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Trying a new airline: GCA Airlines


I was in Cartagena some days ago, and checking my possibilities to return to Medellín I saw all options available, as I usually do.

The usual suspects were there: Avianca, LATAM and Viva Air, their prices being usual as well.

Nonetheless, I like to try new things (and with new things I mean airlines, Airplanes, Airports) and at that moment I remembered the newest Colombian airline had been flying from late November, and one of the four cities they were flying to was precisely Cartagena.

They don’t fly to Medellín (yet), but, what if for some reason I could get a not so crazy connection through Cali? (and we’re talking here of someone who once needed to go from Medellín to Quito and chose to do Medellín – Bogotá – Lima – Quito instead of the nonstop direct flight, costing the same).

Well, I began to search, and as it happened flying to Cali on GCA, and from Cali to Medellín on Easyfly was going to be only 20.000 COP (approximately 6 USD or 4.50 GBP) more expensive than the cheapest nonstop from Cartagena to Medellín for the date and hour that I needed.

And this connection would include baggage on both airlines, something I still to add to the cheapest nonstop from Cartagena to Medellin making it more expensive, since there appears to be a race to the bottom in Colombian airlines for the winner of who can invent more extra charges.

The financials of the matter being such, plus the prospect of flying on a new airline and a classic Airplane other than the ubiquitous Airbus A320 (delicious, but still, ubiquitous), meant I didn’t think twice about it, and chose to return to Medellín on GCA and Easyfly connecting in Cali.

On top of that, I hadn’t flown on ATR 42-600, and it was very likely that Easyfly would use that type of Airplane for my flight that day. I had flown before on ATR 42-500 and ATR 42-300, but not on a -600.

Mind you, all this wasn’t without risk. If GCA were to leave me stranded in Cartagena or be delayed, it would be a right fuck up for me. If they left me stranded in Cartagena for some reason, technically they would have to fix the situation and make me get to Cali somehow as soon as possible. But I was going to Medellín.

On the other hand, if they were delayed it was possible that I’d lose the connection with Easyfly. And Easyfly couldn’t likely care less that my reason for missing the flight was:

-“No, it’s just that GCA, this airline that has nothing to do with you left me stranded, so yeah”.

And that was going to mean paying the penalty for a ticket change (in Easyfly it was 90.000 COP, 26 USD, 20 GBP plus the fare difference in case it applied -most probably yes-).

No fear though, I’m an avgeek and I like adrenaline. (Spoiler: no such thing happened, both airlines were quite on-time, fortunately).

That scenario happened to me once arrived in the United States, years ago. I arrived from Colombia delayed by half an hour on JetBlue, and I was sent to secondary revision at customs alongside some ladies that apparently were moving houses or something, their suitcases plastic lined and all the works, and speaking very little English.

My own revision took no more than 10 minutes, I only had clothes and a pair of books. But I had to wait for my turn one hour, or maybe more, while the ladies were checked.

I had a connection with United on a different ticket, that had nothing to do with JetBlue, and the United Airplane left without me because of the initial delay plus the secondary customs check. I had baggage to check, so double screwed whammy.

Thankfully at that moment the United counter agent helped me and put on a later flight without additional charges, but she was under no obligation to do so. It would have been the same thing here with Easyfly, and they could have helped me or not, at their sole discretion (and something tells me that perhaps I wouldn’t have seen so lucky this time around).

But anyway, let’s continue. GCA means “Gran Colombia de Aviación”, and it’s a Venezuelan capital airline (from the owners of Avior) that started its certification process in Colombia in 2017 and after many hurdles, some of their making and some due to the unbeatable speed of Colombian bureaucracy, finally flew in late 2019 for the first time.

From the school you may know that Gran Colombia was an old huge country that included what nowadays is Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and some other territories elsewhere. So it’s a pretty pertinent name, Venezuelan Capital, Colombian Airline… Ecuador and Panama are nowhere to be seen in this venture though, hihihi.

They’re based in Cali, and at the time of writing they fly from Cali to Cartagena and Barranquilla (and return), and from Cartagena to Bucaramanga. They have two delicious Boeing 737-400s operative, and three sexy Fokker 50s in Cali grounded, plus other Boeings they say they will bring in the near future.

All this process was terra incógnita, as they are a very new company, small, that had some hurdles in their process, and from which I had no further real reference than some discussion forums around the interwebs prone to become political hot potatoes and leave the Aviation realm (got to remember it’s a company with mostly Venezuelan capital, in Colombia of all places).

I haven’t seen much advertising about them either, and I am an avgeek who remains more or less updated on the industry.

So I bought the ticket on their website (https://www.gcaair.com/), paid for it with a Colombian issued credit card, and I had no problem at all. It was accepted on the first try, without weird errors or gimmicks.

One minute later I had the ticket the record locator in my email.

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Beginning of GCA's email after buying the ticket on their website.

Ramírez.

I was thinking before, what if they don’t accept the card? What if the system crashes? All this because of what I explained in the earlier paragraph. I remember years ago Avianca used to have a personal vendetta against my credit cards I don’t know why, and that trauma stuck.

But no problem, it was all ready.

Next was a check on punctuality. What I think has to improve the most in this whole experience was the system they have on their website and their APP to see flight statuses. It just doesn’t work.

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Non-funcional flight status system. It's the same thing in the APP (obviously, I guess technically they both feed from the same information source).

Ramírez.

I think it’s necessary to implement that system as soon as possible. The Airport’s websites didn’t display GCA’s flights either.

And since they’re Airplanes without ADS-B, tracking through apps such as Flightradar24 is patchy at best…

Now, I was several days in Cartagena and in some of those days I went spotting.

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They were mostly on time the times I went spotting at the times GCA was supposed to come and go. In the photo above they’re arriving on-time, in the one below they’re departing on time again.

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GCA Boeing 737-400 departing for Cali on-time one of the days I was in Cartagena spotting. That time it was the HK-5288.

Ramírez.

There was one day the Airplane arrived on-time, but didn’t leave again for two days. I’ve no idea what happened there.

So, I was cautiously relaxed on that front, they seemed to mostly have the punctuality situation under control those days.

I must insist on the need to have the flight status system working, and for them to appear on flights boards on the websites of Airports.

I had other means such as the apps and being physically present at the Airport, but the non avgeek passenger does not know that (and has no reason to), and he or she must have a way of knowing the situation of a given flight.

Anyway, it was time to return. 24 hours before the flight I tried to check-in online, the system found my reservation, but the check-in was closed.

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Closed check-in 24 hours before the flight.

Ramírez.

I tried again on GCA’s mobile APP as well, to no avail.

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Closed check-in 24 hours before the flight on the mobile APP.

Ramírez.

One hour after that, I tried again on the laptop, and this time around it worked perfectly. They use the same system Easyfly uses for online check-in, obviously with GCA’s colours, logos, and seat map.

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Check-in, now open about one hour after the first try.

Ramírez.

Other than the weird “delay”, the online check-in had no problems either.

Boarding pass ready, it was now only a matter of going to the Airport the following day.

Route: Cartagena (CTG) – Cali (CLO)
Airplane: Boeing 737-400
Airline: GCA Airlines

I arrived in the Airport with a corrupt taxi driver called José. He was speaking all the way with another taxi driver about how he had to bribe the transit police about 100.000 COP (about 30 USD, 23 GBP) because he was caught something he shouldn’t have done on a zone he had no permit to be working at, and he had to cough that up to the corrupt transit police or have the taxi impounded.

They drive like arses in Cartagena (including José) and they honk all the time, and as with every city in Colombia, taxi drivers are the second worst exponents of the worst driving practices. First place goes to the bikers.

Uber is missed dearly (I know there’s InDriver and all that, but it’s not the same).

Anyway, I digress. I went into the terminal and quickly found GCA’s counter. There was only one person in line, and when I arrived she had been processed already.

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They asked me where I was going to (it was just that one flight, but I guess they still ask out of inertia) and asked for my ID. They received my suitcase and gave a traditional printed boarding pass, even though I also had the one that had arrived in my email.

All this included in the basic ticket without additional fees.

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Boarding pass I received in my email after the online check-in.

Ramírez.

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Traditional printed boarding pass I was given after they took possession of my suitcase.

Ramírez.

Once in the waiting room there was no sign about GCA, it was still kind of early though. I was trying to figure out whether the flight had left Cali on-time, but I had no joy even with the tracking apps.

Things looked normal though, so I relaxed.

From Cartagena’s waiting room not much can be seen of the apron, but the view is not totally blocked though.

Right at the time the flight from Cali was supposed to arrive, I heard an Airplane coming close. I managed to peek at the characteristic shape of the CFM56-3 engine that powers this variant of the Boeing 737 through one of little openings that allowed any view to the apron.

The Airplane kept moving and I managed to see the black “mask” surrounding the cockpit’s windows, characteristic of GCA’s colour scheme. My Airplane had definitely arrived, and on-time at that.

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Agents from GCA arrived shortly, and the screen at gate 7 was filled with information of the Cali flight. It was all good.

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9A1501 flight to Cali at gate 7, on-time.

Ramírez.

Boarding was started and I walked toward the Airplane on the apron, at parking position 2.

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Walking toward the Airplane.

Ramírez.

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Walking toward the Airplane.

Ramírez.

I was going to fly on HK-5338 that day, a delicious Boeing 737-400 delivered to US Airways (nowadays merged with American Airlines) in late 1990.

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It flew with US Airways until at least 2014, then in Avior, and it’s now in GCA.

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I was thrilled to be able to on a classic again (as I’ve mentioned).

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You can see a photo of the Airplane when it flew to US Airways by clicking here.

I hadn’t flown on a Boeing 737-400 for years, last time had been on a Malaysia Airlines one from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok in 2009.

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I sat in my seat and waited for the rest of passengers to board. I was the first one to check-in online the earlier day, and was also the first one to get in the Airplane at that moment, since there were no passengers that required priority boarding and my seat number range was called first.

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In the end about 30 passengers total boarded, few for an Airplane with a capacity of more than 140.

Perhaps they have to work more on the marketing and advertising situation I mentioned earlier, and well, they’ve been operating a short time and it takes time to be known and have a name. Anyway, I guess it’s concerning for the airline.

I remember back in the 90s when I once flew on an Aero República McDonnell-Douglas DC-9-30 from Medellín to Bogotá with a load of 5 passengers, including myself. Anyway, I don’t think it’s a sustainable position long-term and I hope things improve for GCA in that regard.

Doors were closed, and I was still chuffed to bits about flying on a classic and be leaving on-time.

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Classic and delicious.

Ramírez.

We were pushed-back while an Avianca Airbus A320 with Star Alliance colours arrived, and another Interjet Airbus A320 was climbing away en-route to Mexico City (airborne, in the third photo).

It was a clear and sunny day, and the Captain informed us that conditions were like that along the whole route. We’d only have some light turbulence in some sectors.

The Airplane vibrated and had a weird sound when turning on one of the engines, for a while I thought that maybe we’d have an issue (we were going so well until now!).

But then I remembered another engine turning on situation with vibration years before, on board a United Boeing 777-200 and another Japan Airlines Boeing 777-300 when after parameters were stable, vibrations and weird sounds disappeared. It was the same here, once the engine was stable everything was perfect.

We started taxiing, backtracked the runway, and lined up on runway 01 for departure.

Take off run started and the Airplane rotated quickly and powerfully. There’s a video I made of it below, apologies for the quality but I just held the mobile phone with one hand pointing wherever without monitoring, since the photos I was taking with the other hand were the priority.

We continued climbing over the sea and eventually turned towards the west (that is, left of our heading of the moment).

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Over the sea after taking off.

Ramírez.

Climbing away, now south-bound, I had the view of a sunny and clear Cartagena, and of Rafael Núñez Airport.

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Cartagening-Hilton-Felicing was left behind, and suddenly you could only see little towns and rural areas. Such as Tolú, for instance (in the photo below besides the engine you can see parts of town and the Airport).

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On cruise, at 36.000 feet according to the Captain, flight attendants passed offering beverages. I asked for water.

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Beverages service.

Ramírez.

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My water bottle.

Ramírez.

Later on I went to have a walk around the Airplane to see what was what. I even went in the loo just to see.

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On the way to Tuluá to start the descent and approach to Cali’s Alfonso Bonilla Aragón Airport I managed to see the Cauca river’s canyon.

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Also Medellín.

And Manizales (I think).

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In cruise and on the way south of Medellín.

Ramírez.

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Manizales (I think).

Ramírez.

We started the descent, and I moved to seat on the opposite side, there were many free ones anyway. I did that so the sun would be at the right side for photos.

Before doing that, I took a pair of photos of Cali’s Airport while we were overflying Palmira. Since the sun was not at the right side for that photo, I got what I got. I did what I could.

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Anyway, I moved to the other seat after that as I told you, and we started the approach to Cali. We made our descent over the Cauca valley, flying towards the south.

Then we turned towards the west again (that, to the right of our heading) and after a short while, turned again towards the north to line up with the runway 02 of Cali’s Airport.

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Initial turn west.

Ramírez.

Approaching, in the four photos below.

We continued the approach normally, and had a kind of firm landing. There’s a video I made of it below, as with the Cartagena take off apologies for the quality again but I just held the mobile phone with one hand pointing wherever without monitoring, since the photos I was taking with the other hand were the priority.

We had arrived perfectly on-time, in fact, we were early. I wasn’t going to miss my connection with Easyfly (and if Easyfly had any problem they would have to take care of it without me paying any penalties).

On taxi to the C gates I saw the other GCA Airplanes, the other Boeing 737-400 that’s also operative (HK-5288) and the three Fokker 50s with a somehow uncertain future.

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At the gate with the engines turned off in the photo below.

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I was almost the last person to exit the Airplane.

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I saw an army of GCA workers (or from whatever third company they may have contracted for such duties) going to the Airplane to unload the baggage and all that.

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The Airplane at the gate from the waiting room after getting off.

Ramírez.

I reached the baggage claim and my suitcase came out fast. I picked it up and left the terminal, that place brought me many memories from when I was converting my Pilot’s licence. They dropped me there everyday to catch the bus to Palmira, the transgaviotazo.

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Before leaving, some agent asked me for my baggage stub. It seemed curious to me, I hadn’t been asked for at any Airport for more than 9000 years, but anyway, I had it there, no problem.

Another female passenger, which by the way was kind of hot with some MILF qualities, had lost her stud and was in a situation because of that. I don’t know what happened in the end.

I went up to the departures sector of Terminal 1 and checked-in again with Easyfly for my flight to Medellín with plenty of time.

I made it through security and made my way to the B gates from where that flight would depart. I watched the Airplane I had arrived on being tugged from the gate to the remote apron, to join the rest of GCA’s fleet for the remainder of the day.

While on that I ran into a Pilot friend that flies for Avianca and was leaving for Bogotá, we talked three or four minutes, and he left to prepare his Airplane, while I left for a chair at my waiting room.

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GCA's fleet at the time of writing this. The three Fokker 50s with an uncertain future, and the two operative Boeing 737-400s, including the one I had arrived on. It was tugged to the remote apron while I picked up the baggage, checked-in with Easyfly, and made it through security again. More Boeings should come soon in theory.

Ramírez.

The Airplanes remained there for the rest of the day, I even got to see them from the Easyfly ATR 42-600 (indeed it was the type of Airplane I had later to my avgeek delight) in which I would leave for Medellín two hours later to end the day.

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One single flight is not a good yardstick for the general behaviour of an airline. Nonetheless, it’s all I have to talk about it at the moment.

And based on that, I can say I had it very good with GCA. The ticket buying process was easy, the online check-in didn’t have problems (other than the small “delay”), the workers I saw did their jobs without further ado.

Services was adequate, included baggage and check-in without printing anything beforehand with the basic ticket with no additional cost, and the Airplane was comfortable enough.

Apparently they worked on the seats for GCA’s launch. Even though you can see in the upper panel that it’s a classic Airplane, seats seemed modern to me. And finally and most important, they were on time.

I’ve seen some social media posts where there have been complaints about delays, I guess they have been delayed at some point. Well, happens even to the best, the problem is when it becomes chronic and shameless.

Again, they’re a new airline and these “teething problems” always arise, we just need to remember VivaColombia (Viva Air nowadays) when they started, and compare that with what they are now punctuality-wise.

GCA were perfectly punctual with me at my moment.

There’s also people going at the Airplane because it’s not the top of modernity. Yet again, with the interior adapted as it is, and for domestic flights in economy class, for practical effects I see no major or important difference with more modern Airplanes that other airlines fly on the same market.

And about the Airplane being more expensive to operate than the newer ones, well, that’s an issue for the airline and not for the user.

People arguing that often don’t take into account that leasing the very last cutting edge top of the line Airplane usually is much more expensive than leasing an older Airplane (even within the same families, it’s not the same to lease a 1997 Airbus A320 than a 2019 model), and that the operating cost savings may not compensate for that increment in the leasing rate (among many other variables that I don’t even know about).

And I talk about leasing, because the airlines that buy an Airplane of that type outright themselves are few. That needs a financial muscle that very few companies in the world have, and even for those, sometimes it’s more convenient to lease.

So if you can have an older Airplane that maybe it’s more expensive to operate on a day-to-day basis (and we’d have to affirm that with the numbers at hand, I’m just speculating here), but with a cheaper leasing or even owning it outright, in some scenarios it makes sense to do it that way.

What matters is that the interior and offered product somehow match or improve the current trend of the market as far as possible, according to the public segment the services are aimed at (Ryanair is not the same as Singapore Airlines), that maintenance is adequate, and that the crew is proficient.

We just need to see Delta Air Lines, one of the biggest and most successful airlines worldwide, still happily flying “oldies” such as the McDonnell-Douglas MD-80MD-90 and Boeing 717 among others (and I’m all the happier because of that).

Granted, GCA will want a newer Airplane eventually. Even more so, they will have to get a newer one because Airplanes can only fly so much before their useful life runs out, but I see no problem with things as they are right now.

I don’t think passengers that are not Aviation aficionados will take much notice about any of those things (assuming the interior is adequate, as the one I had).

As far as I’m concerned, the older and rarer the better, but that’s me and I know I don’t answer to the demands of the market for an airline to be successful haha.

Leaving aside the issue with the flight status system, I deemed it a totally adequate experience for an hour and half domestic flight in economy class.

I would repeat it again without problems assuming what I experienced is their consistent modus operandi. Obviously availing themselves of whatever improvement chances might come their way, they always exist.

I hope they do, and I hope they become better known and their passenger loads improve. Competition and variety are always in short supply for the user, as well as different Airplanes for the spotter.

Also, I hope they fly to Medellín at some point.


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