What's the world's worst airline?

Commentary about business and finance.
July 19 2007 5:03 PM

The World's Worst Airline

A TAM plane crashed in Brazil Tuesday. I wasn't surprised.

A TAM Linhas Aereas SATAM airlines plane. Click image to expand.
A TAM plane

TAM Linhas Aereas is the worst airline in the world. I've been saying that repeatedly since early April, when my boyfriend and I took a short vacation in Brazil and returned happy with our stay but traumatized by the air travel. So Tuesday, when a TAM Linhas Aereas Airbus A320 on an inbound domestic route skidded off the São Paulo airport runway, tried to take off again, and crashed into a cargo building owned by the same carrier, exploding on impact and incinerating nearly 200 people, I felt angrily (and OK, smugly) justified in my condemnation.

It's not entirely TAM's fault it's a terrible airline; it's also Brazil's fault. And Tuesday's horrible accident illustrates why. Click here for an account of a typical TAM flight.

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We flew TAM from New York to São Paulo and then to Manaus, back to São Paulo then to Rio, back to São Paulo again, then back to New York, all in the space of nine days—an itinerary that would have been brutal even without complications—and every single flight was delayed by several hours or canceled. My boyfriend, who's been a travel writer for more than 15 years and has landed on runways consisting mostly of grass, with a cinderblock terminal building and the local welcoming party covered in nothing but mud and chicken feathers, still insists that TAM was the worst air travel experience he's ever had.

Some of the delays were bureaucratic and intrinsic to TAM, but many of them were intrinsic to the state-run airports and caused by the difficulty of managing foot traffic in relatively small terminals that were not designed to handle the number of travelers they were getting—a number that has increased exponentially with Brazil's Rio-centric tourist boom.

In many cases, the semblance of order was considered just as good as actual order, and the most obvious manifestation of this pseudo-organization is the creation of neat, orderly lines of people. Passengers are kept in line, literally and figuratively. For our part, this often meant standing in line for an hour in order to be allowed to stand in another line, which in turn led to another line, which was, if we were lucky, the actual ticketing line. Then there was the security line, the boarding line, and sometimes another security line, in case the first one missed the inevitable bottle of breast milk or tube of hair gel the would-be terrorist might use to hijack a plane.

Standing in line was second only to waiting while receiving no new information as the quintessential experience of Brazilian air travel. After finally boarding a flight from Manaus to São Paulo, we sat for several hours and were served dinner by the flight crew—perhaps out of concern that the passengers would begin feeding on each other if left alone much longer, but mostly to compensate for not being able to update the passengers lest they grow mutinous. When it was manifestly clear that everyone had forced themselves to eat, perhaps fearing an overnight stay on the Manaus tarmac, we were told to disembark because the flight was canceled. More than an hour later, the luggage arrived.

Not content to leave the airport without one last episode of standing in line, we queued to get vouchers for the designated hotel, grandiosely named the "Taj Mahal," which in giant faux gold letters affixed to the entrance declared itself to be a five-star establishment—because no one else would possibly declare it as such—and featured a revolving rooftop restaurant with an Astroturf floor that creaked slowly clockwise to give diners a 360-degree view of Manaus' more colorful Dumpsters. After our scenic breakfast in motion the next morning, we arrived several hours early at the airport, stood in line for the requisite half-day, and waited expectantly to be told that our flight was delayed. We were not disappointed.

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