This is a comprehensive trip report (read long) as I also share these with a frequent flier community that I belong to. So grab a cocktail, fasten those seat belts, and join me as we jet over 10,000 miles on LAN.
I have been taking what I like to refer to as “Mom and me” trips since I was a teenager. We’d often jet off to London for a theater weekend or Brussels for shopping or Puerto Vallarta for food and sun. As I got older it was a tradition that I maintained and the destinations got more exotic – long weekends in Dubai or a few days in Hong Kong.
Two years ago we fell in love with Lima so when planning for this tip I though why not keep the South American theme going and give Buenos Aires a whirl? My seventy-five year old mother is very young at heart and is pretty much up for any destination I throw at her.
So on with the trip…
I was able to utilize the American Express International Airline Program (IAP) once again for this return to South America. I like the IAP because it offers a buy one get one free (kind of) business or first class ticket on member airlines. I say it is “kind of” free because you are essentially buying a full-fare business or first class ticket that is fully refundable and paying the tax on the “free” ticket. I like the flexibility the program offers though it is often cheaper to buy two discounted business class tickets on many routes. Luckily, it worked out to my advantage for our journey to South America using LAN Airlines which I have had pretty good experiences with in the past. As you will soon read, this trip was a bit of a mixed bag with LAN but I will wait to comment until the segments in question come up.
Routing for this trip would be JFK-LIM-EZE-SCL-JFK.
Boeing 767-300 with winglets
Seats: 2A and 2C
This is a late evening departure from JFK – scheduled for 11:45 p.m. LAN departs from the American Airlines terminal at JFK and at this hour it was relatively quiet. I did have to search for the Premium Business check-in desks that had moved and were located in a different aisle than the main LAN check-in desks. When we got to the line there was one person checking-in and we were quickly seen to. The check-in staff were very friendly and talkative and very efficiently took care of our bags and check-in formalities. We were given our boarding passing for the connecting flight (LIM-EZE) as well and an invitation to the Admiral’s Club which is the contract lounge for LAN. A priority security lane was available and we were quickly through and on our way to the lounge within a few minutes.
Upon arrival in the lounge we were warmly greeted and given drink coupons for premium bar offerings. Of course last time I remembered getting two per person and this time it was two total. The lounge is nothing special and was not very crowded with the exception of some LAN, Qatar, and AA departures. Service was fine overall and eventually an announcement was made that the lounge would be closing and to please proceed to our gate.
I thought I had spied our aircraft from the lounge but alas it must have been another LAN departure or ended-up being swapped. When we arrived at the gate we noticed the flight and cabin crew seated in the area – never a good sign. We would later find out that the flight would be delayed due to the late arrival of the incoming flight from Guayaquil. We would end up leaving about two hours late but were assured that we would still make our connection in LIM.
Once we boarded we settled-in to our seats and pre-departure beverages (champagne, juice, or water) were offered along with a ramekin of assorted nuts. Menus were already at the seats and the flight crew came around during boarding to see if we would like dinner or prefer to sleep. Two breakfast options were also offered: 1) full à la carte breakfast offered 90 minutes to landing or 2) an express option 40 minutes prior. While I did want to sleep I of course had to take both full options so that I could include them here in the trip report. As a traveler with celiac disease and a shellfish allergy I always make sure to ask if my meal was loaded prior to departure (remember this for a bit later). It was indeed and I had noticed on my boarding pass were the four magic letters I always like to see GFML.
The plane itself was tidy though the cabin was beginning to show its age a bit. This bird was configured with only three rows of Premium Business in a 2-2-2 configuration making for 18 seats total. It was much nicer than the five row configuration they sometimes offer. Amenity kits and newspaper/magazines were also presented. I have always liked LAN’s amenity kits and this trip they were Salvatore Ferragamo and came in male and female versions.
Once airborne service quickly commenced with the majority of passengers choosing sleep over service. Alas, what would a trip report be without the food report so I downed a cocktail or two and pressed-on.
Grilled Steak and Asparagus served with Saffron Couscous with Peppers
Ricotta and Spinach Ravioli in Tomato Sauce
Roasted Chicken in a Mushroom Sage Sauce served with Golden Polenta and Cherry Tomatoes
Fresh Seasonal Fruit
The breakfast options were offered a la carte with each passenger selecting their preferences and handing them to the flight attendant prior to drifting off into sleepy land. Cold Express Breakfast was offered 40 minutes prior to landing.
My gluten-free option consisted of a grilled chicken breast with mixed vegetables, a salad, and fruit for dessert. Of course the meal arrived with two non-gluten-free rolls on the tray but they were relatively segregated so not a huge issue. The flight attendant clearly did not realize that this was a no-no for me and quite frankly I wouldn’t expect her to – so I just moved the rolls off to the side and carried on. I know that some people with celiac disease expect the whole world to immediately understand what it means but this is just not the case. I always travel with a little card that explains my dietary restrictions – celiac disease and shellfish allergy in the language of where I am or in the case of the carrier (if I don’t speak it). I am always amazed at how many people I encounter after reading the card are amazed at what celiac disease really means. Do I wish that airlines would perhaps better train cabin crew on some of their special meals and why a traveler might order one – yes. But I also wish the Concorde was back in the air and we all know that is not going to happen. In the fifteen plus years since my celiac diagnosis I have flown over a million miles and never had a single gluten-reaction or had to stab myself with my EpiPen because of shellfish exposure which is always nice.
Okay, so you are probably wondering what the food tasted like? Well, it’s airline food and it was probably 3 a.m. at this point. I don’t think I have ever walked onto a plane thinking “Boy, I really hope this is going to be the best meal I have ever had in my life.” That would just be sad. The food was what you would expect and after a quick taste (and another cocktail) it was time to sleep.
The Premium Business product is a lie-flat seat that gets the job done. Seats are pretty comfortable and personal space is ample. If you do not know the person seated next to you there is a large “ish” divider that you can pull down between the seats offering a bit more privacy.
Despite being delayed we did not have to make a mad dash through the airport or anything. We went through the transit security which was easy-peasy and we soon back up in the terminal making our way to the gate. No time to visit the lounge I am afraid (though I did on a previous trip). At the gate we were paged so that they could double-check that we had our Argentina entry fee paid and boarding was about to begin. We were then paged again (well, my mother was) and after making our way again back though the sea of people to the podium, we informed that one of our seats was inoperable so they took our boarding passes crossed-off the seats and hand-wrote 2J and 2K. Boarding is usually chaotic on LAN but the use of the signs for people to line-up behind seems to make it a bit better and the Preferente lane for business and elites is most welcome.
Boeing 767-300 with winglets
Seats: 2A and 2C moved to 2J and 2K (due to inoperable seat)
This bird had the five row configuration but business was not really that full. Pre-departure beverages we offered along with reading materials and amenity kits – which this time, given the shorter flight time, were just Ferragamo shoe bags and some basic toiletries.
I don’t recall seeing any menus on this flight and even though I had slept on the previous flight felt time catching-up with me. I do know that I was offered an omelet with a few grilled vegetables, fruit salad, and a corn muffin-type bread (that I was unsure if it was actually gluten-free, so I passed on it). The omelet was not bad and coupled with a bit of coffee helped get my clock back on track. The regular meal was also an omelet with a passed selection of breads.
The flight was pretty uneventful and landing in Buenos Aires was on-time. Immigration was quick and painless and our bags were actually waiting for us on the carousel when we arrived so priority tags worked. I had heard that EZE can be a madhouse at peak times but we must have hit it just right (arriving at 3 p.m.) because it was not busy at all. We met our driver and headed to Recoleta to begin our Argentine adventure.
All in all the flights were fine and service good. I don’t think I have ever been on a LAN flight departing JFK that hasn’t been delayed so was not surprised this time – though I did wish they would have told us sooner (perhaps at check-in) that there was a delay vs. just announcing it at the gate.
Boeing 787 and Boeing 767 (swap)
Seats: 3A and 3C
Now here is where things get a bit interesting. After a truly amazing stay in Buenos Aires the often described bi-polar side of LAN began to rear its head – subtly at first and then things took an interesting turn that would resonate quite literally for weeks after. So let’s get started, shall we?
We arrived at EZE for our 6:45 p.m. departure to find a very quiet check-in area. Again, because we were likely traveling at an off-peak time (especially for flights heading back to the U.S.) there was actually very few people about. We proceeded to the Premium Business check-in and were quickly taken care of. Bags were tagged, boarding passes for both segments were given (even though the stop is SCL continues with the same plane and flight number you have to transit on and off the aircraft) and we were soon on our way. I noticed the check-in person showed the boarding passes to her colleague next to her because for some reason our seats on the EZE-SCL leg were moved from 3AC to 4JK but back to 3AC for the SCL-JFK continuation. I didn’t think anything of it and we made our way through immigration and up to the LAN lounge.
The lounge was pretty empty but was actually a nice space with a decent selection of food (hot and cold selections) and beverage items including a very nice selection of spirits and wines. It had a nice layout with several seating areas and staff were friendly. We spent just a bit of time here because I wanted to also check out the American Express Centurion Lounge a little further down the terminal and coincidentally adjacent to our departure gate.
The Centurion lounge was smaller than I had expected and had quite a few people. It is essentially divided into three areas: a room for Centurion cardholders; private(ish) room-like areas seating four people for Platinum card holders; and the main area for everyone else. I am not sure what levels of Argentinian cards get access but the guy checking-in next to us had a gold card so thinking gold and above. The food and beverage selection was okay but the LAN lounge definitely had better options and a larger selection. The Centurion Lounge was also quite noisy with quite a few families and even had a play area for children.
It was soon time to make our way to the gate and I was actually quite excited because this flight was with the new 787 which, as an aviation geek, I was eager to fly on and specifically chose this return routing for that reason.
As we approached the plane through the jetway you could see the nose of this beauty staring you in the face – and let me tell you it is one fine looking aircraft. We were greeted at the door and directed to our seats which were the second “bulkhead” seats just behind the doors. The new seats were reminiscent of TAM’s new color scheme (not surprising) and the cabin itself just felt wonderfully open and spacious. Of course I had to give the electro-chromatic window shades a whirl as we quickly settled in for departure.
Welcome cocktails, nuts, and newspapers were distributed for this relatively short-hop over to SCL but it didn’t matter because I would soon be spending around 10 hours on this beauty enroute to JFK – or so I thought.
Everything about the 787 was impressive – from the cabin lighting to large television screens to the flight tracker which was so much more detailed than that of LAN’s 767s. Service was swift and my special meal was actually the most impressive that I have yet to have on any LAN flight. It was a cold steak salad that was actually quite delicious. The regular option was a large baguette sandwich that my mother said was actually very good. I was not that hungry but it was a good thing that I did because this would be the last good experience I would have with LAN on this trip.
Arrival into SCL was uneventful and we made our way through transit and back up into the terminal. Since we were on-time and had some time before the final leg we went to the Mistral Lounge but it was getting ready to close when we arrived so they directed us to the Neruda lounge further down the terminal. The lounge itself was quite busy but we were able to find some seats. The lounge seemed very dark for some reason but it had an okay selection of beverages and a few snack items.
Since we were getting close to boarding time and we were a bit of a schlep from the gate we bid the lounge adieu and made our way through the terminal. As we approached the gate there was so many people it was a bit chaotic (first tip-off something was awry). The check-in desk at the gate kept calling people to “see them” and each person would then come back with a new boarding pass (tip-off number two). Once things began to settle they rolled out the lane markers and people began to get in their respective lines. Boarding was a bit delayed as they were still sorting our whatever was going on (tip-off number three). Once boarding began we made our way down a ramp to a secondary security screening table which took all of two seconds to get through. On the way down I caught a glimpse of a 767 out of the corner of my eye and thought – strange? But then we wrapped away from it so didn’t think anything of it…until we wrapped right back and there in front of me, was not the 787 I had just flown-in on but – you guessed it – an aircraft swap and this would be our ride back to JFK. And the tip-offs all became crystal clear – they were re-seating the majority of passengers due to the swap.
While extremely disappointed that I was now about to spend 10 hours on a five row Premium Business configured 767 – these things happen. Yet, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that something had rendered the beautiful bird we arrived on inoperable. Just file that little tidbit away for a bit. So we board and begin to get settled in. The usual routine of pre-departure drinks, reading materials, and amenity kit distribution commences. While we are on the ground, still at the gate, the crew begins to come around and discuss dinner options. I mention that I have a gluten-free meal and the attendant goes to check on it. When she comes back she tells me that it was not loaded but they have a vegetarian meal. Okay, so here is where I begin to lose it just a bit.
Cue the cool flashback effect
Let’s time travel back to when I bought the tickets and my agent ensured me that gluten-free meals had been requested for all segments. Again, maybe she missed one (though highly unlikely because she’ a real pro). Still, months before the departure I call LAN to confirm my seats and gluten-free meal (#1). Let’s move forward a month or so before departure when I call LAN again to confirm all the pertinents are indeed in my record (#2). Wait, that’s not all, a couple of days before departure call number three to LAN just to make sure all is okay because of course you cannot see your seat map or any information except for an eternally spinning circle on their website (#3). We are at the airport now on our way down to EZE and I casually ask the check-in person to just go ahead and give that reservation one last look re: the meals (#4). Okay, we are in Buenos Aires now, I am trying to check-in for my flights online but get some weird message (of course) and end-up calling LAN reservations to make sure there isn’t a problem and the nice agent confirms everything is fine, our seats are fine, and my little ol’ gluten-free meal is fine (#5).
So let’s see. That’s not one, not two or three, but five…five interactions with LAN directly where I am assured that all is well in the LAN world. Just file this away for now.
Cue cool dissolve effect brings us back to the flight
I remain extremely calm and ask how did this happen? To which I was met with a blank stare. I ask to please speak with the cabin supervisor who was able to once again confirm the meal was not on board but really very little else. So, I begin to push a bit because the thought of a ten hour flight with no meal was not that appealing. Yes, I do travel with snacks and things because this isn’t my first time at the rodeo but I always feel that, despite paying full-fare business class fares, I do sometimes get gipped when it comes to service. Again, not looking for a five star meal of anything here – just a bit of dinner. I actually had to press them to come-up with some sort of solution – the vegetarian option was once again presented, nice, but little else.
So, still calm and collected and trying to get them to see why their other option of eating something from the menu would not work for me either. The supervisor and sidekick disappear after my suggestion that maybe they figure something out. They return and say there isn’t enough time do anything – um, yeah, going out on a limb here but maybe if we could have gotten beyond the vegetarian meal for the first fifteen minutes of the conversation we might be in a better place. After this continued I seriously started to look for the camera because I thoroughly expected Aston Kutscher to pop-out from behind the curtain and tell me I was being Punk’d. No such luck.
What did happen is that the flurry of activity eventually yielded someone coming up the jetway with a tray (guessing pulled from another flight) that was put in the galley. A few minutes later the supervisor comes forth with said tray and presents it for my approval to view before departure. At this point I was pretty much done but looking at the tray I could just laugh. A small salad with no dressing and a few tiny mozzarella balls with what I hoped (or at least pretended was dried beef) and a minuscule fruit salad.
So the flight departs and service begins I cannot tell you what the menu options actually were because the menus were collected while I was sleeping and I didn’t get to look at them while on the ground, because I was a little pre-occupied. I can tell you that one option was again steak which my mother had and could eat about two bites of because it was so tough and chewy. We both put in our orders for breakfast (seeing as mine was clearly the “dessert” on the tray) and headed to dreamland. I actually got quite a few hours of sleep (thanks to the ever helpful cocktail Gods and a little Benadryl always does the job). One thing I will say is that the flight attendant serving my drinks had a wonderfully heavy pour which seemed to make everything that had transpired okay – well, almost.
The actual breakfast was a hodgepodge of what you actually ordered and while I had opted for fruit and coffee was presented with an omelet that was the most greasy sad excuse I have ever seen with some potato ball thingy as a side (both of which I couldn’t eat because I couldn’t tell if they were in fact gluten-free). My mother received a selection of breads and pastries with random accoutrements and of course this was the exact opposite of what she shad selected.
Arrival into JFK was delayed by weather causing us to circle and circle for a while and I was beginning to think this flight would never end and there I would be forever circling over New Jersey – shudder.
Once on the ground immigration was relatively quick though I do always tend to arrive when they decided to open the U.S. Citizen line to non-Citizens (usually the last remaining passengers from a previous flight). There was not a lot of flights arriving at this time so we were through relatively quickly and our bags were among the first out.
Now while my overall visit to Buenos Aires was truly amazing I was extremely disappointed with LAN for their handling of the final leg of my journey. I had tweeted about the experience as it was happening and LAN customer service reached out to me. After multiple e-mails and multiple cases being opened (because it was originally just dismissed) in both their Latin American and U.S. offices including a phone call from their customer service department I really got a feel for how bi-polar this airline can be. When they are good, they’re good but when something goes wrong — good luck to you.
My beef with LAN is not that I didn’t get my meal. It is the fact that in every correspondence they kept tossing the blame on me or my travel agent. Had I not had those five interactions with LAN before and during my journey I might have accepted that I or my agent dropped the ball on this one — but it is just not the case. If I received my meal on the first segment of the SAME flight number then there is clearly an issue with their system. I mean let’s face it, their reservations system and website are a complete joke and I have heard multiple horror stories on a frequent flier community that I belong to.
All I wanted was an apology which I kind of got in a reverse back-handed sort of bizzaro-world kind of way — but not really. As for the equipment swap they claimed it was a safety issue when I know darn well that the 787 I arrived in SCL on was used to complete the MAD/FRA route because that aircraft went mechanical and because of cargo/passenger loads cannot easily be swapped with a 767 — so we were the lucky ones. I just hope that my gluten-free meal enjoyed its journey to Europe because that is clearly where it ended-up.
So you are probably wondering how LAN tried to make good in the end? Well, I received $200 in LAN dollars ($100 for each passenger on the itinerary) to use on a future trip that came with a letter that still pointed the finger at me. Will I every use them — nope. Will I likely fly LAN again — likely not but I never say never. Note to LAN: Be accountable for your mistakes. Don’t treat premium passengers like idiots and when you drop the ball accept responsibility. “Sorry” goes a long way.
If you have a LAN flight coming up better hope you get Dr. Jekyll vs. Mr. Hyde.