The Venezuelan Special
The AeroPostal madness didn't stop with the ticketing problems in Santo Domingo. I spent over 25 hours in terminal limbo in Caracas, Venezuela, courtesy of the worst airline I've ever flown with.
I call it the Venezuelan Special—a rare kind of grab your ankles indifference and absurdity that I believe can only be found in the airport of Caracas, and on the country's principle airline, AeroPostal (whose job I believe is to give the Venezuelan Special to as many people as possible).
After a series of unannounced (or poorly proclaimed) gate changes and a near two hour flight delay in Santgo Domingo, I was finally out of the Dominican Republic and on my way to Trinidad. As the flight was boarding, I just had to take a look at the pre-computerized cockpit of the DC9 I was flying in—so many switches and knobs! I was going to take a photo when the flight attendant tossed me a smile and asked if I wanted a picture inside—how could I refuse? You'd never see this go down back in the States.
A brief 25 minute layover in Aruba gave me the opportunity to check out the island from the air as we touched down. I can't believe how tiny it is! Even more surprising was how under-populated it seemed—must cost a fortune for even the locals to live there.
The sun was setting as we left Aruba, and I had no idea that I would be watching it rise in Caracas the next morning.
What Should Have Happened
I was scheduled for a simple flight path that lead me from Santo Domingo to Aruba (staying on board the plane), Aruba to Caracas (for a plane transfer), and Caracas to Trinidad. The flight should have taken about five hours with layovers.
The Setup for Disaster
We were extremely delayed departing from Santo Domingo, and I had great concerns about making my connecting flight. I queried the flight crew, to which they responded that it wasn't going to be a problem. Right…
What I didn't know, until a short time later, was that the gate we arrived at was the same gate my connection was going to depart from. Either it was going to be the same plane with a different flight number, or a different plane all together—I never found out, because I never got on board.
Arrival in Caracas
Touching down at night, I was witness to a very cool sight. There are several hills surrounding the airport in Caracas, and in the pitch of dark the dotted lights from all the houses sprawling up the unidentifiable hillsides created the effect of thousands of fireflies stretching up into the night. This sensation of awe was quickly squashed though when I arrived at the gate.
In what must be one of the most asinine procedures I've seen at an airport, Caracian authorities expected you do deplane, go back through security (after checking in at a connecting flights counter), and then return to your gate. A procedure that takes you up a flight of stairs and deposits you back down where you came from. This could possibly be a simple procedure, but there were several dozen people clamoring about a single x-ray machine and guard. Adding insult to injury, the queue was over 30 people deep (I was second in line behind a pair of guys) and the guard was just looking and the monitor with a piece of luggage and talking on the radio. What was going on?
My flight was set to depart within moments, and I was stuck in security, apparently behind a broken x-ray machine. I turned around to see how many other people were in my situation and started asking if they were going to "Puerto España." Many people replied affirmatively, including one guy (Marcos) just a few people behind me who spoke English (I was asking him what was going on with the checkpoint).
Marcos and I struck up a conversation in another queue at the gate. He's currently an IT Infrastructure Manager in charge of the Caribbean for Unilever, the huge international parent company for many bands you'd recognize. We had our seats reassigned next to each other, and walked over to an eatery about 15 yards from the gate.
Apparently our original departure time of 7:30 was a wash, as it was well after and we didn't see a plane. People stopped queuing at the gate, and sat down with long faces in the seats—mechanical difficulties had delayed the flight boarding/departure until 11:00pm.
We decided to make the best of it by taking out Marcos' laptop and piggybacking on the free wifi signal of a closed elite member lounge, some 35 yards from the gate. We chatted and I showed him my Web site, and before we knew it, it was 10:30.
We packed up quickly and headed over to our gate when we heard (in Spanish) the final boarding call for our flight! We rushed over to our gate but there was no plane—it must be at a different gate! I scurried down a flight of nearby stairs and asked the security guard if the minibus waiting outside the sliding door was for our flight—it was! I called to Marcos, and we jumped on board. The AeroPostal squawked our arrival over the radio, and said there was another missing pair. We waited for about another minute before he took off down the tarmac to deliver us to our plane (that was, for some reason, some distance down the terminal).
Just as we were pulling up, the plane pulled away from the terminal—we were screwed.
We returned to the terminal and searched for an AeroPostal employee to help rectify the situation, except that we couldn't find any. In the course of 20 minutes, this "international" airport had completely vacated. There were no more airplanes arriving or departing, all eateries and shops were closed, and only a handful of security guards and travel weary passengers remained.
We were trapped in the terminal, akin to Tom Hanks in the movie, The Terminal. We couldn't go beyond Venezuelan immigration control, and there was next to nothing for us on the gate side of things. To make matters worse, neither of us had eaten in 12 hours and there were only vending machines available—but there was no ATM to get the local currency with!
Marcos, thankfully, speaks fluent English and Spanish (he born in the DR but spent a good chuck of time in New York) and was able to get a little bit of assistance from one of the security guards (with a few U.S. Dollar currency exchange).
As Marcos tried to buy a coke from one of the vending machines, his coin got stuck just inside the slot. It wasn't stuck because it was inserted improperly, but because there were so many other jammed coins in there (possibly overflow from too much coin currency). Jackpot! We had all the time in the world to pull as much coinage out of the machine as possible, to help us subsist through the night.
We still didn't have much after we were done clearing out as much of the slot as we could; enough for a few cracker type snacks and a bottle of coke to last us until 6am (when the eateries opened back up).
Aside from our lack of food, we were well situated (entertainment wise) for an overnight stay in the airport. Our collective electronics (Marcos' laptop with music and Internet connection and PlayStation Portable, with my external speakers) provided enough stimulus to keep me from trying to catch any Zs. I pulled an all-nighter, keeping an eye on our gear and catching up on e-mail and the such, allowing Marcos sleep or trade me off on the PC when he wanted.
It was nearly 11:00 in the morning before an AeroPostal employee showed up for us to speak with. Marcos spoke to the woman, asking to speak with a supervisor. The response came back from over the radio, there was no supervisor available and that we should fill out a complaint form if we had an issue to address with the airline. Marcos continued to explain the situation to the employee, when she commented that according to the system, our tickets had already been voided (because their records indicated that we were aboard the flight and happily in Trinidad—which we were most certainly not).
Without an ounce of compassion, acknowledgment of guilt, or offer of due compensation, she stated that she would have to get a hold of someone in a higher authority to reissue the ticket and attempt to find seats available on the next flight to Trinidad, at 7:30 that evening. I believe the airline name translates into "Air Post", and that's exactly what I felt like, bulk mail.
Later that evening, as we were waiting to board our plane at our designated gate, I couldn't believe it when something similar happened all over again. There must have been 20 of us waiting at our designated gate, only to come to find out (thanks to our nervous roaming) that the flight was already boarding 10 gates away. What a mess.
I couldn't believe it when I finally touched down in Trinidad—I was free! Now it was time to find Rose, who was scheduled to arrive at nearly the exact time we (eventually) did…