By João Machado
BoA Trip Report Part 1: São Paulo to Madrid with Boliviana de Aviación
For a number of reasons, the Bolivian aviation market is a very peculiar one. While most of the South American countries are dominated by huge airlines or airline groups, the local scene has none of it. And there’s an important factor in this equation: Boliviana de Aviación.
Known simply as BoA, the airline was founded by the national government in 2008 and quickly outpaced its struggling private competitors, benefitting from the state guardianship. By 2011, it was already Bolivia’s largest operator.
AirlineGeeks had the chance to fly with BoA between São Paulo and Madrid via its hub in Santa Cruz de La Sierra/Viru Viru.
The flight to Santa Cruz would be operated by Boliviana’s full-economy configured 737-800. The leg to Madrid, in its turn, would be in one of the less-known products of long-haul South American aviation: BoA’s 767-300 business class.
After a quick flight from my hometown, I arrived early in Guarulhos and went to BoA’s office to choose my seat. BoA does not offer online check-in for international flights, although it seems to do so in its domestic operations.
Three hours before departure, BoA’s check-in counters opened. The line was huge even before the process was started. Thankfully I had already passed before by their offices to choose my seats, so they had my boarding passes ready. It was just a question of re-checking my documents.
The check-in agent, which was really attentive, printed both my boarding passes to Santa Cruz and to Madrid.
As it was still an off-peak time of the day, migrations happened in no time and I was near the gate in the blink of an eye. BoA operates in Guarulhos’ Terminal 2, where LATAM and GOL operate its domestic flights, as well as a handful of other international airlines, such as Aerolíneas Argentinas and Ethiopian.
The inbound flight — one of BoA’s ten weekly operations to São Paulo — arrived on time. The 737-800 arrived from Cochabamba, Bolivia, from where it operates three times a week. The other seven flights come from Santa Cruz.
I would fly on CP-2925, an 18-year-old bird. First delivered to Shanghai Airlines in September 2001, it arrived in Bolivia in November 2015, according to Airfleets.
After an inspection by the Brazilian civil aviation authority, boarding was cleared to start. I was the first to board in order to photograph the empty cabin, being received with a warm welcome by the chief flight attendant, Ramiro.
Despite the age of the aircraft, the cabin looked really nice and was super clean, with leather seats and adjustable headrests.
As expected, there were no personal screens on the back of the seats, but I liked the cabin regardless. The seats — apparently standardized by BoA — had a nice color selection, bringing a good atmosphere overall to the cabin, which didn’t count with the Sky Interior.
The crew seemed to really care about the cleanliness of the airplane, with the chief FA even passing with an air freshener through the cabin before other passengers entered.
The load-factor seemed to be high, but the boarding looked quick nonetheless. At 6:16 p.m., four minutes before the scheduled time of departure (STD), doors were closed.
Departure was during rush hour, so it was only at 6:42 p.m. that CP-2925 started its take-off run from Guarulhos’ runway 27R.
Weather was bad in the São Paulo region, so the pilots had to avoid some impressive rain showers just after departing.
A turbulent climb succeeded, and as soon as the seat belt signs were turned off, the crew handed passengers the Bolivian migration form. I was transferring in Santa Cruz so I didn’t need to fill it anyway, but I did it just in case.
Just after that, the onboard service was started. It was composed of a single sandwich option, as well as soft drinks, coffee and tea. That’s suitable for an economy flight like this, although the sandwich filling was dry.
What really called my attention, though, was the stellar service of the crew, especially of the lead flight attendant. They were really attentive, helpful, and seemed genuinely happy to be there.
The only entertainment option available was BoA’s magazine, “Destinos” (Destinations). I had brought my own book so I preferred to read it during the trip, but as per the skimming I made at the magazine, it looked like an okay read. Also, there were no in-seat power ports available.
After the first onboard service was done, another round of drinks was offered. Later I would discover that this is the norm at BoA on flights where there’s time, but this time (something I didn’t see on further flights), they used no trolleys.
Another important point was the very generous space between seats. BoA configured its 737-800 with only 168 seats.
I spent the rest of the time reading my book. At 8:42 p.m. São Paulo time (7:42 Bolivia time), CP-2925 started its descent into Santa Cruz de La Sierra, the country’s largest city.
At 8:06 p.m. local time under some rainy conditions, Boliviana 739 made a smooth landing in Santa Cruz de La Sierra/Viru Viru International Airport, four minutes before the scheduled time of arrival (STA).
This was a very pleasant experience for a three-hour flight in South America. What stood out the most for me was, for sure, the amazing cabin crew.
I imagined the 1 hour and 35 minutes connection in Santa Cruz would be tight, but it actually wasn’t. The screening process was very straightforward and very quickly I was in the intertional boarding area.
The airside seemed limited but it had a lounge, which I had access to since I was travelling in business class.
The lounge was even more limited, being nothing more than an extension of the restaurant by its side, with some couches and a television, which was much more private than the common area of the airside.
I get why the lounge is so small. Given BoA has a very limited business class capacity, it would be pointless to invest in anything more elaborate than that. Even though Priority Pass is a member of the lounge as well, the demand seems to be too low to justify anything more than this. If BoA plans to build a larger hub in Santa Cruz as it says, though, a lot of work is necessary in this sense.
The access gave me two drinks and two food options from the restaurant. Since I would try the food onboard anyway, I preferred only to take a coffee refueling and a water bottle.
When I got to the gate, boarding was about to start. Again, I would be the first to board to photograph the empty cabin, not without being asked some questions by a police officer about my trip.
I would fly on CP-3017, a 24-year-old veteran 767-300 with a lot of history to tell. First delivered to Royal Brunei Airlines in April 1996, SN 27427 served Air Mauritius, Air Algerie, Vietnam Airlines and Skymark Airlines until the end of 2007.
It then went to South America, operating for the “new” VARIG — later absorbed by GOL — until May 2011, when it went to Russia to fly for Nordwind Airlines. In February 2016, it finally arrived in Bolivia to help Boliviana’s widebody operations, which currently reach Buenos Aires, Madrid and Miami.
The first impression passengers have when entering CP-3017 is the outdated business class seat. One of BoA’s 767s has a more modern cabin, but I was not lucky that day.
Seats are displayed in a 2-1-2 configuration, with two rows of recliner seats. BoA plans to replace its 767s in the near future so I imagine retrofitting the cabin would be too much of an expensive investment for such a short-lived benefit.
The rest of the cabin is entirely made up of economy class. The first section has way less seats, providing a much better level of privacy. Economy cabins of BoA’s 767 have the standard 2-3-2 configuration.
The second section of BoA’s 767 economy class is much larger.
Now back to my seat (1A), boarding started on time. As much as I appreciate having direct access to the aisle, I could never afford not having a window seat, especially flying the 767.
Nevertheless, only 3 of the 10 Business seats (including mine) were occupied and I had a free seat by my side. The seat in the upright position was very comfortable.
The seat reclining was controlled through a panel on the inside of the armrest.
As expected, the seat does not recline to a flatbed mode. At its maximum reclining position, it looked like it reached half the way of a bed.
There were two FAs looking over the business class cabin on this flight, a superb 1.5 pax per FA rate, so we were well looked after. The crew was led by Chief FA Marcelo Camacho.
To start up the flight, I was offered a pre-departure drink, and kindly accepted a white wine. Although there was no wine list, it tasted good.
Right from the start the crew looked very friendly and proactive, offering a refill. I accepted it, and before departure, they even offered another one, although this one I declined, for I had work to do right after taking-off…
For an undisclosed reason, doors were closed with a considerable delay. At 10:14 p.m., pushback was started, 29 minutes after STD. 12 minutes later, the pair of GE CF6s roared up its way on runway 16, producing a beautiful symphony.
At 10:50 service was started, with the offering of hot towels.
They also gave us a blanket and a pillow, which I found to be comfortable.
There was no menu available, so the FA would tell me the options he had on a list. The main courses were chicken with mashed potatoes, beef steak or vegetarian lasagne. I chose the chicken.
The starter was a salad with turkey, tomato and lettuce. Starters and main courses would always come with breads and sauces. To drink, I asked for a Coca-Cola, though there were also alcoholic drinks available, such as red wine, white wine and beer.
The main course, chicken with mashed potatoes, was super tasty. The plate presentation was okay, with the chicken having ham inside its pieces, and the temperature was good and very consistent. Overall, I really enjoyed it.
The dessert was something like a wafer filled with meringue, with a handful of fruit pieces on top of it. I liked it a lot. To end the service, I asked for some coffee.
After the service was finished, a bottle of water was brought just in case we needed during our rest.
Before I went to sleep, I checked on the sole entertainment option available: “BoA Entertainment,” an app which, when connected to the aircraft’s Wi-Fi network, has some movie streaming options, as well as institutional information on the airline.
I really appreciated the FA’s attitude when I asked them about the entertainment. Once they learned I didn’t have the downloaded app, they did everything possible for me to have it, sending the .apk file through Bluetooth. They really went the extra mile on that, as they did throughout the entirety of the flight.
Unfortunately the options were scarce and I didn’t quite like any.
There was also some kind of movie being shown on the overhead screens, which were virtually broken, given the quality of the image. Also, none of the audio channels was available, so it was kind of pointless.
In case I wanted to stream a movie, in the beginning of the flight they gave us some very simple headphones. Not at all near the global business class standard, but at least these could be taken home.
I was very tired anyway; I needed some sleep. So I reclined the seat as much as I could and used the pillow and blankets, which I found good. I found no issue in resting, actually. I slept like a rock and woke up when we were nearing Northwestern Africa.
Once the chief FA noticed I had waken up, he asked me if I wanted the breakfast, even though there was plenty of time to spare. I really appreciated the crew’s proactivity throughout the flight.
I accepted it, for I was already hungry again. I opted for an omelet along with an orange juice.
To end, a sweet crêpe with chocolate syrup, along with a tea. I really liked both courses — presentation was just okay, but again, meals were very tasty.
An important point to mention is the cabin was clean and it stayed so during the flight. The bathroom was smaller than I imagined for a 767, but it was clean. In this regard, only the three business passengers plus the crew used the frontal lavatory, so I don’t believe it even needed cleaning at any time.
At 1:49 p.m. Spain time (8:49 a.m. Santa Cruz time), Boliviana 776 touched down in Madrid, 26 minutes before the STA, making up for the delayed departure.
The aircraft stopped at its position in Madrid/Barajas’ Terminal 4S (for non-Schengen flights), where it would stay the whole afternoon. A quick deboarding succeeded, ending this long journey all the way from São Paulo.
I was really surprised in a positive way by my two maiden flights with Boliviana de Aviación. To put it simply, BoA offers an underwhelming hard product (IFE, cabin, seats), especially in the 767. The soft product, on the other hand, almost entirely makes up for it.
Meals were good and tasty on the flight to Madrid, and the courses were very complete and filling, although there was no menu. But the aspect that impressed me the most at BoA was the crew.
They were all really lovely, proactive at all times and polite when needed, always happy to help and going the extra mile, showing pride in what they do. This really made the difference between an okay experience and a very good experience.
That’s why I’m excited to see what’s next at BoA. When the replacement for the 767s finally come, especially if it brings an up-to-date cabin, the airline will offer a really competitive product connecting Bolivia to the world. The soft product is already great (although it needs some minor adjustments); it’s just the hard product that’s missing.
Editor’s Note: The author flew as a guest of the airline.