Published on March 15th, 2016 | by Mark Chesnut
You Won’t Believe What This Colombian Airline Demands To See Before You Fly
It’s normal for an airline to ask for identification when you travel. But during my recent flight from Colombia to Panama, I was absolutely shocked at what a certain discount Colombian airline demanded: My bank statements.
That’s what happened when I flew a low-cost airline called VivaColombia from Bogota to Panama. Worst of all, the carrier didn’t advise me that I’d need to produce this financial data when they emailed me my ticket information. So if you’re planning on taking that flight, get ready to give up some pretty personal information.
Here’s why I chose to fly VivaColombia, and what happened during my trip (there is, perhaps, a justifiable reason why my Colombian friends call it ChivaColombia).
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THE ROUTE: Bogota El Dorado International Airport (BOG) to Panama Pacifico International Airport (BLB); Airbus A320; 1 hour, 5 minutes
WHY I CHOSE THIS AIRLINE: I knew that VivaColombia was a discount airline that, like Spirit Airlines, likes to nickel-and-dime passengers for nearly every imaginable extra (VivaColombia is partly owned by the investors behind VivaAerobus, a similarly cut-rate airline in Mexico). But I was willing to accept the extra fees for a single reason: lower fares. I needed a one-way flight from Bogota, Colombia to Panama City, Panama. Avianca and Copa Airlines both wanted about $400 one way, for a one-hour flight. VivaColombia was asking just $129.75 (granted, VivaColombia doesn’t even fly to Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport; it’s the only airline with scheduled service landing at Panama Pacifico, a tiny airport that’s a revamped version of the former Howard Air Force Base, on the far side of the Panama Canal near Panama City). The air fare was a big difference — although that’s not the final fare I paid, once I started adding extras.
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CALCULATING THE COST OF A VIVACOLOMBIA FLIGHT: So yes, I started with a one-way fare of $129.75 for my Bogota-to-Panama flight. But I was nervous about flying this discount airline, so I loaded up on extras when I bought my ticket. Here’s how it came out:
Base fare: $129.75
Airport check-in (which gives me the right to stand in line and have them print my boarding pass): $4.63
Extra carry-on baggage (otherwise I could only carry on what would fit under the seat in front of me): $26
Checked bag: $22
Fila Rápida (supposedly a shorter check-in line): $4.63
TOTAL COST OF THE TRIP: $197.05 (so while that was a significant jump from the base fare, it was still about half of what Avianca and Copa Airlines were asking)
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THE DEPARTURE — AND WHY YOU NEED TO BRING YOUR BANK STATEMENT): I took an Uber from the apartment I’d rented (check out what you get for $55 on Airbnb in Bogota) to El Dorado Airport and arrived about 2.5 hours before my departure time. Upon arrival, I saw a check-in line for flights to Panama, but not a Fila Rápida (fast line), which I’d paid for. So I asked an attendant to point me in the right direction. Before doing so, she very kindly and efficiently checked all my documents (including proof of a continuing ticket to the United States, which she said was required) and filled out a departure form for me. But then things got weird.
“Do you have your documentation showing that you have at least $500 in a bank account?” she asked.
“What??” I asked back. “I’ve visited Panama about 15 times over the past 10 years, and never had to produce any such documentation.”
“It’s the policy for this airline, flying to that airport in Panama,” she responded. “Perhaps with other airlines it’s different.”
“Well, I don’t have any bank statements with me. It says nothing about that on my ticket information that I printed out, from the email VivaColombia sent me.”
“Then you can use the WiFi to sign into your bank account and take a screen shot of it.”
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Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport has free WiFi, but it doesn’t have good free WiFi, and after 10 minutes of unsuccessful attempts to log on, the agent finally walked back over and gave me the password for VivaColombia’s private WiFi network. It was slow but I did finally get through (and luckily remembered my log-in information for my bank). I opened up my account summary page, took a screen shot, and showed two ticket agents my entire bank balance across four different accounts. They were finally satisfied.
Annoyed, I handed one agent my six-page printout from VivaColombia, and asked her to point out where it said I needed to present a bank statement to board. She scanned all the pages and couldn’t find it. “I think it’s in the fine print on the pages you have to click through when you purchase,” she said. (When was the last time anyone read all that fine print on an airline ticket? If there’s something this important that could prevent me from being able to board a flight, perhaps it should be on the boarding pass!)
To their credit, neither of the two alternating ticket agents who assisted me ever made me stand in a line, and they walked me straight to a counter once I was finally approved, so I could drop off my bag. But standing in the airport being told that I would not be allowed on my flight unless I can show them my bank statement is not something that’s pleasant to hear, especially if you’re not expecting it. (I’m still not sure why they have this policy; I’m assuming it may be something related to Panama trying to keep people without financial means from staying illegally in their country, but again, I’ve never been asked for this information on other flights to Panama from the USA, Mexico, Ecuador or Colombia.)
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THE AIRCRAFT: The VivaColombia Airbus A320 was more or less what I expected: A basic but fine airliner, with no extras — including no assigned seats, so the sooner you get on, the better. Since I’d paid extra to check a bag, that automatically got me into a better boarding group.
INFLIGHT SERVICE: There is no inflight entertainment, and airline food available includes a variety of options for food and drink, but everything with a price: $2 to $4 for food, $2 to $4 for drinks — including a charge for water. Only U.S. dollars in cash are accepted (even though this was a flight from Colombia, no Colombian pesos could be used).
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THE ARRIVAL: We landed on time at Panama Pacifico International Airport, which is located near the Panama Canal at the former Howard Air Force Base. The terminal is tiny and, at this point, only serves one plane at a time, so there’s no wait to get to the gate, and deplaning involves descending air stairs for an old-fashioned tarmac walk (which is great for photos). Inside, passengers stood in a winding line in a small, minimally air-conditioned room, decorated with Tocumen airport logos, and it took me about 45 minutes to reach the immigration counter, where I had to present a copy of my on-going ticket to the United States, and also provide fingerprints. The immigration officer did not, however, ask me for a bank statement or any personal financial information. Since it took so long to get processed, my checked bag was already waiting for me when I got to the tiny baggage claim, and customs consisted of nothing more than putting my bags through an X-ray machine.
Outside, a gaggle of taxi drivers were actively touting their services to exiting passengers. A driver told me the flat rate to Panama City was $30, which is the same as what I pay to and from Tocumen International Airport, which is much further from the city. But when I asked another taxi driver for his rate, he consulted with the first driver and gave me the same jacked-up fare, so I had no choice but to take the taxi (I later learned that if I had used Uber, it would have cost me about $15 — half the price, but since Panama Pacifico airport has no WiFi and my cell phone had no roaming, I couldn’t order a ride).
BEST FOR: Long story short, the economical fares make VivaColombia a viable choice for budget-conscious travelers, even with the extra fees charged for everything from check-in to baggage to airline food and drinks. But the failure to advise passengers of the bizarre requirement to show bank statements is a major slip-up on the part of the airline and could cause major travel headaches — and unfortunately, the delays in immigration processing in Panama and the greed of Panama City’s notoriously price-gouging taxi drivers negate some of the advantages flying into the smaller, closer Panama Pacifico International Airport.