Latin America

Our Review of Avianca Airlines and a Bit of History


Few airlines have gone through as much turmoil as Avianca Airlines has since we started this blog back in 2007 and started writing about the industry. They have expanded and contracted several times, gotten more upscale and gone more downscale too. So we’re going to provide a little history and give a review of Avianca Airlines as it stands now, rather than what it was before the pandemic rocked the travel industry.

Avianca airlines review

They still seem to be caught in an identity crisis as I write this, asking us to spell it as avianca with a little “a,” perhaps because of their diminished status among higher-end travelers. They say it’s a small “a” because the airline is for everybody, which is a fancy way of saying they’re a step down from what they used to be.

It’s rather difficult to write about this airline and reference past experience because that experience has changed so much. Witness the stat further down about how they’ve shoved 20% more seats onto their planes, for starters.

I mentioned years back that my Avianca flight to Colombia was another reminder of just how far the U.S. airlines have fallen in comparison to most of the international carriers.

In the old days, Avianca made me feel like a passenger again instead of a number on a spreadsheet to be optimized and squeezed. On the way down to Bogota from Ft. Lauderdale, I was flying in economy but still had a seat-back entertainment system, a real meal, and a glass of wine. The flight attendants smiled instead of just nagging everyone to turn off their Kindle. My knees weren’t jammed into the seat in front of me and they had a generous baggage allowance with no extra fees.

Since international and domestic passengers could check two bags without fees, there was plenty of overhead bin space on my first flight and the three that followed. Naturally the plane boarded a lot faster for the domestic ones since there was no economic reason for bringing a rollaboard bag on the plane.

We even got drink service on a 45-minute flight from Bogota to Pereira. Alas, those days are in the rear-view mirror and desperate times called for desperate measures. Avianca is now a downgraded airline and isn’t at the same level as its legacy competitors, even though they’ve fallen some too.

A Short History of Avianca

Avianca is the second oldest airline in the world still operating after the Dutch carrier KLM, and the second largest in Latin America behind LATAM Airlines Group. In the early 2010s, Avianca acquired TACA, which had been around since 1931 and had spent decades buying up other Latin American airlines that were in trouble. Since they also ran domestic flights in Peru, that gave Avianca an entry there as well.

In 2012, Avianca and TACA joined Star Alliance, in many ways the best international alliance for frequent fliers. (Their partner in the USA is United.)

Avianca and has four main connection hubs in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Bogota, and Lima, and fly to all of Central America and South America.

North American gateways (direct or in codeshares with partners) include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Washington-Dulles, JFK, Chicago-O’Hare, Toronto, and Mexico City.

Avianca’s Bankruptcy and Recovery

legroom in economy class

Limited legroom in economy class now

In May 2020, Avianca filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial loss suffered forced the company to file due to 88% of the countries it operated in being under travel restrictions or complete travel shutdown. Other airlines were in the same situation, but the U.S. ones got bailout money and some of the others weren’t so stretched with debt and could hold on longer.

Naturally, passenger statistics went down tremendously. Airlines all over the world plummeted in passenger stats and trips due to the pandemic, and Avianca was not the only airline to file for bankruptcy, alongside neighbors such as Aeromexico (still around) and Interjet (now history).

Avianca shut down its Peruvian subsidiary as a result of the bankruptcy. Anko van der Werff, the CEO at the time said “Avianca is facing the most challenging crisis in our 100-year history as we navigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. We believe that a reorganization under Chapter 11 is the best path forward to protect the essential air travel and air transport services that we provide across Colombia and other markets throughout Latin America.”

Avianca moved its focus to lower- and middle-class passengers as a result of this, pivoting from wealthier customers, following the Chapter 11 emergence to prioritize affordability. The company retired the A330, ATR 42, and ATR 72 vessels. Now it’s just the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 787 in operation. Avianca moved to cheaper cabins, with smaller and more efficient seats, and a lot more rows were added, resulting in a 20% capacity increase, allowing them to lower fares.

In 2023, over a century after its founding, Avianca went through an image rebrand. As mentioned earlier, they changed the capital letter “A” in Avianca to a lowercase one, with the statement “the sky belongs to everyone.” Since all of these changes, the company has added routes, passenger traffic is on the upswing, and the airline overall keeps expanding, bouncing back from the rock-bottom spot they found themselves in during the pandemic.

They have clearly turned the operations around too in less visible areas: in 2023 they were named the most punctual global airline, at 85.73%. This stat puts them 10% higher than their pre-pandemic spot in 2019, and 2% above 2022.

Avianca now operates in approximately 25 countries throughout Europe and the Americas, with 75 destinations across 140 routes.

Business Class on Avianca: An Attempt to Rebound

There’s no nice way to put this: business class on Avianca became a complete joke for a few years there. During the COVID-19 days, they were handing business class passengers stale sandwiches wrapped in plastic and on some flights there was a single alcohol choice. Apparently that was all that was left in storage and they couldn’t restock, so your choices were Baily’s Irish Creme, coffee, or water. In business class!

Word spread quickly and those who could afford business class quickly jumped to another carrier so they would receive better treatment. The airline has a tough job in front of them trying to convince business travelers and wealthy leisure travelers that this downgraded airline can still take care of the premium passengers in the front of the plane.

Earlier this year, the company upgraded the Boeing 787s and A320 aircrafts, transforming the executive cabins into what they’re calling Avianca Insignia cabins. Business class now includes fully reclining seats, drinks (both alcoholic and not), as well as full meals and all-you-can-eat snacks. Amenity kits in cases made from recycled fabric and designed in collaboration with the Gunadule indigenous community and Mola Sasa are provided as well, along with blankets and pillows. Here’s what the seats look like now, according to what’s on their website:

avianca business class

New business class features will also be available on single-aisle planes starting this summer, on over 10 different routes all over North America. Meals, snacks, drinks, and amenity kits are provided similar to the Insignia cabins on the double-seat aircrafts.

Avianca Baggage Policies

This airline has followed most of the others to the bottom when it comes to baggage policies, offering a dreaded “basic economy” option that doesn’t include anything, but going up to two checked bags and a carry-on if you fly business class.

The two fares in between do include one checked bag and a carry-on, so you can pack what you need when headed to South America. Otherwise, you’ll have to cough up $40 for the first checked bag and you’d better do it in advance: they’ll charge you an incredible $120 if you wait until you’re at the airport!

Here’s the rundown on the fare options for most flights, though short ones often start with “light” and do include a 10-kilo carry-on.

Avianca baggage policy and fare categories

Avianca Lounges

Like most established airlines, some airports host VIP Avianca lounges for their passengers. Domestic lounges reside in Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Bucaramanga, Cartagena, and Barranquilla, and international ones in Bogota and El Salvador. The airport locations in South America are as follows:

  • El Dorado International Airport (Bogota)
  • San Oscar A. Romero International Airport (El Salvador)
  • José María Cordova Airport (Medellin)
  • Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport (Cali)
  • Palonegro International Airport (Bucaramanga)
  • Rafael Nuñez International Airport (Cartagena)
  • Ernesto Cortissoz International Airport (Barranquilla)

Avianca also has a lounge in the Miami airport and it’s one of the larger ones there, at around 6,000 square feet. Most of these lounges are available through the Priority Pass program or, if you have high enough status with a Star Alliance partner, that may get you in as well. Otherwise, you need to fly business class or pay a fee to enter, which is what I did last time I had a layover in Bogota.

These lounges allow you to relax before flights and on layovers, access Wi-Fi and charging stations, and partake in food and drinks. Passes go for approximately 30$ per person if you don’t have status or Priority Pass and can be purchased and booked online.

Bogota Airport lounge

The lounge in Bogota we paid to enter

Go to Avianca.com for more info and flight deals. I’m not sure why, but this airline isn’t listed on SeatGuru. So you’ll have to go to the Avianca section of Seatmaps.com for seat pitch and plan configurations.

It’s always worth checking prices on the Avianca website first, then comparing them to what you find on Kayak and elsewhere. In theory the best fares should be offered direct, but that’s not always the case. Also, if you search through an OTA, you’ll see what other airlines may be offering a better deal (and more comfort) on the same route.

Anything we’ve missed in this review of Avianca Airlines? If you flew them recently, let us know how it went!

Article and original photos by editor Timothy Scott, screen shot photos from Avianca.com. Additional research by contributor Alina Leffel. 





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