Friday, February 19, 2016

A Trip Report: InselAir, Trinidad to Curacao to Miami (January 2015)

A Trip Report: InselAir (January 2015)
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We had decided to spend half of our vacation in Curacao, and so we needed a way to get from Trinidad & Tobago to Curacao and from Curacao back to Miami.  While looking online, Insel Air kept popping up as the most convenient and economical way to travel.  Insel Air is the national airline of Curacao and connects Curacao to its regional partners.  It is a small airline as the fleet only consists of Fokkers and MD airplanes.  They currently mostly serve regional destinations in and around the Caribbean and South America.  They also serve two U.S. destinations – Miami and Charlotte.  Serving Miami is something that I understand, given the proximity and location but serving Charlotte seemed out of place (it seemed more out of place after flying on board – but more on that later).  Given all this I was a bit hesitant to try out Insel Air, but given the convenience plus the low costs I decided to check them out.  Overall, they provide a basic product with low costs and low frills.  Free bags are nice, but service and timeliness definitely needs improvement.

We took two flights with Insel Air – the first flight was from Port of Spain, Trinidad to Willemstad, Curacao and the flight time was 1hr 30mins.  The second flight was from Willemstad, Curacao to Miami, Florida and the flight time was 3hr 10mins. The commonalities between both flights were that they were both delayed and that the service was minimal on both.  The difference between the two flights was the operating aircraft.  The first flight was booked directly through InselAir’s website, while the second flight was booked through a booking agency.

The first flight was originally scheduled for the evening, but then about a week prior to the flight the schedule was changed and the flight now departed in the early afternoon (not sure if this was to compete with Surinam Airways, which flew the route earlier in the day).   Our flight was scheduled to take off at 12:40pm, while Surinam Airways was scheduled to take off at 1:30pm.  I had booked this flight directly from InselAir’s website, and overall the website does a decent job of booking flights but it is definitely not very user-friendly (ie there are better and worse sites out there).   On the website I was able to check into my flight 24-hrs prior to departure and was able to select seats on the plane so both of these were pluses.  InselAir does provide free checked baggage so that is also a perk as well.  We arrived at the airport about 2-hours in advance and checked our bags in and received our confirmed boarding passes; the gate agent said nothing about a delayed flight.  There is not a lot to do at Piarco International but to wait, so that is what we did.  Around the time that boarding was to commence, there was a notice that the flight was going to be delayed.  The new departure time was 1:30p (so one hour delay).  The plane landed at Piarco International around 1pm and taxied to the gate. 

The operating aircraft was a Fokker and due to the small size it did park at the gate but next to it (so access to plane was from the ground and not a jetbridge).    The turnaround time from arrival to departure took a very long time, and despite the delay the ground crew did not seem to be in any rush.   We started the boarding process around 1:30pm and, since the load was very light, we were boarded pretty quickly.  We were approximately 12 people total on the plane.  The plane itself looked brand new and was nice, clean, and updated – it still had a new plane smell.  The seats were in a 3-3- layout and were newly designed slim seats that were comfortable enough for the short flight.  The seat pitch was very tight, for everyone but especially for someone who is tall.  Given the light load, most people had three seats to themselves.   Again, there seemed to be no rush neither from the ground staff nor the airline so despite everyone on board, it still took a while for the doors to close and pushback to begin – throughout the delay there was little to no communication from either the captain or the ground staff.

The doors were finally closed and we pushed back for take-off.  Once in the air, the flight attendants passed out immigration cards.  Even though it was a very light load, there were 3 flight attendants on board.  This was also surprising because of the minimal service InselAir provides. InselAir does not provide meals on any of its flights – no matter the distance nor length.   Some snacks are provided as well as drinks, but no full meals are provided.  The flight time from Port of Spain to Curacao was 1hr 35 minutes so as soon as we reached cruising altitude, the in-flight service commenced.  We were offered a drink plus a snack – the snack was a slice of cheese between two buns wrapped in plastic.  It was neither fresh nor warm nor appetizing.  The plane had no PTVs and no other inflight service, so most passengers either slept or passed the time reading the inflight magazine.  The flight attendants spent most of their time conversing with each other while sitting in the first class seats (since it was empty). 

There was something unique to InselAir, and that is an on-board raffle.  Approximately 4 years ago, InselAir started an on-board raffle and it proved so popular with the passengers that the airline continued the raffle all-year long.  Raffle tickets are passed out and the number is drawn – I am not sure what the prize is, as it was never announced nor explained but it seemed like a fun and unique aspect of InselAir.

As we left late, we also landed late as well as no time was made up in air.   When we landed, we did not park at the terminal but rather at a remote stand and had to take the bust to the terminal – and what seemed odd was that the bus waited (for a long time) so that the flight attendants could also come on the same bus.  I am not sure if there were a lack of buses or this is standard procedure in InselAir, but it was the first time I experienced it and it seemed a bit odd (also caused further delays to the passengers who were already delayed with the late departure and arrival of the flight).  The delayed arrival time meant that we landed with many other aircraft at the same time, and this made the immigration wait time VERY long (and very inconvenient).   Given our experiences during this flight, we were a bit apprehensive on our next flight and remembered to keep our expectations low.

The second flight was from Curacao to Miami, which was a direct flight of 3hr 10min.  When booking the flight we were able to select our seats, and 24-hours prior to departure we were able to check-in online.  Also available online was the opportunity to bid on an upgrade to first class.  If you decide to bid for first class, your credit card is charged immediately and you are notified 24-hours prior to departure if your bid was successful.  If the bid was unsuccessful, then the credit card payment is refunded (and the refund was pretty quick). 

Our flight was scheduled to depart around 11:25am and arrive into Miami around 1:40pm.  We had arrived to the airport 2 hours prior to our departure, and there was a very long line for check-in.  Not only where there are a lot of people, but the line was moving very slowly and it took almost 2 hours to go through the line, check-in the luggage, and receive our confirmed boarding passes.  The check-in is on the first floor while the gates are on the second floor, so we went upstairs to go through immigration and security and proceeded to our gate.  The gate was quite full by the time we had arrived so it looked like it was going to be a full flight. 

Boarding start right on time and we boarded a very old, worn out looking MD-80.  The plane looked very old, had older features, and looked and felt like neither the plane nor the seats had not been updated.  The seats were in a 2-3 layout, and they were uncomfortable with a tight seat pitch (especially for a 3hr flight).  Even though the flight was full, boarding happened fairly quickly so we were in the plane prior to the scheduled departure time – and then we had to wait at the gate.  We waited for over 30 minutes, with no communication and no explanation neither from the captain nor the flight staff.  It was very hot and very uncomfortable in the plane, and this plus the lack of information made some passengers very agitated – especially those with children as the AC was turned off as well.  After the 30-45 minutes of waiting, the doors finally closed and we were able to push back from the gate.  We taxied to the runway, only to wait again – for another 30-45 minutes we waited without any communication or information from either the captain or the flight staff.  After 30-45m minutes of waiting with no communication, we started down the runway and took off for Miami. 

The flight was very uneventful and both the service availability and level was equal to that of the first flight – within the first hour drinks plus a snack of a slice of cheese between two buns was served and that was it.  First class was full so they did receive a fuller snack box plus free drinks.  During this flight, there were no raffles, no PTVs, and nothing else to occupy the passengers time.  The service on-board was extremely minimal and poor, as after the service concluded the attendants rarely came through the aisles to check on the passengers.   As we were late leaving the gate and then taking off, we landed late in Miami as well.

Overall, we did not know what to expect from InselAir and on board we experienced a basic airline that provides basic services.  I definitely would not choose InselAir for long-haul flights, but short-haul flights of less than 1.5hr seemed ok with the airline.  Even then, be prepared for a longer flight given the delays.

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