While many people in Costa Rica were enjoying their sleep for the night, a group of travelers were preparing early Friday what they thought might be a short, uneventful trip to Managua and beyond.
Do you remember when travel, visiting other countries were exciting, you could barely sleep the night before, anticipating of a great adventure?
Well, this adventure was far from enjoyable.
It was 4 a.m. when the taxista rang the front doorbell. It wouldn’t be light for another two hours. There was almost no traffic traveling to Juan Santamaria. Little did we know what lay in store for us and many thousands like us? When we arrived we noticed that there were more people than expected at this hour. We would soon realize that they were stranded since Thursday when the airport closed at 4 p.m. It was apparent that the airlines and airport authorities were not prepared to address emergency situations resulting from the awakening of the Turrialba volcano affecting the climate, air quality and conditions of the tarmac.
We were met by COPA Airline representatives who informed us the airport was closed and directed us to the check-in counter. This COPA employee provides details about the emergency closing and checked us in. She informed us that the airport is scheduled to reopen at 8 a.m. and our flight would leave shortly thereafter. That was to be the end of any information offered, courtesies or interest shown by any COPA representative.
We continue to security to follow the protocol that will lead us to our departure gate. We arrive at Gate 6. This would be our home and for a lot of other travelers for the next eight hours
The information screen at the gate kept flashing delay, and that the next schedule advisory would be at 8 a.m., four hours later. It was the only reliable source of information anyone of us would receive all day.
For most of the time, there is no one to ask, for information. The COPA employees we all notice occasionally came to the gate area but to only share stories and jokes among themselves. They showed no concern for the growing numbers of travelers who are overwhelmed with the turmoil.
Meanwhile, with every passing minute, the airport swelled with more arriving people expecting to board their flight. New friendships and acquaintances are quickly formed. There was not much else to do. At last it was 10 a.m., but with another notice that they will make another announcement at 12 noon. After six hours waiting without any regular updates, sitting in chairs that make the back ache, nowhere to go, people began to complain: COPA is not caring about the well being of its customers.
COPA’s response: “Why are you so angry? It’s not our fault or responsibility.” There were elderly, people with histories of medical problems, mothers nursing infants. Did not the airlines care to make conditions tolerable? One employee did pass out some coupons for breakfast, but only to people who complained the loudest. Other employees ridiculed customers who were upset. “Why are you complaining?”
FYI: the food court, sells a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich for $13 and a drink for $8. After 10 a.m., the word is passed around by the other waiting travelers, NOT THE AIRLINES, that COPA is scheduling a flight at 5 p.m. to Managua but with limited space.
We soon realized that these continuous false promises and arrangements by COPA were not realistic. Even if we were to travel to Nicaragua on the 5 p.m. flight, the day was lost, and we were paying the hotel just to sleep for the night.
COPA canceled the 5 p.m. flight to Managua at 2:30 p.m. The representatives at the airport refused to help with lodging and food. “The problem is neither the fault nor responsibility of COPA,” they said. It was later reported on the Channel 7 news that COPA decided to make flights to Panamá a priority and cancel other trips!
We were now told by a COPA rep at the desk that we can reschedule the flight with no penalty. We accepted the offer, and say adios and good luck to many new friends. We were told we need airline personnel to walk us out of the airport, retrieve our baggage and receive credit for the departure tax.
We returned to the COPA check in counter. By this time, there was a sea of humanity filling the entire floor of customer check-in for all airlines. People squeezed together to make room for us to pass. At the counter we were handed a small piece of paper with the number of their call center. “Please call this number.” It was obvious these employees barely had time to breath.
I wondered where do these people think they were going? Why was COPA checking them in when COPA knew it was not going to fly them out?
After another taxi ride home, we tried the call center number. Their response: ‘’What problem? I don’t need to hear your story. You have until the 19th to use your ticket. Your schedule is not our problem” and on and on.
These people gave rudeness, disrespect, arrogance new meanings. No matter who we called, we were met with the same obnoxious disregard.
We decided to apply for a refund. We are told COPA will apply an $85 penalty per ticket. Huh?
Heads up. Be forewarned. If you use this airline, you may have the same experience.
To date everyone I have spoken with confirm our experience with COPA airlines providing even worse scenarios,
*Dr. Aborn is a long-time Costa Rican expat.