Presto-Chango

Tuesday, October 21 was one of those days that business and vacation travelers dread and backpackers with all the time in the world might look at as being part of the adventure. I definitely fall into the latter category.

The first of my three flights scheduled for Tuesday was to depart La Paz at 12:30 a.m. – or 30 minutes past midnight. And, no, I didn’t confuse this time with 30 minutes past noon. I was on time; the airline was not. After a 90-minute delay we finally commenced boarding at 2:00 a.m. Most of the other passengers were in a cranky mood as they were certain to miss their connecting flights. I wasn’t too concerned as I had a 19-hour layover and didn’t plan to leave Jorge Chavez International Airport.

A $70 day-pass to the airport’s exclusive business-class lounge seemed like a bargain when you consider the alternative: a cab downtown, hanging out for an entire day in a city that I don’t exactly love, another cab back to the airport, plus the $30 ‘Reciprocity Fee’ that Canadians, Americans and Australians must pay if they actually leave the secure zone at the airport. I happily stayed in the airport and enjoyed unlimited hot and cold beverages, beer, wine and mixed drinks, a small but constantly changing buffet, access to a quiet room with dimmed lighting and comfy leather recliners, a sunny outdoor courtyard with deck chairs, spotless washrooms with an attendant and private showers, CNN and ESPN on 60″ screens and blazing fast wi-fi. My layover was actually quite enjoyable.

There was another one-hour delay before we actually left Lima, but that wasn’t an issue either as I had a two-hour layover in Santiago before connecting to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). “All the time in the world,” I said to myself.

When I checked the screens in Santiago I noticed that there was a one-hour delay for that flight as well. Where others might have thrown a tantrum, I headed straight to the departure level’s very spacious Starbucks.

When I returned to the gate at 9:00 there was a whiteboard propped on the counter indicating that the flight was further delayed and more info would be provided at 10. I returned at 10 to find the next update would be at 11. At 11 the board said to check back at 12. At noon the sign indicated that further info would be provided at 1:00.

By that time I had worn out my welcome at Starbucks so I went for a brisk walk in the terminal. Later I bought a new money belt at Victorinox, perused some gift and gadget stores, and watched a fascinating infomercial about a Chilean mining company’s new process for making anti-microbial copper. I’m kidding about the “fascinating” part.

I returned to the gate at 1:03, fully expecting the sign to say, “check back at 2:00.” No such info was posted. In fact, there was no sign at all. There were no passengers in the lounge, either. I tracked down an agent by 1:06 but he had to find an English-speaking colleague so it was 1:15 before I learned the news: My flight had been moved to another gate and that gate was now closed.

“But I was here at 1:03,” I protested. Was it really possible to move 200 people to a new gate and board a plane in three minutes? And 1:03 was advertised as the time of the next update, not the actual departure time. How did I miss the announcement? Was there a chance that I could still catch the flight if I ran to the new gate?” Each question was met with a blank stare that suggested the English-speaking agent might have been able to read announcements in English but he didn’t really understand the language.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one of those tourists who demand that he be dealt with in English and I certainly didn’t cause a scene. Better to be polite and diplomatic, I reasoned. The gate agents seemed to appreciate this approach and I was quickly escorted to a third floor office where a bilingual agent went to work to find me a seat on the next plane. I was offered the choice of a standby ticket on a flight departing 18 hours later or a guaranteed seat in three days. “Let me think about it,” I told them.

I wanted to see what would work best for my Easter Island tour guide but unfortunately the only public wi-fi was at the lone Starbucks and I could no longer access the departure level. The nice folks at the second-floor Gatsby’s restaurant let me use their internal company network and I dashed off a few emails before the entire system crashed at 3:00. I had yet to hear back from Green Island Tours so I asked for my bill and directions to the closest pay phone. With limited Chilean currency, I had to pay for my sandwich and drink with Visa. And of course with no Internet connection, credit card payments were being processed by hand. The lineup at the cashier was 100 deep and growing. At least I wasn’t alone with my increasing sense of frustration.

After about 20 minutes of searching I came across the terminal’s lone bank of pay phones, which were about a quarter-mile away from Gatsby’s. And of course the wall behind the phones was being retiled that day so the phones had been disconnected.

I found a sister selling perfume from a kiosk and he graciously allowed me to use his phone to make the long distance call to Green Island tours. The operator informed me that I had an incomplete number and that she was unable to look up numbers. “Just Google it,” she advised. At that point I threw up my hands and returned to the LAN counter.

“Yes, put me on the standby list for the fully booked flight tomorrow,” I said.

“Senor, we got you confirmed seat. No problem.”

Now that was a pleasant surprise! Maybe things were turning around.

Within 10 minutes I had my hands on something that vaguely resembled a boarding pass (no seat or row numbers were indicated) and after an other 30 minutes I had checked in and was sipping Crown and Coke at the at bar of a very nice business class hotel that is attached to the terminal. Marc from Green Island Tours wrote back to say that my tour could be backed up by a day and there’d be no additional charge. Life is sweet, I thought.

While I sat alone at the bar I exchanged a few emails with a racehorse-owning friend from Toronto who is VP of a multi-national chemical company and who travels extensively in South America. I told him a shorter version of this story and he said that he’s seen this movie before.

When most airlines overbook a flight, they offer increasingly costly inducements until a required number of passengers agree to give up their seats. When Bolivian and Chilean airlines find themselves in this predicament, they change the gate at the last minute, make a hushed announcement in Spanish, and presto-chango – no more issue. There’s always some gringo who will be left behind at Starbucks.

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