After three awesome nights in NYC, we were to fly to Manaus to arrive the night before the huge Italy v England game. When in transit in Panama City, Copa Airlines informed us that the flight from Panama City onto Manaus was full and we could not get on the plane. WTF? No, W-T-F? We have a ticket. We have a boarding pass – crap, there’s no seat number on it.
Me – ‘What do you mean we can’t get on the plane? We have to be in Manaus for the game tomorrow. We booked this flight in January!’
Some other person at the airport – ‘Hey, we’ve been here for two days trying to get on a flight to Manaus.’
Me – ‘What the F—? How can you over book flights when the WORLD CUP is on? It’s not okay for us to arrive in Manaus tomorrow at 8pm – we’ll miss the game. Our whole point for going to Manaus is THIS game. Our whole life savings have gone into this trip, to go to the World Cup. This is unacceptable, completely unfair, and downright outrageous. Find a solution Copa Airlines, and find it now.’
Meanwhile, several Italians were having absolute hissy fits about not getting on the plane. Arms waving, voices loud, swearing, stomping feet, thumping desks, you name it. Other travellers were crying. Zorba and I were in disbelief. Utter disbelieve. I was shaking. I mean, how can we miss THE game of the tournament? The game we’ve been dreaming about for eight months, since we found out we had FIFA tickets?
Anger started to set in. How is it that we can miss the game through no fault of our own? Just because an airline is so greedy that it overbooks its flights? It’s just not right.
In shock, we watched the plane depart for Manaus, without us on it.
I rang our travel insurance. We had $2,000 available each in case of having to get to a special event through circumstances beyond our control, but had to travel in the same class (e.g. Business Class would not be covered). Good to know. I checked the time: In Australia it would have been 4am. I had wifi for an hour – so I sent an email to my travel agent, Richie at Motive Travel, asking, begging for urgent help.
I googled and googled. No other flights to Manaus from Panama City that would get us there on time. There was a private charter company based in Panama. I called them. Hiring a private 7-seater plan was possible, and the plane was likely to be available. Cost, US$3,500 per hour plus tax. Flight time, likely to be 7+ hours. Probably more. I gathered the other stranded passengers. As much as we all wanted, needed, to get to Manaus, hiring a charter flight seemed out of reach. Nonetheless I sent the charter company an email as requested.
We waited for Copa Airlines to come up with a solution. Another hour passed. Nothing offered except to go to Manaus the following day, which would mean missing the game. Not the right solution. Try again, Copa. People were firing questions, demands, at Joel, the Copa staffer I felt a bit sorry for. Another hour passed. Fuck, can we sit down somewhere please? Get a drink, something to eat while you figure this out? We just flew for six hours from NYC, and we’re knackered. No. Nothing. There was a lounge Zorba and I could have paid to get into, but I wasn’t leave Copa’s sight until we had a confirmed ticket to Manaus.
My internet expired. More time passed. Starting to resign ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to get to Manaus. Zorba had given up. I was never giving up. We were going to be at that game, no matter what.
There was a hand over from the Copa staff – a stressed out Joel was replaced by Eduardo Serrano. Someone who said all the right things — and that’s where it ends.
One by one, the stranded passengers who were causing the biggest scenes were being flown to other destinations with a promise of a connection to Manaus. The Italian was first, off to Sao Paolo on the last seat of that flight. Next was a young Aussie / Italian couple from Melbourne – flown on a later flight to Sao Paolo. Of course they had the last two seats so the rest of us couldn’t go.
It felt a bit like Copa Airlines were just getting rid of the problem passengers. I feared causing a scene – I mean, I didn’t want to end up in jail in Panama. Keeping calm was impossibly difficult.
There were seven of us left stranded in Panama – two Americans, four Australians, and a Puerto Rican.
No other solutions offered – but they did agree to put Zorba and I up for two nights in Panama City and re-route our flight to Rio de Janeiro, our next destination. We could watch the game at least in a bar or at the hotel in Panama. Far from satisfactory, but better than flying to Manaus, missing the game (because we would be on the flight) and arriving in Manaus for one night for no reason.
More time passed as Eduardo prepared paperwork for our flights to be re-routed, visa paperwork, etc. By this stage we had been waiting for four hours. No drinks, no food, no where to sit down.
I checked the time, 7.30am in Perth. I rang Richie, my travel agent. I was desperate and starting to worry that if we didn’t get out of Panama City, we would have no options for connecting flights to Manaus. Richie, thankfully, had received my email and was already checking options for me. I had to give him 15 mins and call him back.
Richie advised that there were no flights out of Panama into Brazil. However, we could fly to Miami and there was a flight from Miami to Manaus with TAM airlines, another carrier, that would get us there in time. The catch, there was just two business class seats available at A$2,750 each, which he had held in our names, in case we wanted that option. Yikes, almost A$6,000. Zorba and I talked it over. We considered just paying for it – but it wasn’t right that we should. Copa should cover that cost.
Right. There’s our solution. As Eduardo was trying to gather us up to get on a shuttle to the hotel, I stopped him. We have a solution, fly us to Miami and pay for us to be on that TAM Airlines flight to Manaus, in business class. Right.Now. Eduardo, again, picked up the phone, tapped into his computer, and after another 15 minutes gave us some excuse as to why that can’t happen.
Then I lost it.
I started to shake. I was pointing my finger at him. My voice was deep, measured, absolute, unwavering, and forceful.
“I am not taking ‘No’ for an answer. Make it happen, and make it happen NOW!!!” I demanded through gritted teeth.
We had 1.5 hours before the Miami flight was taking off. We needed a boarding pass or we would miss our only opportunity to make it to Manaus and to the Italy v England game.
The other passengers also wanted to go to Miami. After almost six hours in that God forsaken airport in Panama City and getting nowhere, at least in Miami the staff were likely to be more reasonable, helpful, and have English as a first language. There were heaps of seats available on the Miami flight.
I was trying to organise Eduardo to call Richie so they could speak and simultaneously re-book the business class seats so Copa Airlines could cover that cost. For 45 mins I was promised that someone in Miami was calling Richie to make that booking. They never called him. To make matters worse, Richie couldn’t get through to me by mobile or sms. I had to call him each time.
And another lie from Eduardo: an American Airlines flight has opened up from Miami to Manaus. There are heaps of seats available.
Joy! Jubilation! Eduardo quickly issued all six stranded passengers (the Puerto Rican opted to stay in Panama) boarding passes to Miami, and an printed letter asking to confirm the seats he had held for each of us from Miami to Manaus.
Hoo-fucking-ray. Let’s go! Seven hours standing, arguing, stressing, at Panama airport and finally we were on our way. I called Richie to let him know – and we both agreed that we should keep hold of the last two seats in business class, just in case Eduardo was getting rid of us and lying. I was suspicious and Richie confirmed that the American Airlines flight was a code-share with TAM, so not a new flight as such. We knew that the TAM flight was full because we had the last two seats held in our names.
Before going, Zorba insisted on bag tags for our baggage to follow us. Where were our bags anyway? I had no faith whatsoever that we’d see our luggage again.
Boarding passes to Miami issued, baggage tags attached, and a sprint to the gate. On a plane and out of Panama. Thank fuck. I sighed and felt some relief, but it was hardly over. We had a long way to go yet to get to that game.
No sleep for 24 hours. Thankfully, I slept for two hours on the plane, missed the in-flight meal, but sleep was more important. After a 3.5 hour flight to Miami, we landed at 1.45am. The Copa Airlines desk opened at 3.30am. No staff at the TAM airlines desk. More waiting. Nothing open at Miami airport – no shops, no cafes. When the Copa Airlines desk opened, six tired, weary, and stressed out travellers pounced. The manager was called, Juan. He genuinely felt sorry for us and could not believe how we had been treated. He said he would help us.
Waited another hour for the TAM airlines desk to open. Juan spoke to their manager and confirmed out worst nightmare – we were not booked on the flight to Manaus, and the flight was full. The only names that showed up were Zorba’s and mine in Business Class. Thank God for Richie. But – there’s always a but – Copa Airlines said they couldn’t put us on TAM airlines in Business Class. I can’t even remember why – my body almost shut down and my brain went into shock when he said those words. I began to cry. Exhausted, drained and completely and utterly over it. But not ready to give up. We were going to be at that game.
I was texting Richie – instructing him to keep hold of the flights until we knew more.
Juan put us all on stand by. At 6.00am, passengers started checking into the Manaus flight. We all prayed that something would happen so seats for us would be available.
With 30 minutes left to go before the Manaus flight closed and we could have seats confirmed, Juan informed us there were still 29 places available, so things were looking good.
The Zorba grabbed me and said, “Follow me.”
He charged off, a man on a mission. Away from the other stranded passengers, Zorba asked Juan how much would it cost us to pay the fare difference from economy to business to guarantee the business class seats? Good question Zorbs! US$425 each. Stuff it, let’s just pay and guarantee our place on the flight. But – another frigging but – because the TAM flight was also overbooked by six passengers (not including us, so 12 people on standby), we had to wait for the flight to close before we could take up that option.
More waiting, stressing, waiting. Counting passengers checking in. Harassing check-in staff by asking them every 10 minutes how many seats were left.
Hope. 15 minutes until the flight was to close and just six seats available. Another flight was delayed (connection), so our chances were tight, but still alive.
Flight closed. Juan announced – the flight was full, just two business class seats were available, who wanted them? I was in his face first and said they were ours. Which they were. It was like an episode of The Amazing Race.
Bags checked in (yes, they arrived from Panama City) and then we had to sprint downstairs, across the other side of the terminal to the TAM ticket office, to pay the fare difference. With little food and water, two hours sleep in 30+ hours, that sprint almost killed me. Almost.
At the TAM ticket desk and one attendant was dealing with a question-asking German. The other attendant was tapping into his computer and not serving customers. Hurry the fuck up!!! Someone else bolted into the ticket office, a sweaty guy in an Italian shirt with an American accent.
Sweaty pushy guy – ‘Please help me, I have to get on the Manaus flight, my flight was delayed.’
Me – ‘Mate, we’ve been at the airport all night trying to get on that flight because our other flight was overbooked. This flight is full, you have no hope buddy. None.’ In other words, fuck off.
Sweaty guy goes to attendant tapping into computer – ‘Please help me, Sir. Please, my flight was delayed.’
Sir behind the counter – ‘I’m busy doing something, please wait in line.You have to be here three hours before an international flight, not (pauses to check his watch) twenty minutes.’
Sweaty guy starts crying. I don’t care. After ten excruciating minutes, the question-asking German finally leaves and we jump to the counter. Phone rings. Our lady serving us speaks in Spanish. What now? WHAT?
Lady in TAM office – ‘I’m sorry, there are no business class seats, you are in economy.’
Me – ‘Okay, so can you print our boarding passes?’
TAM Lady – ‘No, you have to go back to the check in desk.’
You’re kidding. Another sprint, another near heart attack. Juan was there with the other four stranded passengers. I tell him there’s no business seats and that we were in economy – which he already knew. He handed us our boarding passes and we sprinted with every last ounce of energy in our bodies to security, and then onto our gate.
We made it on the plane. Phew. Zorba was in seat 15L. I was in 36A. Never mind, we were on the plane. As I walked to my seat, one of the last people on the plane, I got to seat 36A and someone else was sitting in it. Oh my God, Oh my God. Oh my God. I thought about hiding in the toilet until after take off. But a steward saw me chatting to Mr 36A and asked what the problem was.
I was told to wait in the crew area in the back of the plane while it was sorted out. After six or seven minutes and a lot so nerves, I was told to go back to seat 36A. The other guy got bumped up to Business Class. At that moment, I really didn’t care. I had a seat. We were on our way to Manaus.
Thank God. And thank Richie. And thank Zorba. Seat belt on, plane takes off – we are on our WAY!!!
Two sleeping tablets and a three hour sleep later, we land in Manaus.
We had four hours before kick off – we had to get to the hotel, have a shower (for the benefit of everyone around us), pick up our tickets from across the other side of Manaus from the FIFA ticket collection office, and get to the Arena. We had no time to waste.
And that’s exactly what we did. One minute showers, Italian shirts on, a taxi, and a complete rush. Rapido, rapido! Thankfully, there were no queues at the ticket collection office and a very helpful volunteer walked us through every step of the automatic ticket machine. Tickets in hand. One more step – get to the stadium.
There were dedicated shuttle buses to the stadium that cost just A$5 each. Which was awesome because I paid the other taxi driver in US dollars instead of Brazilian Real, effectively doubling his earnings. Oh well. A small mistake.
On the shuttle bus, sitting next to some very loud talking Americans in the back seat, they ask us questions because they heard us speak English, but we were wearing Italian shirts.
Then one says – ‘We just landed from Miami too. Hey, I think I was in your seat.’
Me – ‘Oh my God. 36A!?’
Him – ‘Yes! Thanks so much, I was moved up to first class!’ He, Craig, bought us a beer when we got off the bus.
What a spin out!! What are the chances of that happening?
We were at the Arena, entered the ground, and another spin out, we bumped into the young Australian / Italian couple also stranded in Panama City that were put on a flight to Sao Paolo. They didn’t have a connection to Manaus either and their luggage was lost. But they too made it, were at the game and their smiles were as wide as ours.
We found our stadium seats. I looked around, breathed, and broke out in tears. Crying in disbelief, joy, exhaustion. Our World Cup dream was almost shattered – it took everything we had to make it happen – not that it was our fault – but we had made it. We were there. I was elated and overwhelmed. And I cried about six times during the game. It was every bit as awesome as I’d expected. And Italia won, 2-1.
Lesson learned: Never EVER fly Copa Airlines again – or go to Panama City.
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