Azores Airlines review: John Paul II Airport in Ponta Delgado in the Azores
Pauline Frommer

What's It Like to Fly SATA Azores Airlines? Our Review

With tiny SATA Azores Airlines starting to offer new, affordable nonstop flights from the United States to mainland Europe this summer, many travelers may be considering the Portuguese carrier for the first time.

I just took an Azores Airlines flight to and from its hub destination, the island of São Miguel in the Azores archipelago, located off the coast of Portugal. I have some strong feelings about the airline's service.

Should you book a flight with the carrier? We'll get to that, but first some background about the company:

Though SATA Azores Airlines is among the least expensive transatlantic carriers, it is no upstart. It has been in business since 1990, first under the name OceanAir, then SATA Air Açores. The current name has been on the letterhead since 2020.

The airline operates year-round flights from Boston, New York City, and Toronto to its home base in the Azores capital, Ponta Delgada. Many flights then continue on to Porto on Portugal's mainland and to the island of Madeira.

In the summer months, Azores Airlines operates direct flights from the U.S. to those latter two destinations and, this summer, to the Italian city of Milan with a stop in Ponta Delgada on the way. The stopover program allows passengers to get off the plane and spend 7 days in the Azores before continuing on to Madeira or the European mainland without having to buy another ticket. 

The airline's prices are often, though not always, the lowest available. Looking at fares for this summer between New York City and Porto, I found that the carrier was usually $200 to $400 cheaper than Portugal’s national airline, TAP Air Portugal, but on par with what Delta Air Lines and Air France were charging for the same route—although the competitions' flights included a stop in Paris, rather than a nonstop flight.

I’ll also note that taking an inexpensive Azores Airlines flight to Ponta Delgada's João Paulo II Airport (PDL) and then transferring to a flight on Ryanair, Smartwings, or another carrier could be a smart way to hack transatlantic fares to an even wider array of destinations.

Azores Airlines review: customer service experience
Preflight Customer Service

Let's start, though, with a big reason why Azores Airlines may be a carrier you want to avoid: its preflight customer service.

That's something I know a lot about because I missed my flight. When I woke up on the day I planned to go to the airport, I realized, much to my horror, that I was supposed to have flown the night before. I somehow entered the wrong date in my calendar, something that has never happened to me before.

I immediately went to the contact page of the airline's website, and, after discovering that the texting button didn't work, spent the next 2 hours trying to speak with someone at the airline. When I dialed (repeatedly) the Portuguese phone number shown most prominently on the website, the call would randomly hang up on me, sometimes after a full 40 minutes of waiting.

After searching, I was able to find a number for the company's U.S. offices, and, though that finally worked, it still required a good half-hour of waiting to get through to anyone. What struck me was that even when I politely mentioned all the problems I had getting in touch with the customer service team, no apology was offered. The booking agent just kept talking, as if I hadn't said anything. It left a bad taste in my mouth, I must say.

I also discovered the airline doesn't have daily flights from New York City, so I'd have to fly from Toronto to get to the Azores the next day—a necessity because I was giving a speech there.

As with many small airlines, some routes have limited schedules, so when things go wrong, passengers can get stuck for longer periods than when they're traveling with major airlines, with their plethoras of daily options. 

Toronto Pearson Airport
Pauline Frommer
Airport Experience
Azores Airlines does not issue electronic boarding passes, so counter check-in is required. Trouble is, since the airline operates only a few flights per day, it only gets counter space a few hours before takeoff at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

I learned that the hard way when I arrived in Toronto 4.5 hours before my flight (the only option I could find, flying from NYC day-of). I spent 20 frustrating minutes (are you seeing a pattern here?) searching the terminal for a check-in desk before I learned from a security person that no Azores Airlines staffers were onsite yet.

He advised me to watch the flight info board, telling me the number of the check-in counter would appear there when it opened. So I found a spot on the floor near an info display (there were almost no seats in this part of the terminal—grrrr!) and waited another 2 hours. Here's the floor-level view I had of the Toronto airport terminal while I waited for my flight. I considered the potato chips my consolation prize since this flavor is only available in Canada.

Finally, I decided to take a stroll and discovered that the Azores Airline’s check-in counter had opened half an hour before—but nobody had bothered to update the information board.

Once in line, I learned that the approved size of a carry-on was roughly the length and width of a cafeteria tray. Consequently, I would have to check my standard-issue, normal-sized wheel-aboard bag. At least I got to enjoy the Canadian potato chips. 

Other than the unreasonable carry-on restrictions, check-in was swift and easy. Curiously, there were no size checks for bags at the Punta Delgada airport on the way back. Even though the plane was the same size, I was allowed to board with my carry-on for the return flight, no questions asked. Riddle me that. 

Security was speedy in Toronto, and the Azores gate was located near several restaurant and shopping options, so points for that. And the boarding process was among the easiest and most logical I’ve experienced: Priority members got on the plane first, and then the rest of the passengers boarded from the back of the aircraft to the front, which kept the line zipping along. 

Alas, Azores Airlines seems to be pretty loosey-goosey about its rules and rituals, changing from one airport to the next (as I first saw with the carry-on requirements).

In contrast to Toronto, the boarding process was chaos in the Azores. After allowing families and priority passengers to board, gate agents announced that “all passengers” could now board. More than a hundred people then crowded around the area where passports and tickets were checked, resulting in a tense, disorganized scene.

Customers file onto a SATA Azores Airlines plane
Pauline Frommer
The Planes

SATA Azores Airlines flies Airbus-320 planes, which all have rows with six seats across, an aisle in the middle, and the usual (read: lousy) amount of legroom. I have to admit, it felt a little strange to be on a plane with just one aisle while crossing the Atlantic. The cabin looked more like what you’d see during a short hop to Cleveland. That said, both of the planes I was on looked new and had fairly comfortable seating (provided you can get past that lousy legroom thing). 

What they didn’t have was seatback monitors. Instead, flyers can use their own devices to access a selection of films and TV shows. The entertainment offerings are noticeably paltry, however: just about a dozen movies total, and under “New Releases” a handful of American films I’d never heard of before. Additionally, you can buy Wi-Fi starting at €8 per flight for minimal broadband (more robust WiFi was more expensive). 

The airline pinged me twice before my flight about options to upgrade or pay extra to keep the middle seat free. Glad I didn’t bite: Business class did not have lie-flat seats and didn’t look all that cushy, and I had an empty middle seat next to me on both flights anyway, without paying a cent extra (woo hoo!).

A flight attendant aboard Azores Airlines
Pauline Frommer
The Crew

I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered chillier crews than the ones on my two Azores Airlines flights. Which is a surprise, given how unfailingly gracious and welcoming the people I met in the Azores were. But the handsomely accoutered flight attendants barely said a word as they stalked the aisle, answering any questions in the fewest syllables possible. When crew members weren’t passing out food or drink, they sat in the back of the cabin, a curtain firmly snapped into place to protect their privacy.

A meal aboard SATA Azores Airlines
Pauline Frommer
The Food

Maybe the flight attendants are taciturn because there's not much positive to say about what they serve. At mealtime, it was one option for the entire plane, and the food was uninspiring even by airline standards: bland chicken on the way over, pasta in a gluey cream sauce with chunks of chicken on the way back. The drink selections were remarkably limited, too, with not a bubble of carbonation in evidence in the form of soda or sparkling water. To be fair, passengers do get a choice of free red or white wine with meals.

Cabin aboard SATA Azores Airlines
Pauline Frommer
The Verdict

So would I fly with Azores Airlines again?

Frankly, I'd be nervous to do so, based largely on the carrier's inadequate customer service and limited schedule of daily flights. Those circumstances give you little wiggle room when something goes wrong—and in air travel, as well know, stuff has a tendency to go wrong. 

As for the in-flight experience, it wasn't actively unpleasant, but I would say it was a notch or two below the level of some comparable inexpensive carriers such as Norse Atlantic Airways (click here to read my review of that airline).

Still, if Azores Airlines were the cheapest option, or if I was returning to the Azores islands (this is the only direct service there from the U.S.), I'd make the reservation again.

I feel a lot more enthusiastic about the potato chip selection at the Toronto airport, though.