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Pilot Report: Pluna

Pilot Report:
Pluna flight PU 152, Buenos Aires to Montevideo

Class: economy
Length of flight: 25 minutes
Fare: $60

Buenos Aires has two airports. Longer-hauls land at Ezeiza (EZE), about 35 kilometers away, while the in-town facility, used for domestic routes and most of those to Uruguay, is Aeroparque Jorge Newbury — or just Aeroparque — along the river just north of the city center. Aerolineas Argentinas, the Argentine flag carrier, along with Uruguay’s Pluna, run an air bridge service connecting their respective capitals. Today I’m riding with Pluna because the competition is sold out.

CX-BON, a Boeing 737, looks positively resplendent in the midday sun. The jet is immaculate inside and out. Even the reverser buckets are burnished to a mirrored shine. This is an ancient, dash 200 model, manufactured in 1982 and previously in use with the Dutch airline Transavia (here you can see it in prior livery). Not that you’d know it. Almost a quarter-century old, the plane looks, sounds, and smells factory fresh. The first class cabin is set outfitted with crisp white and navy. The plush cloth seats, vacuumed carpeting and unscuffed bulkheads put comparable US digs to shame. Out back, it’s the standard three-by-three set in modest, if equally clean decor.

I’m betting very few of you ever heard the name Pluna before, but the company, now partnered with Brazilian carrier Varig, traces its origins to 1936. A tiny fleet of seven flies to a scattering of destinations in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. A single Boeing 767 crosses the Atlantic to Madrid.

Aeroparque to Montevideo takes about 25 minutes. Officially it’s 45, but don’t believe it. Or maybe the crew was hot-dogging a bit on this clear afternoon. It did seem a hasty descent. I take it these guys are more than familiar with the tricks and quirks of this easy shuttle — the way I once knew Boston to Portland, Maine.

Check-in and boarding: A-minus
(short, orderly queue and reasonable, no-nonsense security.

Punctuality: A-plus
(Departure exactly on time; arrival 15 minutes early.)

Aircraft cleanliness and decor: B-plus
(As described. Old and proud)

Food and service: B-minus
(Staff make bilingual announcements, then give out drinks in skinny plastic cups. Not much, but you wouldn’t get anything on a Stateside flight of equal duration.)

The central terminal at Montevideo’s Aeropuerto Internacional del Carrasco is a neat, attractive structure of chrome and glass. The airport grounds and interior spaces are impeccably groomed, simple to navigate, and completely unostentatious. One peculiarity of Carrasco — and EZE too — and a new twist on the relentless airport shopping experience, is an immigration hall that dumps passengers smack into the middle of a store. To reach the gates, one first navigates a maze of duty-free goods, which seem to include everything — from local wine to tennis rackets — except those items you might actually desire during a flight. Like a magazine, newspaper, or bottle of water.

Carrasco is served by American and United Airlines, making Montevideo second only to Melbourne, Australia, as the most southerly destination in the world visited by any US carrier.

From Montevideo, a two and a half hour bus trip carries you to the former Portuguese port of Colonia, a tourist town whose cobblestoned, UNESCO-ordained Barrio Histórico features a lighthouse and 17th century church, allegedly the oldest in Uruguay. A company called Buquebus runs both fast and slow ferries between Colonia and Buenos Aires. The expensive ferry takes an hour; the cheap one three hours.

Anxious to indulge in every major form of transport, and desperately low on pesos, I’m slow-boating it back to BA aboard the Eladia Isabel, an enormous, 150-meter ferry with space for 1,200 people.

I’ve never seen a ferry — indeed any vessel or vehicle — quite like this one. The entire ship is done up in a hideous, worn-out Vegas chintz. Passengers step from the gangway into what appears to be the lobby of the world’s ugliest hotel — an atrium of threadbare carpet, dirty mirrored glass, gilded columns and an ersatz marble stairway. There’s a sweet, gamy odor in the air, traceable to an onboard mall hawking jewelry and fragrances, while from somewhere overhead booms a frightening, incessant alarm. Ring-ring-ring; ping-ping-ping; whoop-whoop. Holy shit we’re sinking, and we haven’t even left the dock. Except no, the racket is from a video game arcade set against the starboard wall.

Seating is fore and aft in skewed rows of what appear to be garage sale Barcaloungers. The chairs are the size and shape of old-style airplane seats — like something from an Aerolineas Argentinas DC-4, maybe, circa 1947. They are covered in most uncomfortable fabric ever invented — a scruffy, stiff material best described as plasterized denim.

I take a window seat, port side, and for three hours the view and the odor are unchanging — the tea-colored chop of the Rio de la Plata and the hazy, windblown stink of diesel fuel and cheap perfume.

This article 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.