The other week, while flying up from São Paulo to New York, I was leafing numbly through Continental's in-flight magazine when I came across some exciting news: TAM was joining the Star Alliance.
Most frequent flyers are probably familiar with the Star Alliance . The planet's single largest airline network, its (now 27) members offer more flights to more destinations (975) in more countries (162) than any other network. North American members include Air Canada, Continental, United, and U.S. Air; the first three all offer direct flights from Canadian and U.S. cities to São Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport , Brazil's major air hub and TAM's headquarters.
For those unfamiliar with TAM , the airline has been around since the '70s. However, its fortunes didn't take off until the 2005 bankruptcy of VARIG, Brazil's long-reigning national airline, left the runway open for TAM to seize its title. Today, TAM controls over 45 percent of the domestic market and operates 87 percent of international flights offered by Brazilian carriers. Until recently, TAM was largely a domestic airline – it flies pretty much everywhere in Brazil – but in recent years, it's really beefed up its international coverage as well. Today, aside from South American capitals, it also offers direct flights to major cities in Europe and North America and is now considered Latin America's largest airline.
TAM - which was formerly a member of One World Alliance before dropping out and spending a year free floating without any allies at all – is currently the Star Alliance's only South American member (before its demise, VARIG was a member as well). The airline officially joined the club on May 13. The occasion was celebrated in true Brazilian style with a fabulous festa for 600 held atop Rio's Pão de Açúcar  (Sugar Loaf), where aviation bigwigs and journalists mingled with big name Brazilian models, novela stars, and musical personalities such as Bahia's Carnaval Queen, Ivete Sangalo , who performed at the event.
Also truly Brazilian was the spectacular fireworks display that exploded over the Baía de Guanabara – several hours behind schedule. Peeved (not to mention terrified) at being awakened at 1am by loud popping noises (which, in Rio, usually signifies shoot-outs between drug traffickers and police), residents of the surrounding residential bairros of Urca, Botafogo, and Flamengo called the cops en masse. As a result, TAM was faced with paying up to R$22,000 (around US$12,000) for disturbing the peace.
Fines aside, TAM is pretty happy with the new deal and so should travelers looking to earn and redeem miles traveling to and from Brazil as well as – due to code sharing – within Brazil as well. Personally, I've flown numerous times on TAM, both domestically and internationally, and have never had a complaint. The aircraft themselves are new and roomy, and service is equal, and often better, than what we've come to accept from the leaner and meaner, cost-cutting North American carriers.
Indeed, unlike North America, where flying has all the glamour of a Greyhound bus trip, flying in Brazil is still somewhat of a special event where passengers (yes, even those in the purgatory known as economy class) are treated more like VIPs than cattle. Those who fly domestically on TAM (or any other Brazilian airline) are treated to delightful blasts from the past such as no baggage checking fees, no carry-on fees, and – at least, for the moment – complimentary food and beverage service.