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ORD-GUA-SJO RT on LACSA (long)

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  • ORD-GUA-SJO RT on LACSA (long)

    LACSA 683
    ORD-GUA-SJO
    A320 N461TA


    11:30 pm is a strange time to be heading to the airport to catch a flight, especially if you live in the Midwest. Now there have been times I’ve caught west coast red-eye flights back home that left at midnight or 1 in the morning. But that’s the west coast. However on this night I found myself leaving my house half an hour before midnight, headed for ORD to jump on a LACSA flight to Costa Rica that departed at the ungodly hour of 2:50 AM. Traffic was sparse as I sped towards the airport. Once there I parked my car and made my way to ORD’s Terminal 5, which became somewhat of a trek since I had a hard time finding the elevator that took me to the tram that runs between the terminals. Once I finally got to the terminal, I found a rather long line at the TACA ticket counter, somewhat surprising as I was about two and a half hours early. The rest of the check-in area was deserted, as can be expected at a little past midnight. It appeared as if the check-in counter had enough check-in personnel to quickly check in the number of passengers present, yet the line crawled along at snail’s pace. I finally reached the counter a full hour later. The agent handling me did not appear very experienced, and looking around it seemed the other agents pretty much had the same problem. I handed her my passport and ticket (Grupo TACA doesn’t do e-tickets apparently) as well as my Aadvantage card, which she ignored at first. I guess they don’t get too many Aadvantage members at ORD.

    Once checked-in, I breezed through security. Nothing was open that late, so I ended up sitting at the gate, which had no view outside, to wait. An announcement was made that boarding would commence in 30 minutes. 20 minutes later, another announcement was made that boarding would begin in 10 minutes. I believe in keeping the passengers well informed, but this policy seems to have come straight from the Department of Redundancy Department. Once the call to board (for real this time) we proceeded to get on our A320, which turned out to actually be a TACA aircraft. Keep in mind, although this flight was listed as LACSA, all announcements were made on behalf of Grupo TACA. The welcome aboard message by the FA even said, “Welcome to Grupo TACA’s LACSA flight 683..” Huh? I mean I understand the whole Grupo TACA arrangement, but I’m sure that must be confusing as hell to an infrequent flier.

    We pushed back a few minutes late and then made a slow deliberate taxi to Runway 27L for takeoff. After a long roll, we lifted off and followed the standard noise abatement procedure for this runway, turning to a heading of 290 degrees until reaching 3,000 ft. and then cutting back the power while turning to the assigned heading for departure. Once past 10,000 ft. the seat belt was turned off and shortly afterward the flight attendants passed out immigration forms for Guatemala, the first stop for this flight, and the meal service was started after that. Now on the red-eye flights I’ve been on, the cabin lights are turned on to slightly dimmed for any kind of meal/beverage service. However, Grupo TACA likes to turn the lights on full, which can be quite a shock when you’re finally drifting off to sleep. The meal consisted of a deli sandwich, chips, drink, and the one of the hardest sugar cookies I’ve ever bitten into. It wasn’t bad, just similar to what one would get served on a U.S. domestic flight. The Flight Attendants on this flight also had the same demeanor as a U.S. crew would have, attentive but for the most part unsmiling. They were probably in a bad mood from having to work a flight that left at 0250. I would be too if I were them.

    After the garbage was collected, headphones were passed out, the LCD screens flipped down, and the cabin lights were turned off for the in-flight movie. Now and then airlines tend to show movies that came out a while back. The movie for this flight however, was Antz, which was originally released in 1998! I couldn’t believe they were playing a five-year-old movie, but such was the case. To top it off it was showed in English. I was expecting it to be at least dubbed in Spanish seeing as how we were flying a Latin American airline. I dozed off after the meal and woke up to a light filled cabin at around 5 A.M. I later realized the sun rises earlier at these latitudes than it does at home.

    We began our decent into Guatemala City (GUA) flying near large volcanoes and lush green countrysides. We swooped in low over a large cluster of homes, most with aluminum roofs, and landed on GUA’s Runway 01 at 5:50 A.M. local time. We taxied to the tiny terminal, which featured aircraft from AA, CO, COPA, Tikal Jets, as well as LACSA. Most passengers on this flight deplaned here, and about half an hour later a handful more boarded for the continuation to SJO. After an hour on the ground, we pushed back and taxied out to Runway 01 for take-off. Our take-off took us over downtown Guatemala City. You gotta love an airport near the city center. Flight time to SJO was an hour and twenty minutes. Service consisted of a small ham and cheese breakfast sandwich and that rock hard sugar cookie again. The in-flight entertainment consisted of TACA news and other short programs. Interestingly enough, the shows were played on the aircrafts speakers rather than using earphones. Immigration forms were later handed out by the crew, who seemed in a somewhat better mood on this segment.

    We began our descent over the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, and then turned east towards the airport. The approach wasn’t as interesting as in GUA, but it offered nice scenery nonetheless. We landed on SJO’s Runway 7 at 8:20 A.M. local, about 20 minutes early, as the captain used full reverse and breaking to slow the plane down. As all 8 gates were occupied we taxied to the hard stand and deplaned via air stairs, getting bussed to the terminal. Customs and immigrations was a breeze and off I went into Costa Rica.

    My companion and I rented a car-a Toyota Corona, something similar in size to a Camry- and drove to our hotel in central San Jose. We were staying at the beautiful Intercontinental Hotel. I found San Jose to be a bustling metropolis, full of street vendors and overly aggressive drivers, although I’ve gotten used to driving aggressively having lived in Puerto Rico as well as visiting Miami quite often. Since we were pretty exhausted from our trip, we decided to just hang out at the hotel and relax. The following day we set off for the Guanacaste region on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Guanacaste features some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, as well as great surfing, snorkeling, and diving opportunities. We were staying at the Occidental Allegro Papagayo Resort. The Occidental is a fairly new all-inclusive near Liberia, were many of the tourists who stay there fly in to. Others are bussed in from San Jose International. Now, the hotel description stated that it was 4 hours away from San Jose by car. Looking at a map however, you notice that it does not seem very far away mileage-wise. However once we left San Jose we realized why it was 4 hours.

    Costa Rica’s Route 1 is the country’s main highway, crossing from southeast to northeast. We followed this road, much of it just one lane in each direction, through curvy, high altitude mountain passes, through forests, through small towns. It seemed to take forever, and if you got stuck behind a semi or a bus going uphill on one of the curves, you were pretty much out of luck for the next few minutes as you have to wait until the next straightaway to be able to pass. We ended up taking a wrong turn in Liberia and drove and extra 50 km before realizing we were going the wrong way. We eventually found the hotel five and a half hours after we started.

    Our stay at the Occidental was very nice. The hotel sits on an exotic black-sand beach and features many activities and tours for those who stay there. We spent most of our time at the beach and the poolside bar, venturing out into the tranquil Pacific waters on Jet Skis or with snorkels. We tried getting on a daylong tour of the Arenal volcano and rain forest but alas there was no space available.

    LACSA 683
    SJO-GUA-ORD
    A320 N486TA

    After five days, it was time to head back. After another fun-filled four-hour drive through the mountains of Costa Rica with a stop for souvenirs and the worst Burger King hamburger I’ve ever consumed, we made it back to San Jose’s airport. Check-in here went a little easier than at ORD, and soon we were at the duty-free shop stocking up on Cuban cigars and booze Before we knew it, it was time to board. Again we had to be bussed out to the aircraft out at the hardstand, so after getting an extra security check at the gate, we boarded a bus that took us out to our awaiting A320. Just like the last trip this aircraft also belonged to TACA. Looking out my window, I noticed quite a few people pulling over to the side of the road and standing at the perimeter fence to watch the planes and their loved ones leave. We pushed back on time and taxied out to Runway 25, where we took off behind a LACSA A320.

    Once airborne, we were given a full beverage service along with trail mix and again the IFE program could be viewed without headphones. The hour and a half hop to GUA was uneventful except for some turbulence on approach. The lights of GUA came into view and the next thing we knew we were touching down in rainy Guatemala as the pilot applied full reverse thrust and hard breaking to bring us to a stop. The runways at both GUA and SJO seem pretty short, although I haven’t been able to find the exact measurements.

    Similar to our previous stop in GUA, most passengers on the flight disembarked here. After about half an hour, passengers for ORD began to board. This flight was about half full, and soon we were pushing back. After take-off, we were served a similar meal to the one on the flight down from ORD, lechon (pork) sandwiches, yucca chips, drink, and the ubiquitous sugar cookie. The in-flight movie was A Beautiful Mind, a little more current than on the previous flight. Oddly enough, this showing was dubbed in Spanish.

    My seat on this flight was right next to the engine. A friend of mine mentioned the “economy cruise” feature on the A320, where the engines increase and decrease thrust automatically in order to save fuel. If you listen close enough you can hear the fluctuations in engine thrust, similar to taking your foot off and on the gas pedal repeatedly. I’d never really noticed it before this flight, and once I did it annoyed the hell out of me. The notwithstanding, I eventually fell asleep and awoke as we began our descent southwest of Chicago. In the distance I could see a mass of thunderstorms producing a fantastic light show. It looked like they had just recently passed through Chicago. Our downwind took us directly over downtown Chicago. As we neared the lakefront, the captain who hadn’t said much during the flight comes on the PA and says excitedly “We are now flying over downtown Chicago!” Whoopee! I expected him to go on and say that we’d be landing shortly or something but that was it. Guess he doesn’t fly up north too often. Right after that outburst of excitement from the captain, we turned to the west to approach Runway 27L. We touched down smoothly and used reverse thrust to come to a stop, which brings me to another observation of the A320. Ever notice how the plane shakes and rattles severely when the thrust reversers open? Especially towards the front of the plane. Airbus A320: The plastic airplane.

    We parked at the international terminal around 1:30 A.M. and again breezed through customs, as this was the only flight at the terminal at that time. My overall experience with LACSA/TACA was satisfactory. Service was not much different from that of a U.S. carrier.
    "And when I leave, come together like butt cheeks."
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