Waiting in the lobby, I started to feel a bit self conscious. It was almost midnight and I was surrounded by attractive people dressed to the nines in suits, tuxedos and formal dresses. I couldn’t tell if they were attending a wedding or some other Friday night celebration, but I was definitely under-dressed in my short sleeved shirt and clip-on necktie.
Sensing my uneasiness, the concierge came over and asked if I needed any help.
“Oh, yes. The red-eye flight,” he said in near-perfect English when I mentioned needing a ride to the airport. “I forgot you were starting that… We will arrange a cab to the airport. The van driver has gone home for the evening.”
A few minutes later, the captain exited the elevator, navigated his way through the beautiful people and met me by the door.
The bellman hailed a cab from the queue.
Once we were seated in the back, the driver turned his head slowly and asked, “Aeropuerto?”
“Si,” we replied.
The driver never said another word.
As we pulled onto the streets of Guatemala City, I started to feel I was in the middle of a Hollywood film. The luxurious party, mysterious driver and dark foreign streets would have made a great backdrop for any mystery or thriller. But, that night, the main characters were just two guys in short sleeved shirts tasked with staying up all night to fly people to Houston.
When we arrived at the airport, there wasn’t another vehicle or person in sight. All the doors were closed and the lighting was much more dim than usual. In contrast to the normal hustle and bustle outside the terminal, the La Aurora Airport looked closed.
We exchanged a look as we exited the cab. We were both thinking the same things… Did we read our schedule wrong? Was the flight canceled? What’s going on?
The captain asked the cab driver to wait as he walked up towards the automatic doors. He stood in front of a few sensors, but none of them activated a door.
So, he knocked loudly.
I’ve been locked out of a few small airports and FBOs at odd hours, but I believe that was the first time I’ve ever seen anyone pound on the doors of an international airport forty five minutes before a scheduled departure.
After a few seconds, the silhouette of a woman appeared through the frosted glass doors. She pried them open a few inches and asked the captain a question. When he apparently guessed the password correctly, she opened the doors just enough for us to squeeze through.
“That way,” she pointed towards the far corner of a very dimly lit terminal.
We were the only two people walking diagonally across the massive floor space. All the ticket counters were closed. If there was actually a flight operating that night, all the passengers had long since checked-in and proceeded to the gate. The terminal was dark and completely empty.
“What did she ask you before she opened the door?” I asked as we walked.
“She wanted to know which airline we worked for… When I answered, she nodded and forced the doors open. I’m guessing if I’d said any other airline, we weren’t getting in.”
“Odd… this is just odd.” As I said it, he nodded in agreement.
At the rear hallway, we turned left and proceeded down another long, dark corridor.
Two men met us at the end and instructed us to make a right, go down the escalator and make two more right turns. I vaguely remembered this “crew route” from previous trips, but it looked different with marginal lighting and the complete lack of other people.
The security checkpoint was a one-woman-show. She scanned our bags and made sure we didn’t beep as we stepped through the metal detector.
Exiting the security area, we looked down the hallway towards the gate. The lights were off and every retail store and restaurant had the big metal screening pulled down to prevent unauthorized entry.
It was completely silent in the terminal. Despite what we read earlier on our iPad paperwork, we were convinced either there wasn’t a flight or we were flying out empty.
We were wrong.
Reaching the gate, we found over a hundred passengers sitting in a barely lit boarding area and a few employees anxious to load us up and go home.
It was the oddest hotel to gate experience of my career.
Once on the jet, we were back in our familiar environment.
After a pre-flight, we loaded, called for push-back and engine start.
We taxied around the terminal and were cleared to “back-taxi” on runway 02 to line-up-and-wait. It didn’t come as a big surprise that we were the only ones moving on the airfield. Before making the 180 degree turn into position at the end of the runway, we were treated to a nice view of the city lights below.
The captain had flown the airplane in earlier that morning. Therefore, I was the pilot pushing the thrust up towards take-off power. These days, the SOP calls for stabilization at 40% N1, a manual push towards the straight up throttle position and a press of the TOGA button to allow the auto-thrust to complete the process.
“Thrust set, 96.3%.”
Have you ever operated in and out of Guatemala City? Runway 02 begins fairly level and then starts a significant down-slope. It’s sloped enough that I can feel the sensation of driving down a hill. (On landing, the runway slopes away during a normal flare.) The runway then levels and slopes up near the end.
At just after 1:00am local time, we lifted off. We immediately bathed the aircraft in some moderate rain showers, but soon broke out into clear skies. The FMC predicted a touch-down in Houston about 4:30am. We cruised at the most economical speed since customs didn’t open until 5:00am. We still touched down a little early and needed to wait to open the door of the aircraft.
The scene deplaning at Bush Intercontinental Airport was a stark contrast to our experience in Guatemala. A wide-body from Sao Paulo also opened its doors at 5am.
Hundreds of passengers from both flights flooded the corridor and were either briskly walking or full-on running to be first in line at customs.
I strolled along casually as people passed me on both sides.
I was beginning to wonder if the bulls of Pamplona were going to charge up behind me.
Down the escalator, I entered all my information into the Global Entry machine and took my print-out.
The customers officer asked if I’d purchased anything on my trip.
“No,” I said.
Not during the layover… and, certainly not at the airport before departure.
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