Azores Airlines: You’ll get there, but it might take a few days

In the United States, Spirit Airlines has developed a reputation of being the most “bare bones” carrier in the skies. Fees for carry-on bags, snacks and drinks (even water!), and extensive delays have deterred a large number of passengers, myself included. Yet there is another, lesser-known European carrier with a presence (albeit a small one) in the U.S. whose service (or lack thereof) has also become notable: Azores Airlines — formerly known as SATA Internacional — the flagship carrier of the Azores islands.

The Azores

Located off the coast of Portugal in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the Azores are becoming a popular destination for tourists. The incredibly blue water, mild temperatures, and picturesque mountains rising out of the ocean is really quite phenomenal — and those observations are coming from someone who’s never been.

While the (occasionally cheap) fares may attract some to travel on Azores in order to get to this archipelago, there are reasons to be leery — mainly that Azores has a well-documented reputation of shoddy service.

The Incident

Back in June, passengers were unable to fly for days after a ground vehicle struck an Azores plane at Boston Logan, resulting in cancellation of that day’s flight to Ponta Delgada. While it doesn’t appear that Azores was responsible for the collision, one woman described of waiting “three, maybe four” days in the airport. Since Azores didn’t have its contingency plan in place enabling passengers to utilize local hotels, Massport was forced to provide cots for passengers to sleep on in the airport — hardly the safest accommodations, not to mention uncomfortable.

Another passenger said he was continuously told “come back tomorrow,” with scarce information on the flight itself. To add insult to injury, he was forced to pay for transportation to and from his hotel. His view on the incident reveals a galling disconnect and lack of communication from the carrier:

“All these people that are lined up, it is just pure frustration,” Cabral said. “You can’t go to the bathroom; you have to wait in line. No one comes out and manages anything. We don’t believe anything that is being said at this point and time. It is disappointing. We have lost hotels, we have lost appointments, we have lost connecting flights, and we have no idea what we are going to get in return. We don’t know what is going to happen when we get to the front of the line. This is an exercise in futility. It’s an embarrassment, and I really think that something should be done.”

Azores’ Response

For its part, Azores did issue a public statement about the incident after the fact:

“A series of technical issues took out two [aircraft in our] long-range fleet, causing difficulty from Boston to Portugal. Our team has tried to get local airport officials to inform impacted passengers [of the situation].”

A statement is better than saying nothing, in this case, but it was insufficient in my opinion. Particularly, I had to laugh at the use of the word “difficulty.” It seemed to be almost as tone-deaf of a statement as United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz initially using the word “re-accommodate” to describe what happened to Dr. David Dao in April of this year in a memo to his employees.

More importantly, it speaks to the disconnect that occurred between Azores and Massport; evidently, Azores thought Massport would handle communication about the situation, when that is — as the carrier — firmly Azores’ responsibility. Moreover, it’s Azores’ responsibility — not Massport’s — to ensure passengers have appropriate accommodations. Evidently that didn’t happen.

There’s an interesting review of Azores’ “premium” offering from One Mile at a Time. Though this review is merely a subjective take on an Azores flight — and the author is admittedly fascinated by the prospect of flying on an Airbus A310 — an aircraft type that has, these days, mostly been relegated to performing cargo operations — he did express his disappointment in the level of service throughout the review.

Alternatives

For those who are interested in exploring the Azores, there are other travel options. Air Transat, a low-cost carrier based in Canada, operates flights from a number of Canadian cities to Ponta Delgada. Additionally, passengers can fly to Lisbon on airlines like TAP Portugal and then take a connecting flight (albeit going to mainland Europe only to travel back over the ocean seems a bit redundant). And recently, Delta Air Lines announced it would begin service between New York JFK and Ponta Delgada in 2018, giving Americans a new link to these islands.

Of course, there are people who have enjoyed their experience on Azores, according to this list of carrier reviews on SKYTRAX. Moreover, even the “good” carriers are subject to having dissatisfied customers. And ultimately, I haven’t flown Azores, so your experience may well have been different than my perception if you’ve tried the carrier out. However, as a SKYTRAX two-star carrier, Azores is rated the same as Spirit, and you might know how I feel about Spirit if you’ve read my aforementioned blog post. Come next year, there will be a new non stop option for those looking to get from the United States to the Azores (and back, of course).