Flight Out: MDE to FLL

June 1, 2020

Jose Maria Córdova airport: 5/27/2020


On Wednesday 5/27 we left Medellin airport on Spirit Airlines flight #NK-6344, a humanitarian flight to Ft. Lauderdale. Like a Medellin taxi, ours was the only yellow airplane on the ramp. The only one moving, in fact, on a flight arranged by the U.S. department of State. We boarded with roughly 200 others, all with U.S. passports, for the noon takeoff. The mood was almost funereal, the terminal nearly deserted, and the usual clamor and clash of travelers and baggage, and the ka-ching of commerce was absent.  No tiendas were open; coffee shops, souvenir stands, duty free liquor stores, all shuttered; only the restrooms were available. We couldn't even purchase bottled water. 


Here's an account of our somber, and very strange travel experience departing Colombia.


Parking lots were empty, the terminal likewise, a scene from On the Beach, or The Stand. We felt like we'd bungled into a movie set, or a condemned building, and would soon be discovered and evicted. Perhaps the strangest part was how serene it was, almost preferable to the usual chaos and confusion of the 'normal' frantic airport experience. There was an element of comfort in the quiet, if ominous emptiness. 



We checked in right at the curb, where a tech from the Colombian health and sanitation department took our temperature. Once past that very real screening process, we fell in line, waiting for the rudimentary security check of bags etc. A surveillance station had been set up in slap-dash fashion, with a single x-ray device, sniffer dogs, and a strong police presence. Since ours was the only flight leaving MDE, there was no sense of urgency, no rush to the gate for a departing flight. Juan Camilo, our taxista and world class assistant, dropped us off at 8:30. We were inside the terminal by 9:30, checked in for the flight by 10:00, and waiting at gate #11 by 10:30. In the terminal, seating was marked, every other chair off limits for social distancing. We saw all manner of masks, and face shields, and protective devices. Hand sanitizer bottles were posted everywhere. Again, no shops were open, so our last cup of Colombian coffee didn't happen at the airport, but in Florida.


The drug dogs 


Not once or twice, but three times the drug pups sniffed their way around our bags. The dog above had found something incredibly, phenomenally interesting in the green one, and my pulse went up wondering why he/she was so damned fascinated with that big bag? To my relief, the handler yanked the dog away, and it reluctantly followed its human. Maybe the experience was a downside to the whole-foods menu we now eat. There were bags of sesame & sunflower seeds in there for use as snacks when we'd arrive in Florida. Of course, if we still ate meat, and had packed that inside the bag, the dog would have been howling at the moon.  So perhaps the new diet saved us after all. I suspect those dogs are trained to sniff out precise and specific drugs & chemicals. There's a rumor that dogs are being trained to sniff out the coronavirus in people, and it wouldn't surprise me.  



The virus has taken over our lives. It seems to be all we think of, the item we're all focused on right now. There were signs in the airport as warnings, taped markings on the floors spaced two meters apart, and hand sanitizer bottles posted at every counter and shelf. If the virus teaches us anything, it may be the value of hand washing, and the peril of hand shaking. It's difficult to see beyond this current condition, even while knowing there's a brighter day ahead. But on Wednesday, as we prepared to fly to Florida, the impact of the virus was obvious. Looking across the deserted terminal, seeing the idled aircraft, I couldn't help wondering if the very industry that facilitated the transmission of the virus worldwide was somehow being punished for doing so, a kind a karmic backlash at our cavalier attitude toward nature.


 Social distancing @ 30,000 feet


Notice all the empty middle seats? It was the same on every segment of our trip. Masks are mandatory, there's no meal service, only drinks, and the only time the mask rule was suspended was while actively eating or drinking.


It was hard to leave Medellin. It was harder still leaving the way we did. The change was abrupt, wrenching and uncontrolled. While boarding the plane we heard the crew speaking English, and that made it sadder still, knowing how hard we'd worked to learn the language and culture of the wonderful Colombian people. The virus forced us from our Colombian home. It's disrupted our lives, and everyone else's. We're healthy, safe, well fed, and hopeful for a better future. Still... For the record: I hate the damned coronavirus.  


Parked planes 


Everywhere we looked parked aircraft sat idle, many with missing or covered engines, and mothballed or cannibalized parts. I had to wonder about all the flight crews, the ground handlers, the ticket agents, fuelers, maintenance people who were at home wondering when..? The layoffs and furloughs have been extensive, and painful. In the U.S., where commercial flying has been only curtailed but not stopped, the FAA figures are astounding: Before the virus a million people took a commercial flight every day. Now about 100,000 do. A few airlines will weather the economic storm. For them, this massive disruption will be an opportunity to bid for routes abandoned by bankrupted carriers, and to grab gates they couldn't access before, even airports with lowered capacity, cities which they may not have serviced before. Yet another unknown is which lines will survive, and which will go under? Like most other business entities, those who operate under their own license will likely fail; those airlines owned by a conglomerate may survive, due to the deep pockets of their owners. So we'll be left with fewer airlines, fewer options, and thus higher ticket prices for lowered service. It's simply the predatory nature of capitalism at work, this time with a vengeance.


A bit of aviation info: People complain about airline prices, and the seeming disconnect between cost and service. The reality is that aviation companies operate on a razor thin profit margin. The aircraft seen above are likely leased from the manufacturer, either Boeing or Airbus, the only two plane builders of any consequence today. A typical lease cost for one of these aircraft would be in the neighborhood of $50,000 USD per month. With no customers, and a lease payment for every plane in the fleet of fifty grand a month, it's easy to see how an airline would fail very quickly. As this is written, South America carriers Avianca & LATAM  have both filed for chapter 11. Others will surely follow.


An Overhead Nightmare 


Then there's the overhead an airline must pay to stay in the game: Gate rental at airports, ticket booths, ground handling personnel, non-flying crew, fuel. food, and baggage handling vendors. Aircraft insurance premiums are through the roof. Aircraft make money only when they're airborne. Sitting on the tarmac they're a net loss, so airlines try to keep the machines flying 12 ,14, often 20 hours per day if possible. Airlines hate empty seats, and they'll do anything to put a butt in every one. So this hiatus in service, with all those empty middle seats will be devastating. Look for a complete revamping of the airline industry, and the end of many old, proud carriers.


We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale around 4:30 Eastern time, and schlepped off the plane into the terminal. It was equally deserted, tomblike. Because the ground crew staff has been reduced it took nearly an hour to retrieve our checked bags.


But once outside the terminal it was a different view. As we gazed at the Florida scene we noticed something strange: People carried on with their lives, seeming unconcerned, few masks in evidence, almost business as usual. The contrast with Colombia was stark. It was easy to see why COVID-19 deaths have been so high in the U.S. If compliance with masking, and hand washing is the same everywhere here in the U.S., then we were much safer in Colombia. 


Next post: Hasta Luego Medellin. Thanks for reading.


















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