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Something Weird’s up with LAN Airlines in Lima (or, When Life Deals You a Bowl of Lemons, make a Pisco Sour)

March 7, 2010

Note: this post was written last week, Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, during a complete unforeseen stopover in Lima.

Ha! It says that Lima is "the best airport in South America". Ha! I say again.

OK, I thought I’d be fine for my travels back to Canada because I would not pass through Santiago de Chile (airport affected by the recent big earthquake); my routing was Buenos Aires – Lima – LA – Vancouver. Especially after checking in in BA: they gave me my boarding passes right through to LA. All seemed good.

Then I got to Lima where, upon disembarking, the screen showed my 1:05am flight, at Gate 21, to LA (along with a whole bunch of other LAN flights) as “Delayed”. So those of us with the same connection lined up and waited patiently…  I heard the Australians in front of me being told that the flight was now going at 5:40am, but then the agent told them to be at Gate 21 at 12:30am. So the flight is going? Hmm.

Then it was my turn. The agent told me the flight was delayed til 5:40. I told her then I’ll need her to revise my connection to Vancouver. “Connection?” she said. “In that case,  you go on this flight, departing at 1:05am. Be at Gate 21 at 12:30.”

“So my original flight is going, after all?” I asked.

“No, it is a different flight,” she responded. Just with the same flight number, time, and gate. Hmm, very strange.

So we board, and wait. And wait. An hour passes, then close to another. Then the Captain comes on and says that the airport is closed for scheduled maintenance (it is now 2:10am, which is actually 4:10 am for me, Buenos Aires time) and we will now depart at 3:30am. Fortunately there is an empty seat beside me (why were they trying to boot people off this flight then, if there was room? another hmm). At least I am able to doze a bit.

An announcement wakes me. It is the Captain. My watch says 6:22am and we are still on the ground. “We are very sorry, we have exceeded the crew’s legal work time and we must leave you now. This flight is cancelled. Please disembark and follow the ground crew’s instructions.” Looks like I am staying in Peru. I set my watch to local time, 4:22am. And this is where the real fun begins.

The mob at the unmanned immigration booth, 5am.

OK, so we get off. People are already pissed off (we’ve been sitting on the plane for 4 hours now – you’d think they could have seen this coming a bit earlier?). Some are yelling at the LAN

staff, who are simply telling us that we must pass through Peruvian immigration, that they will get us a hotel, and that at 2pm tomorrow they will have information about the flight. 2pm!! There are several hundred of us – it is clear that we are not going to be in any hotel room for hours yet.

I have to decide upon my strategy. Go it on my own and try to rebook my flight (at 4:30am? I don’t think so) or follow instructions. I abandon the crowd, who are stalled at the arrival gate yelling at Claudia, the LAN staff person.

I get to immigration, along with the dozen or so others who elected to follow instructions. But there is only one booth – and no one is at it (the airport is closed, remember? no inbound flights). But we line up politely anyway, and try to keep our spirits light and make jokes about how ridiculous this is (remember, we’re all kind of giddy for having been awake for 24 hrs). I make friends with an American named Mike, who was on the coast in Peru when the tsunami following the Chile quake hit. He’d seen the videos of the Indonesia tsunami, and knew what to do when the bay in front of his beach-house suddenly emptied.

Claudia tries to figure out where to lead us.

So we wait and hope. Eventually the angry crowd joins us, still yelling at Claudia as they approach. And they are not in the mood to make an orderly line-up, so they crowd in front of our straight little line-up, forming a mass mob in front of the one unmanned immigration booth.

Then Claudia shows up and calls in Spanish for anyone who is in transit (people like myself, who boarded in another country and did not visit Peru on this trip) to go with her. I try to help the English-speaking people understand what she is saying, so they know whether to go or stay. I explain to Mike “I have to go with her. You have to stay.” I wave to him above the crowd as I am whisked away “I don’t know which option is better! Maybe I’ll see you again!” and the 16 of us who boarded in Buenos Aires follow Claudia.

OK, now here is where my memory starts getting fuzzy. By now, I am dehydrated (remember, they’d taken my water bottle? which I was going to fill before getting on the flight to nowhere) and just trashed. We wind around corridors and passages and through metal doors and glass doors. Eventually we get to a different, bigger, immigration area.

Trying to convince Customs we're here. 6am.

The customs official cannot deal with us, though. We have no “arrival” flight number for our form. So they argue with Claudia for a while, checking out the computer screens which, according to the customs official, prove that our flight is not here and therefore we cannot be here. We try to convince him of the evidence

before his very eyes (us!). The chief flight attendant shows up and tries to explain that we are really here. The immigration guy finally wraps his head around what has happened – supposedly the LAN people are supposed to fill out some special card when this happens – and eventually he stamps our passports.

So that is immigration – then customs. But no bags. Claudia takes us to international arrivals, where we wait a while at one carousel, then are herded over to another. The Australians are really thirsty, too, and asking for water. Although there are vending machines there, none of us has any Peruvian money.

So, after no bags appear anywhere, Claudia takes us over to national arrivals – I think it is like 6am or so local time by now – where it seems that some of the people who had boarded the flight in Peru have already picked up their bags. And there is Mike! We greet each other like old friends.

We know our bags are in there. 7am.

But alas, the door guards will not let us in, because we are coming through the out-door and not through the in-door (and there is no way we can backtrack through immigration to get around to the in-door). So we all fight and argue, but to no avail – the door guards believe that, since we have come in from Buenos Aires, our baggage can not be in the national section – even as we see other people from our same flight coming out with their baggage. So we yell and argue and threaten to bust through the door (I am quite ready to go through with it by now). The Australians are calling for water – one of them is feeling sick – and Mike needs medication from his bag. The chief flight attendant shows up, and then even the captain. I use my best Spanish: “Please sir, can you help us get our bags? We’ve been awake for 24 hours now, led all over the airport, and no one will help us.”

7 hrs later, some now in wheelchairs.

He smiles sadly. “I am in the same position. Just trying to get my bags, like you.”

The door guards insist that our bags can not be there – even though we knew that is not true. So eventually Claudia leads our group back to customs. An elderly woman who cannot walk any more is put in a wheelchair. I say goodbye

to Mike again, and we go back into international baggage claims, where our bags – of course – are not.

Back in the international area once more, people line up first at one place then another – I’m not sure why, we are just following one another around in a daze by now. The Australians have managed to change some money somewhere, and are slugging down bottles of gatorade. I am so thirsty; I find myself staring at their red gatorade sloshing back and forth in the bottle as they gulp. I am going to fall over. I have to turn away.

Claudia is out in the middle of the empty baggage claim room talking to someone, and my head temporarily clears enough to wonder what we are lining up for – if she isn’t even there. I stagger over to her. “Claudia. Our bags are not here. Better we just go to the hotel, ¿no?”

She agrees. So she herds us all up again – or what is left of us – and here is where the only good news of the tale comes. The hotel is right here at the airport, the Ramada Inn. No waiting for transport. Right next door where we can walk across the driveway and deal with bags, tickets, whatever, all by ourselves in the morning. Oops, I mean afternoon – it is already 7:45 in the morning.

No longer sure why we're lining up. 7:45am.

OK, the story could go on and on (and it has)… it’s now midnight and I’m writing from the Ramada Inn – yup, now over 24 hours in Peru. Almost all of that spent in line-ups at the airport today. I supposedly have a “confirmed” flight out at 3:40am (“confirmed” in the Latin American sense of the word). So I’m sitting in the hotel restaurant, trying to celebrate this unexpected visit to Peru by sipping on their national drink. When life hands you a bowl of lemons… make yourself a pisco sour.

I ran into the captain again on the elevator on the way to catch that “confirmed” flight. He tells me the delays were all on the Lima end. They took so long to load the luggage there that they were not done by the airport’s scheduled 2-3:30am closure (which makes sense why our rescheduled flight was for 3:40am, so as not to risk getting affected by that again).

So we boarded again… sat on the tarmac for another 2 hours again (I watched the luggage loaders sitting around, joking, getting in a fight, then making up and joking around again… but loading very little luggage, for most of those 2 hours). But finally we took off!

Once in LA I found out that the LAN people had mistakenly rescheduled my connection for the following day… so I spent my whole connection time there in a line-up trying to get them to swing my connection (and luggage) on to that day’s flight. And Wednesday night, after 4 days of travelling, I finally made it into Vancouver.

This whole thing is strange, though. Sure, part of it is the problems at Lima’s Jorge Chávez Airport. LAN tells us that the problem is because of the Chile quake, that they don’t have the planes. But that is not right – we had a plane, we were on it for 4 hours. And this issue of saying my 1:05 am flight was not going, then all of a sudden “another” flight with the same number, departure time, and gate was going – and then it didn’t go after all – is all very strange. There is something that they were not being straight with us about, something very strange about the whole affair…

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