It started out as a regular travel day. Our AirBnB host had arranged for the airport shuttle for us. They were due at 11:20 am and called me three times to confirm we would be on the street waiting. The driver arrived exactly at 11:20 without additional seconds.
Planned so that we had 30+ days before our Residence Permit was due to be renewed, this determined our return date. What I had forgotten was the Immigration office is only open half days four days a week, closed on Wednesdays. Then there is the March 15 holiday that messes things up. After asking, our friend Szilvia Zörgő offered to join us. We would return on Tuesday night, get the paperwork I have collected printed on Wednesday and be good to go on Thursday.
Arriving at the airport with more than enough time gave us time to relax and chill before the flight. As experienced of a traveler as I am, I still get anxious the day of a flight. The Diners Club Lounge was right next to our gate; perfectly placed we could stay until the last-minute.
At our gate, the time of the departure kept changing by 10 minutes. Each time, I received an alert from United informing me of the change. In the meantime, I heard my name along with others called out over the intercom. We were to report to the desk. Once there, we were informed we had to have our checked luggage inspected “This is a routine spot check” they informed us. An airport employee dressed as a security guard escorted us downstairs and into a room similar to Customs. We were to identify our suitcase and then open it for the inspector. It was of note that they did not break off the non-TSA locks and did not bother with the one TSA lock. Maybe outside of the US, they do not have master keys. The inspector was jovial, but still it was nerve wrecking. As an American couple rode the escalator beside me, he said, “You know you have nothing to hide, but it is still enough to make you shake in your boots.
When an hour and a half passed the departure time, Copa Airlines informed us they were cancelling the flight due to mechanical problems. Then the fun started.
Representatives arrived at the gate to tell us they were going to re-ticket us based on destinations with Houston, NYC and Los Angeles being first. One of the reps took handfuls of passports and disappeared, making some nervous. It turned out, she needed Passport Control to null our exit stamps. For those traveling to the US, there were some other flights that day to get the passengers on, so they were priority. Being there were only 10 or 12 of us with final destinations in Europe, we were the last group handled.
Then the wait started. We all had to stand in line for the six unfortunate agents to hunt down new flights for us. It took close to six hours before it was our turn for rebooking, but not to our satisfaction. We had to stay in Quito overnight on Monday, fly to Panama City and stay overnight there before flying to Frankfurt on Wednesday, then continuing on to Vienna before finally reaching Budapest.
The agent swore he could not find a better routing, mainly because Lufthansa does not fly daily from Panama City. This is all dependent on Star Alliance partners. Providing us with a hotel voucher that included dinner and a taxi voucher for the tri p to the hotel, we were informed a bus would be at the hotel at 3 am to collect everyone for a 5 am flight to Panama City. Once we were in Panama City, the customer care would provide hotel, meal, and transportation vouchers. Having read the bait and switch airlines pull with their promises, I had my doubts and they were severe.
It took the taxi 45 minutes to drive us to the Conrad Hilton Hotel, our one night domicile. Prepared for the crowd, a buffet dinner crowded table after table. We made it to dinner by 10 pm. Though our voucher did not include alcohol, we both imbibed on two martinis. By 11:30 pm, we were in bed with a wake-up call for 1:45. They gave us three calls.
When we arrived in the lobby at 2:30 am, the bus was waiting. We waited for others and made it back to the airport by 4:45 for a 5:30 am flight. We stood in line to check our baggage until one member of our group plunged forward and told the agent our dilemma. We went to the gate and our flight was late leaving.
Upon arrival in Panama City, we asked the flight attendants where we should look for the Customer Service. The entire crew was aware of our canceled flight. They directed us to the two Customer Service Centers, one at gate 12 and the other at gate 24. When we arrived at the gate 12 center and found there were no agents, my thoughts received confirmation. We would have to chase our tail getting help.
Walking to gate 24, there was not center visible. Frustrated and upset, I asked another Copa agent where this mysterious center was located. Hidden around a corner, there were seven agents working. Surprisingly, there were only about 20 people surrounding the desk demanding attention. Standing in line lost its meaning the previous day.
One of the agents said in Spanish; “If your destination is …” stand here. If your destination is …stand there.” I asked for a translation and then asked what if our destination is none of the above. Once they heard we were going to Budapest, an agent came to assist personally. Jade Vasquez, was our guardian angel. She listened to our woes about returning home on Thursday, two days later than planned. She asked us to give her some time to check on things.
When she returned, she offered to get us from Panama City to Bogota on Copa Airlines, then Bogota to Frankfurt on Lufthansa and finally Lufthansa to Budapest getting us back on Wednesday evening. We were so excited we wanted to kiss her. After getting her name, we said we would send a compliment to Copa. She made our day even better by giving us two vouchers each for food. Each voucher was worth $10. She told us to make sure we check in Bogota to see if we need to pick up our luggage again or if it will go through.
Thinking we would go to the Diners Club Lounge, we almost tossed the vouchers. Good thing we did not do it. The lounge in Panama is dismal. It is clean and tastefully decorated, but the offerings are a pitcher of juice, cookies on a plate and a basket of a variety of chips. There is no coffee machine or a way to make tea. When I asked for a coffee, the hostess had to make it for us.
The only redeeming quality was the secured Wi-Fi connection. I was able to transfer funds for the condominium sale that closed on Monday. After getting the Internet out of our system, we went into the world of non-privileged passengers in the nether regions of the airport to use our vouchers.
Copa Airlines rocks, the flight to Bogota was flawless and the flight attendants were great. Right before landing, the purser announces “Will Senor Ryan James please make himself known to the crew before deplaning.” Yikes, they are after me again. There was a Copa Airlines agent waiting for us. Her English was as extensive as my Spanish is, but she asked for our passports, which she studied like there would be an exam. She asked that we follow her and like lemmings, we did without question. After nomadically wandering the airport for 15 minutes, I finally asked where we were going. Between our two language barriers, I realized she did not know we had our next boarding passes. Once she had a visual that we were properly cared for, she said good-bye. Her parting gift was four food vouchers for Burger King. Like we would use them, but we were gracious with our thanks.
The airport is modern and huge, showing Colombia is stepping up leaving behind the third world designation. Their Diners Club lounge connected with Avianca Airlines is exception, even better than Vienna’s lounge.
As we waited for our flight, the desk crew kept calling names over the intercom, asking passengers to come to the desk. Sure as we were waiting, my name blared over the loudspeaker. They wanted to see both our passports, all of our previous flight boarding cards, in addition to the continuing flights. Grilled with questions, it reminded me of when I defended my dissertation. All was fine and their motives never did become apparent, but
they did call more than two dozen people to the desk.
Our flight from Bogota to Frankfurt was on Lufthansa, a trip of nine hours and 59 minutes. We were fortunate to get seats in the back of a section where there the configuration was 2-2. This is one of the jet models where all the bathrooms are downstairs. Not one of the movies was worthy of my time, but I did watch three wonderful documentaries. One called San
Francisco 2.0, dealt with the devastation done to the city due to the tech industry; a second was on twins, and the third on owls. All were very interesting.
When we reached Frankfurt, their Passport Control police stood at the top of the escalator long before getting to Passport Control. With our US passport, we easily passed by, but others were left to be interrogated. We made it through Passport Control easily too, but in the Customs area, though we were in the “Nothing to Declare” lane, we were stopped. The guards asked where we were coming from, why we were there, what we did and so on. The only thing he did not ask was what restaurants we recommended.
Our last leg of the journey was uneventful. I have to say, I was shocked, but deliriously happy that our luggage appeared on the conveyor belt with the first batch of 20 pieces. After all, of the journey jockeying we did, I thought for sure, we would be placing claims for our loss.
Thanks to Dan Stroiman for being a good friend. He went to our place to let in a B & B guest who arrived before we did. Since our original plan did not include a day’s delay, this was anxiety producing.
It is good to be back!