A former high school classmate and cherished old friend when reconnecting with Roger through Facebook quoted the old saying: "When God closes a door, he opens a window." The years have seen a number of life changes for us that make that adage ring true. After being blessed with good fortune, a wonderful son and great experiences, we decided to look out that window and prepare for more of what this wonderful life has to offer. We hope through our blog to share our journey from this point forward with family, with friends and with many others. Hopefully we'll make some new friends along the way. We hope you find our tales of some interest, even amusement and perhaps an inspiration for you to treat each and every day as an opportunity and an adventure to share with those who are an important part of your life.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The New Quito Airport: A Little Bit of Trouble In Tababela

In a previous blog, I promised readers a story about the new Quito airport.  Let's cover some background and basics first....then I'll tell the story of our first experience at the new facility:

The new airport located in the Tababela Valley east of Quito
The new airport is situated about 25km east of Quito in an area called the Tababela Valley.  The valley is much broader than the one in which Quito proper is located and much lower in elevation  (about 400 meters).   That already makes it more appealing to pilots.   It also has much longer runways which were  critically needed.  Planes have been known to regularly reach the end of the old airport runway and some have crashed into mountains and buildings while on descent and approach.  The old airport first opened in 1960 and over a dozen fatal crashes occurred between then and its closing this year. A significant number of non fatal crashes have occurred as well.  As recently as November of last year, a plane overran the runway at the old site.

I tell you this to establish the fact that the new airport was very sorely needed from an aviation safety standpoint. (Not to mention that it was an old and tired facility)  The new airport offers runways that are long and wide with no obstruction and great visibility (except when the infamous Andes mountain fog rolls down into the valley).    There are great drop off and pick up points and you'll discover broad boulevards leading from a relatively new highway that runs through the valley northward.  It will be closer for many sources of export cargo shipments. It is also within driving distance of Yachay,  Ecuador's proposed new "City of Knowledge".

Yes, it is further out from the center of the city, but that's where adequate space was available to build the type of facility needed.  Normally that would be just a mild inconvenience.    There are, however, a couple of contributing problems:   Right after you pass through nearby Chayamba, the main road narrows rapidly from  six lanes to two (from 3 to 1 each way), descends into a gorge and crosses a bridge that is sometimes reduced to one way traffic.  Just past the bridge is a construction area and just beyond that is a tunnel that bores through one of the mountains surrounding the city proper.  That tunnel is undergoing renovation and traffic is often restricted and the tunnel is even half closed on occasion.   There is, of course, a new express bus shuttle service at the new airport that costs less than $10.  Despite special lanes for part of transit route, it is still subject to the some of the above mentioned traffic delays and it has only one stop in town which happens to be the taxi stand at the old abandoned airport!  Let me explain it this way:  in order to save the $30-$35 cab fare  and long ride into town,  you can take the $8 express bus ride that might take up to an hour and a half in order to catch a $15 to $25  twenty to twenty five minute cab ride from the site of the old airport!

(The ever adaptable cabbies of Quito have, of course, developed some alternate routes.  The one we took from town back to the airport on our return trip  because the above mentioned tunnel was closed could best be described as the"white-knuckled-scenic route".  We will remember it for some time to come!)

 All these issues can add significant time and expense if your plans call for a stay in Quito.  If you only require a single overnight stay while awaiting a connecting flight, it is hardly worth the transit into town.   Do your homework and work well in advance.  You may not be as lucky as my son was because hotel space near the new airport is still very limited and demand will probably be exceeding supply for the near future.

Not to worry long term, because construction is underway on a new highway and a new bridge to access the airport that holds the promise that airport commute time will be well under an hour.   If all goes as well as expected (that actually does happen sometimes in Ecuador!)  we should be buzzing back and forth from the city proper to the new airport with ease in about 2 years!

OK....OK...that's enough basics...what about our story?  What was the Yazell experience in going through the new airport for the first time?   Well, the transition into town from the airport was actually among the lesser of our trials that day.  Let me explain:

Our son recently came to visit us.  Despite our urgings to route through Guayaquil, he arranged to travel via Quito (he's at a high medallion level with Delta, had a direct flight from Atlanta, could pay for it with his flyer miles and still be entitled to a class upgrade).  His flight got into Quito late,  at 10:30pm.  He had no room reservations and all the airport kiosks and restaurants were closing (not that he would have wanted a $12 hamburger from Johnny Rockets, anyway!)  He did manage to beg the purchase of a bottled water from an employee cleaning at one of the stands.  His plan to snooze at the airport until his morning flight to Cuenca was kiboshed by the fact there was simply no comfortable lounge seating in the main terminal area.  He managed to find a bi-lingual driver at the cab stand (remember this is well after the last arrival of the day) The driver also happened to know of an available hostal vacancy a mere ten minutes from the airport.  Steve has always been one of the luckiest world travelers I have ever seen!

His return was also booked through Quito.  Suzanne and I both love Quito, so we decided to fly up with our son a couple of days early to share the sights of the city.    We flew through some rain clouds coming in but had a good view of the facility as we landed.  We noted lots of space, bright, shiny new equipment everywhere, plus a modern new terminal building with articulated jetways to disembark through.   As we exited the jetway, we were greeted by flashing red beacons and strobe lights, a buzzing alarm and an announcement in Spanish that I think was reassuring us that the problem was being dealt with, but we were to exit the airport.........huh, we just entered???    Anyway, the buzzing and the announcement shut off very quickly and was not repeated.  Lacking any other direction, we continued to follow the parade of passengers ahead of us down the corridor where all the signs basically said "this way to baggage claim".   There were regular intervals of red beacons and flashing strobes as we advanced, but no announcements, no police or first responders, etc.   No escalators were working so we descended a staircase into the baggage claim area.

The milling throng at the two domestic baggage carousels seemed as puzzled as we were.  The scene though the glass windows to the international arrival area was similar, except that their few milling people were all behind the check through lanes that lead into international baggage claim.   Shortly after our arrival, someone found and cornered an airport employee who explained that lighting had struck the terminal building just before we landed as a storm passed through.  This had triggered all the fire alarms, as well as shutting down all the computers in the terminal   The airport was in the process of rebooting all their systems.  

As veteran Ecuadorian residents, we knew that this meant a wait and some patience would be in order.  More than forty minutes later, that patience was getting harder to baggage, no word, zip, nada......   Concerned about losing our booked transportation and wanting an update, I headed for the baggage area exit on a recon mission.   There I was informed by the security guard in attendance that if I left the area, I could not return.   A big smile, my broken Espanol, not to mention a friendly handshake. (or maybe it was just my pleading look!) convinced him to allow me to find our driver,   update him and get his assistance in going to the airline counter to get someone to come to the baggage area to explain what's happening.

I returned to baggage claim to find at least four more flights had arrived and our milling throng had become quite a crowd.  A rep from a different airline showed up and had all their passengers form a line on the far wall.  As soon as they did that, airline employees began carrying in baggage from the curbside through a side door. (It was pouring down rain outside and the baggage was very, very wet). A spokesman from our airline showed up and explained that our bags were still on the trucks at the upstairs receiving doors. It seems these were automatic firedoors that were computer controlled.  Although most of the terminal's computers were rebooted, no one seemed to be able to get those doors unlocked!  Our airline had decided not to distribute bags by hand but to wait until the doors were unlocked so the bags could be dispensed through the carousel.

Do I really need to describe how well this announcement was received?....just image the metaphor about noxious bodily fumes during religious services and you'll get the general idea.   At least, we all remained orderly enough that police intervention was not required..  Anyway, after two more flights followed suit and hand delivered luggage to their customers,  our airline finally relented (we were getting close to needing troops to maintain order by this point)  The passengers from our flight rushed the narrow doorway to the street like moviegoers seeking an exit from a burning theater!  They created such a logjam  that the handlers couldn't get the bags inside so they began to stack them outside on the sidewalk in the rain.  It took major shouting that almost erupted in fisticuffs to clear the doorway and begin the process of bringing the baggage inside,  Partway through that process someone figured out how to unlock the fire doors.  The baggage trucks that were as yet unloaded zoomed away to head back to the unloading area above the carousels.  Those in our flight who hadn't got, or only partially had their luggage,  now proceeded to stampede back to the carousel.  Of course, it was now surrounded by another yet flight that had arrived.  Those people were positively convinced that the bags which were beginning to appear on the conveyor were theirs and not ours because only their flight was listed on the monitor.

Out of deference to language sensitive readers, I should probably not go into too much further descriptive detail.  Let me just conclude by saying that slightly over one and a half hours after we had completed our forty-five minute flight from Cuenca to Quito, we finally had our soaked luggage safely in tow and were following our driver to the parking lot where our van would take us to  our much needed,  warm,  comfortable accommodations and, of course, a much needed dinner!  On the ride to our hotel, my son quietly commented, "Dad, I think your new airport has a few operational kinks to work out, yet!"

We enjoyed our meal that evening.  The wine toast expressed the hope that Stephen's departure back to Atlanta and our return to Cuenca would be much less eventful......but that story, my friends,  may have to wait for yet another blog.

We were, for the moment,  happy to be enjoying our meal and happy to be "juntos en el camino de la vida"!