Monday, June 9, 2014

If you build it, they will come - São Paulo

I have been one of the ardent critics of São Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport, affectionately known as GRU, officially known as Cumbica. By the way, did you know that Cumbica means "fog" in the Tupi language? Now think about why you would put an airport for the world's fourth largest city in a region where flights are often delayed by fog. Yes, now you have figured out Brazil planning.

In any case, it's been years since my flight has faced a fog delay and been diverted for hours to dinky Campinas airport. Wow, I need to get over that, right? So, Cumbica until recently has been dark, dank and depressing. For you fellow Tri-Staters, think of the People's Express airport in New Jersey in the 1980s. Low ceilings, a couple of sad stores and a few places to get a stale pão de queijo. I try to spend as little time as possible in GRU, which is often not possible since I have more than once spent an hour or two or more in immigration (entering AND leaving), customs, federal police and airline check-in lines.  Not a fan.

Recently the new Terminal 3 has opened at GRU, and I'm still trying to figure out why we have heard so little about it. The only thing I recall the media reporting was the hours-long delay to get luggage from the first flights and other doom and gloom. As far as I can recall from those first few reports, there was no "wow!" And guess what? There should be WOW! It is definitely WOW! (can we change the airport letters to WOW now?) 

It is, in word (or two), world-class. As my husband pulled up to drop me off with our huge piles luggage (repatriation is a bitch), you could already see we had entered a new era. I could already tell that I do not ever want to fly into Terminal 1 or 2 again. I am not loyal to an airline; I am loyal to a terminal.

If you have ever been to Cape Town's airport (the new one, wise guys, the one built for their Cup), we have built Cape Town. Maybe a bigger Cape Town. Huge, airy, filled with windows and polished steel, awesome. I believe only six airlines have moved in so far, so there is plenty of wide open space for the guy who wants to shrink-wrap your bags to find you.

My actual check-in experience was not great--it took us over an hour to get through the winding line. But I can probably blame that on the Friendly Skies who were working with a canceled flight and limited check-in folks. Maybe they were learning to use new computers. But this I can safely say: your wait will be MUCH more pleasant than in the other terminals. It's pretty, this Terminal 3. Yes they put the flight-delay sign behind towering palm trees so you have to crane around the fronds to see if your flight is on time. Yes, the signage on the airlines leaves a lot to be desired. But all in all, HUGE thumbs-up.

Unless you're elderly or with mobility issues. Once you're past security (easy and empty this time) and the federal police immigration (actually emigration, but they don't listen to me), you have to walk, and walk and walk and walk. And here I'm going to compare again to a South African airport--this time Johannesburg. The inside shopping mall/gates set up IS the J'burg airport. But with more expensive shops and fewer elephant and giraffe doo-dads. More Michael Kors and Dudalina (what a horrible brand name) shops and Fuleco staring out of plastic wrap. 

Keep walking. Oh, then stop for a refreshment at Bar 365 or something like that. Find that it costs $5 reais for a pão de queijo (yummy) and more for an empanada (yummy but they're out of hot sauce). Forget the teeny piece of chocolate unless you get a bank loan.

Keep walking. Wander in circles around silver giant boxes in the middle of the tundra, errr, terminal. Those are the bathrooms. You just can't find your way in. Why they didn't put entrances on both sides of the boxes, I will never know. 

Keep walking. Oh, great, we're at the second gate, in spite of just walking 5 km. Plenty of place to sit does not mean that a single Brazilian WILL sit. No, they will get in line even though we board by group and they're in group 4,560. You will never change this about a Brazilian: they like lines. And Orlando. Someone has to-- so it's convenient that those two cultural things meet in one mousey place.

All in all, I give high marks to the new GRU-WOW terminal. My major advice would be get there early--they're still working out the kinks. And now it's not get there early because customs and "emigration" will take forever. No, it's because you are going to be competing in the GRU-WOW 5 km sprint to your gate. 

I am returning to GRU-WOW on Wednesday morning so I will test it again on the day before the opening of the World Cup. Weirdly, I can hardly wait. 

1 comment:

  1. Sounds a lot like when they opened Terminal 5 at Heathrow a few years ago. At first the only reports were about how the fully automated baggage handling system managed to permanently lose so many bags. But once the kinks were ironed out, there isn't a terminal I'd prefer to fly through. It's really great now.