United Airlines at EZE: Is this any way to run an airline and an airport?

United Airlines Boeing 767 by SapphoWeTrust, http://www.flickr.com/photos/skinnylawyer/

I hope you’ll indulge me this week. I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about United Airlines and Ministro Pistarini International Airport (EZE), in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It’s a story of absurdity, surreal circumstances, crazy security and airline officials gone mad. It’s a story of airline management incompetence. It’s a story of already trying airline travel taken almost to the level of intolerability by out of control airline personnel.

Last month, my wife and I returned from a cruise to Antarctica. The cruise ended in Ushuaia, Argentina. From there we flew on a charter to Jorge Newbery Airfield (AEP) in Buenos Aires, a 40- minute bus ride to EZE.

Upon our arrival at EZE the fun began!

Our United flight on a Boeing 767–300 was scheduled for 9:00 p.m. When I checked in by computer the night before, United reminded us to be at the airport at least three hours in advance of our departure.

4:45 pm — We arrived at our EZE terminal.

After entering the terminal we couldn’t find the United ticket counters. We asked a few people in a line in front of unnamed/unmarked ticket counters if they knew where the United counter was.

They told us to get in line behind them. They were the end of the line for United’s check-in. The unmarked counters were United’s. They also told us United wouldn’t be opening their ticket counters until 6:00 pm, more than an hour away, as they only had two more flights that evening, ours at 9:00 pm and one to Houston, 90 minutes later.

4:50 pm — We were 28th and 29th in line. As the minutes ticked by, the conversation was multilingual and amiable. The number of passengers in line grew seemingly exponentially.

6:00 pm — The United personnel arrived to a line of more than 200.

6:20 pm — After 20 minutes of set-up, the United ticket counter finally opened.

6:36 pm — We got to the first United ticket counter checkpoint where a woman asked us security questions, and examined our passports (1st time), then sent us to the ticket counter. Our passports were examined again (2nd time). Our bags were quickly checked in and we were given our boarding passes.

6:50 pm — Off to security.

The terminal had but one security line in service. Our passports were checked again (3rd time). We put our carry-ons on the belt for the x-ray machine. They had no bins. We went through the metal detector. I was lightly patted down.

My wife’s carry-on was selected for hand inspection. She had my extension cord in it. After checking it for almost ten minutes, including swabbing it for explosives, they decided to x-ray it again. It passed.

7:20 pm — We were out of security and off to immigration. Just like in the US, we had our passports examined (4th time), our photographs taken and our right thumb print examined. Presumably, the agent was comparing them to the photo and thumb print submitted upon entering Argentina, two weeks earlier.

7:40 pm — We were through immigration and in the duty free shopping area with food stands.

We purchased sandwiches and water for the flight.

7:50 pm — We were among the first of our flight to make it to our flight’s gate area, about three hours after our arrival at EZE.

8:00 pm — The plane was to begin boarding at 8:20 pm, just 20 minutes away, when some of the same United personnel who were at the ticket counter came to the gate area and began setting up stanchions and belts to create lines.

The funny thing was the lines were being set up about 75 feet away from the gate, near the entrance to the small seating area adjacent to the gate.

8:10 pm — We were asked to move, and told all the passengers were to be rescreened for our safety.

Please note, this wasn’t Argentine or EZE security personnel forcing us to move and be rescreened. These were the ticket agents who checked us in, who were now going to be security “agents” who didn’t wear gloves, by the way.

8:15 pm — The ticket agents began to run security rescreening at the gate area. Fortunately, we were first in line. They checked our passports (5th time). They didn’t pat us down, but checked my wife’s pocketbook and my roller carry-on, only opening the front compartment with virtually nothing in it. They confiscated the food and drink we purchased less than a half hour before, in the airport’s secure area.

We watched the rescreening until we boarded. We never saw them examine more than one bag per person. They patted down few passengers, but the few patdowns were harsh. They confiscated everyone’s food and drinks.

It seemed the rescreening was solely to confiscate our food and drinks, as it was otherwise very lax.

8:20 pm — The gate agent called for “zone 1” passengers to board. Four people went through the gate. No one else was going to the gate, so they called for “zone 2,” but no one came forward. Of course, that was going to be the case. So far, only about 15 people had made it completely through rescreening.

8:23 pm — They were already to our zone 3. We boarded, happy to be rid of the craziness we just went through.

9:15 pm — The plane’s doors were finally shut. With the security rescreening not starting until 5 minutes before boarding began and taking each passenger “too long” to get through it, they couldn’t close the plane’s doors until 55 minutes after boarding began, 15 minutes after we should have been in the air.

I ask you, “Is this any way to run an airline and an airport?”

  • TonyA_says

    Something similar happened to me on Delta in Madrid. Apparently ground handling and security is outsourced and there is no dedicated counter. You ask around and you are told to simply wait and line up near counter xx. Then after a while, someone in uniform walks over and slaps a magnetic sign of Delta. First it is security (operated by an Israeli firm). After a few questions about your luggage, they put a sticker in your passport. Then you move on to another group who actually checks you and your luggage. This group is also outsourced maybe to Swissport or something similar. They are using wireless laptops so they can work at any counter. With boarding passes you can finally start going to the gate. However, you must pass security and have your carryon and passport checked. Once you get through, you walk to another section for US BOUND flights. Thry check passports and boarding passes again. If you are picked for extra screening, you walk to another area where they check you and your carryon one more time. Then you can finally go to the gate where the gate agents check your passport and boarding pass again. This must be the accepted process in EZE and MAD. Must be cultural :-)

  • Adam1222

    I must be missing something. You got to the airport before you were advised to, so had to wait. There was a lot of security screening. You dont like the practice at eze and lots of other airports that do a screening at the gate and dont allow liquids purchased at the airport on board. Your flight left pretty much on time. You made a lot of assumptions which turned out incorrect. Fifteen minutes after scheduled departure time is hardly an issue. You we re not supposed to be “in the air” at that time. The scheduled departure time is never wheels up time.
    You don’t say whether your arrival was delayed at all.

  • Dan

    Your story is completely based in emotions and that won’t take you anywhere! It’s completely absurd. Let me tell you some facts my friend:
    EZE airport is the one setting the rules of not having a lot of visible signs at the airport lobby. EZE airport administration also FORCES the airlines to do an extra security check at the gate! So United or American or Delta HAVE NO CONTROL whatsoever over this.
    The next time you write something, make sure you know what you are talking about and do a little research and LEAVE EMOTIONS ASIDE! Tell us the FACTS! That by the way you completely failed to communicate.

  • rene2000

    I’ve flown the EZE-EWR route on United 7 or 8 times over the past 9 months and I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as you lay out in your article. There are only 2 United flights from EZE so it’s ridiculous to think the counter would constantly be open. This is normal for most airlines/ airports in my view. Yes, there’s the first security check where they ask you security questions. While I haven’t experience this in several years in other countries, it was the standard for international flights in the past and is not a big deal. Then, yes, the agent checking you in will review your passport, but that’s standard as he or she is checking you in! Then, there’s security…in my 7 or 8 flights, my passport was NEVER checked here – only my bags were screened and I was lightly patted down. Then there’s immigration, and yes, they will look at your passport and take a retina and thumbprint scan, but that’s Argentina policy and has nothing to do with the United or even EZE airport for that matter. What’s the concern here? And then the final check at the gate, this is so they can check for liquids since it’s a direct flight to the US. Again, this is standard procedure for any flight to the US and is not unique to Argentina, EZE or United.
    All of that said, the EWR-EZE and EZE-EWR flights are notorious for being late. If you check, they both have a pretty horrendous on-time record, with the EWR-EZE flight being a bit worse. A few months ago, the flights were almost regularly cancelled or delayed for 4+ hours.

  • TonyA_says

    You mean Argentina photographs and gets your fingerprints WHEN YOU LEAVE, also? That’s pretty strange.

  • cherie

    since no foreign fruits/etc are allowed into the US, ALL food has to be confiscated –USDA rules!

  • bodega3

    You weren’t in Kansas, so as a world traveler, you certainly know that things are done differently in many international airports. It is not uncommon for food and drink to be confiscated. What would be nice is signage telling travlers this. We had our passports checked 4 times in Zurich.

  • Kairho

    All this seems pretty normal for an international departure to the US with two exceptions. First, it was odd that airline personnel did the gate security check rather than security personnel. But such additional checks are required for flights to the US, including confiscation of liquids purchased airside. Normal.

    The additional photo and prints were odd but there’s no reason any country has to do everything like everyplace else. Interestingly, when we visited Argentina last year we got that treatment when arriving at EZE but not when we departed the country (by road to Santiago). Wonder what will happen when we go back next year!

    But if this procedure got your dander up I suggest you do not go to Peru and depart from Lima’s airport. It’s a total zoo which puts every other airport to shame!

  • BobChi

    The Lima airport is inconsistent. I’ve been there with chaotic conditions and with smooth conditions too. You do need to allow for the possibility of the former. I think the multiple layers of security and passport checks are also required by the U.S. Flying out of Lima to another South American destination is much less cumbersome.

  • Carrie Charney

    That was my experience. I flew from Lima to Panama City on Copa and connected to my Continental flight to the States in 2011. It took me about 10 minutes to check in. Security was a breeze. The rest of my group was flying directly to the US. It took them a couple of hours just to check in.

  • James

    Departures from Manila or Shanghai can be equally as enjoyable. At least Ned didn’t have to line up to pay a departure tax.

  • ton lammering

    i have a feeling this is a case of americans only used to flying inside the us confronted with the outside world.

    for a while after 9/11 here on schiphol flight by airlines from the us were basically given the same treatment as EL: AL flights.

    so you would be separate, and a first check before you even reached a counter with a recheck after any moment you could be in contact with people from outside the separate system (which included pasport control, tax free/waiting area etc) i think i was checked and searched at least 5 times including mutiple trips though diffent scanners

  • NedLevi

    I’ve been to plenty of airports where liquids were confiscated, and gate checks were made, but what got me upset here was:

    1. We were told to be at the airport AT LEAST 3 hours ahead of time and were, yet not only was United not there, they didn’t even have a sign of where to go, or when they would be there. I understand that if you have no flights for hours you don’t spend your money to keep your ticket counter open, but then let passengers know what’s going on. In Stockholm, Lufthansa has used SAS to check passengers in. Lufthansa is very clear about that. In addition, United didn’t check anyone in until 2:40 before the flight, with the line at that point at more than 300.
    2. I understand checking passports multiple times. It happens in the US for foreign nationals too, but at each check, they went through almost every page of the passports which just made the process longer and longer, much more than necessary.
    3. There is no reason that going through check-in – security – immigration should take 1 hour and 20 minutes and we were near the front of the check-in line. Some passengers took 2 hours to get through the process. Providing only one security line for all the people going through this terminal was absurd in my opinion. At least at immigration, they had multiple officers.
    4. I will never know why security examined our extension cord for 10 minutes, but even for airport security, that seemed over the top, and it caused the line to slow down behind us a lot, as the person checking it enlisted the assistance of 3 other officers to check the wire.
    5. If you’re automatically going to confiscate everyone’s food and drink at the gate then tell passengers via signs at the gate or at the food stands. For example, at Quito that’s exactly what they do. Moreover, for those who say this is SOP for flights to the US, that isn’t true. I’ve flown from locations in many continents back to the US where we were able to take our food and drinks aboard the plane when flying to the US. As to not being permitted to bring food such fruit and opened food containers into the US, that’s true, but it isn’t so that you can’t bring such food into the plane under US rules and laws. We’ve done it as have many others we’ve observed often. You just need to consume the food or leave it on the plane upon landing. I know this is true because my wife forgot she had an orange with her from Egypt, when we landed in Newark and got caught by a dog with it in her carry-on. The officer in Newark was very nice when he confiscated it, and explained to her all the rules and what she had to do in the future. Moreover, why take away our sandwich. There is nothing in the security rules which I know about dealing with sandwiches, unless you have something like mayo on them (we didn’t).
    6. As to the gate check, “for our safety,” that is nonsense. They gave the most cursory look possible, but what got my goat was first, how late they started the process, just 5 minutes before boarding started, and second, how harsh the patdowns were of the passengers who got them, and they were done without gloves, as mentioned. They were really gropedowns. Some women cried out, they were groped so hard on their chest.

    By the way, the plane left the gate 20 minutes late, but was in the air in about 5 minutes after that. While they warned us it could happen for security purposes, in Economy, one of the 4 lavatories was locked for more than half the flight, causing lines for lavatory use virtually the entire flight, but that has nothing to do with this article.

  • Kairho

    Ned, I’ve never known you to whine as much as you are doing in this article.

  • Expat Mark

    I have to agree with the other commenters here. I fail to see what is unusual about this experience. I am an expat living in Argentina and my experiences at Ezeiza, while sometimes frustrating, are on par with my other international flying experiences … especially when flying INTO the US. Maybe the writer doesn’t fly much outside the US and because of that feels frustrated.

  • James

    As someone who spends about every other week in Latin America, I can tell you that is identical to nearly every other airport in South America. There is absolutely nothing remarkable or unusual about the experience you have described.

  • Flying Dutchman

    Obviously, arriving in the check-in area 75 minutes before opening didn’t help you to get to the plane easier. It has even influenced your EZE experience from negative to VERY negative.

    Check -in opens mostly 3 hours before first departing flihjt, and ticket counters too.

    For flights to US security procedures are more extensive, but it has nothing to do with neither United nor EZE. What you have experiencesd sounds normal, logical and acceptable to me. It is just as it is, prescribed and described by TSA, for all US Carriers, when they are US-bound.

    Moreover, on some airports the LOCAL security measures can be even above/beyond wat TSA requires, but EZE is not one of them.

    I must admit that some seraches take longer that required, some passport checks too, and the same applies on (baggage) questions. That’s all HUMAN FACTOR, I’m afraid, so there is nothing to do with this. It could have happend in US too.

    Besides that, taking pictures and fingerprints has started in US, and many countries have accapted it afterwards, following the US model.
    Some countries have even introduced VISAs for US citizens as reaction, like Brazil and some others.

    So, nothing strange in this EZE experience, and nothing that strikes my attention in your story. It is the same allover South America and also Europe and parts of Asia when you are on US carrier to US.

  • palladin

    Yeah EZE can have some unpleasant pieces. Unfortunately I think almost all of the (big international) Flights leave around 9PM or 10PM. (I know to the US and also to Holland). So security (and immigration) around that time can be incredibly busy (and frustrating (having to stand it 2 incredibly long lines)).

    My biggest complaint was they put my flight to Europe at the farthest end of the Airport (which seemed to take forever to walk to), interestingly right next to the security station where Domestic passengers come in (and also far away from any of the shops).

  • http://www.theearlyairway.com/ The Early Air Way

    It happens, I also faced such kind of situation last year with a different airline and at a different airport, so I guess it is our bad luck or we can call it normal.

  • Saj

    Welcome to international travel, actually this was not bad, considering what I have been through.