 200, but this time only a pilot or aerobuff would notice.

Just as I’m ready to exercise forgiveness and chalk up the Puerto Montt debacle to growing pains — my tentative report card is all sketched out, and perhaps undeservedly lenient — I reach the hotel in Punta Arenas and discover that my sleeping bag is missing. The bag, worth about $100 and sorely needed for my anticipated camping trip in Torres del Paine National Park, had been clipped and belted into a secure pocket on the rear of my backpack. The pack had been unfastened, and the bag is gone.

Any global traveler realizes these things occasionally happen, but what’s unforgivable is the response I get from Sky Airline staff when I try to report the matter. Essentially I’m met with blank stares, shrugs, and told to “write a letter.”

I’m shocked to learn Sky has no department, no staff, and no paperwork in place to deal with something as important as theft of customer property. Two visits to the office in downtown Punta Arenas, and later to the airport operations center in Santiago, and not once does anybody offer an apology or ask me to fill out a report. When I politely ask a manager in SCL what I should do, she answers “I don’t know” and excuses herself.

Sky is a young and expanding airline — a captain I meet near the SCL crew room tells me of the carrier’s hopes of deploying 767s in the lucrative Miami-Santiago market — and obviously things don’t always run smoothly in such a cutthroat, fast-changing environment. However, if you expect to compete successfully and be taken seriously, it’s imperative not to offend or alienate customers early on. At the very least, have a semblance of due process for situations like mine.

Synopsis: Sky is a stickler for detail and quirky aesthetic flair, having mastered the small touches to an almost compulsive level, from its swanky livery to its color-coordinated utensils. The intangibles, on the other, hand, need considerable work.

Check-in and boarding: C-minus
(Nightmare in Puerto Montt, industry standard elsewhere)

Punctuality: C

Aircraft cleanliness and decor: B-minus
(Hit or miss, depending on aircraft)

Food and onboard service: A
(Sky’s paper meal tray liners, partly visible in my photo, are so cool I saved one as a souvenir.)

Customer Service: F
(As described. Is there such a grade as an F-minus?)

Sky’s business model makes for some interesting comparisons, and puts a twist on the whole low-cost carrier (LCC) concept. One can argue whether Sky deserves placement in that camp at all, but for as long as it plays the spunky, more affordable Davíd to LAN’s Goliath, the branding is probably fair. LCCs tend to come in two camps. Best known are the lean and mean minimalists like Southwest or Europe’s Ryanair — the latter so stripped-down it decided to remove seat pockets and window shades from aircraft. Malaysia’s AirAsia and Brazil’s Gol are likewise contenders. Then we have the more boutique personalities of JetBlue or Song. Here you’ll encounter an emphasis on comfort and service, but in a sleek, new-fangled sort of way.

Sky is neither sleek nor stripped-down. In fact the carrier seems oblivious to the accepted wisdom of mutual exclusion, taking on the roles of old-fashioned, full-service provider and low-fares upstart. Is such an airline viable? I’m not adequately versed in the nuances of Chilean aviation to predict its fortunes in that marketplace, but history has not been kind to similar endeavors. I suspect some tough choices lay ahead.

This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.