Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Heathrow to Cape Town, South Africa

Well, this was the hardest part of the journey…London to Cape Town and back. Basically there was no computer capability for the entire trip, either on the plane or off the plane. The trip was on a United code share partner, South African Airways, and as such I was able to get aisle seats, but they don’t honor upgrades from United.

South African Airways international flights – are an eye opening experience! For one who is used to the aging American fleet of planes on most airlines… this new Airbus 340-600 is quite a nice technological and ergonomic experience (the one I was on was less than 2 years old). There are 75 rows total in this configuration for SAA. There is one Business Class, with about 25 seats, then the rest of the plane broken up into three sections with three separate galleys. Every seat in the plane, not just Business class has a pillow, a “comfort pack” and a blanket nicely folded on each seat. The overhead compartments on the aisle side are a little less deep (my carryon had to go sideways on the aisle side) but that is balanced by the stowage space over the middle aisles. The lavatories have their own improvements including sinks that drain, and touch sensors for turning on cold/warm water that stays on for a while instead of holding the faucet continuously. Next, every seat has it’s own entertainment screen… which is larger than any other in seat configurations I’ve seen. They have games, video, television shows…and it’s all set up on video on demand. Each user can pause, fast forward, slow down and control their own play space. The controllers in the arm rests can be removed and are on a hard wire tether to the seat for electronics. This is a combination phone, game controller, and video controller. The SAA configuration also comes with two cameras, one mounted on the plane’s tail, and the other on the underbelly. Both are visible at all times (though at night, all you see is the lights flashing…..) I remember United used to have a camera under the carriage so you could watch take off and landing, but I believed they discontinued that after the Chicago crash, which had that configuration.

The meals were airline meals, but the fresh fruit offering were particularly nice. They have a totally different culture of in-flight safety. You know how when you are on a US domestic flight and the seat belt light comes on, how the flight attendants come through and check and make sure it’s fastened even if you have a blanket on etc… No such thing on SAA. If it comes on (even in the middle of “sleep time”) there is no PA announcement, no crew through the aisles, just quiet. (Benefit is that sleeping passengers continue to sleep.) If you get up when the seat belt signs are on, they don’t have any problem. You can go back and ask them for a snack or a drink while they are on and they don’t say a thing.

They do set all these international flights to try to make you go to sleep, it seems. They serve food and then turn all the lights off in the cabin, and start asking people to be quiet, if they want to remain up to consider the others sleeping. I got the best naps on these planes …. The major focus was on keeping the passengers quiet and for most part asleep. The flight plan took us over France, Spain, the Mediterranean, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria then out to the water off the east coast for the rest of the ride down Africa.

One other configuration I heartedly approve of is a very limited recline capability in Economy class seats. Basically the neighbor in front of you can’t recline the seat to the point where you can’t use a laptop, or where you feel their head is practically in your face… I highly recommend this for US carriers—I’m tired of idiots who simply don’t care if they make you incredibly uncomfortable, or make your workspace completely unusable.

So, I had a nice woman in her 40’s who was seated in the aisle seat next to me (51H to my 51G). We got to talking and she asked what I was planning to see in Cape Town, and I pointed out I was just there for the day…and that made her ask, what was I doing, and so the world tour story to maintain my 1K status came out. She was amazed, and then divulged that she is a sales agent for SAA, and she visits various SAA domestic sales hubs to keep them all operating the same, and she was just coming back from two weeks in England on business. She told me my hope to take a bus tour to go to the Cape of Good Hope (Indian Ocean meets Atlantic Ocean) was not practical in the time I had. She said they might not meet their schedules and they have lots of side trips, so my return would put the next flight in jeopardy. She suggested Table Top Mountain, which has a cable car ride to the top where you can see for ever, and way out into both ocean side and land side. Also, she thought the updated marina/shopping area called “V & A” would be fun. She also said that in the morning before landing I should take her window seat so I could see the beaches/mountains and the desert areas as we approached Cape Town. She said she didn’t think SAA would ever command that level of loyalty.. I noticed as I was leaving that they must also be having problems in that both American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic are offering the exact same service offerings, within 10 minutes either side… and there doesn't seem to be enough demand to fill up three planes every day back and forth…

The night was uneventful, though in economy close quarters, you feel bad turning on the lights to write or read, because no matter how tightly focused the lights are, they bother your neighbors—and it is nowhere more noticeable than in a cabin that otherwise is completely dark! In the morning, about an hour before landing, we swapped seats. The first land I saw was desert meeting the ocean with these incredible blue/aqua areas of ocean…the most beautiful pristine beach area (of course it is, there is nothing for 100s of miles around!) My seat mate said I was seeing the coastal area of Namibia. There were beautiful bays, and desert outcroppings, but nothing else to be seen.

That progressed to more rocky and semi mountainous terrain and then to vegetation and habitation, and roads, which was about half the way into flying the coast of South Africa. We followed the coast all the way along until we turned for final approach. Smooth landing, no markings as to what the runway designation was, so unfortunately, can’t tell you what it was. We were late enough we had to park on tarmac and then bus into the terminal. It’s a very small international terminal (undergoing expansion) but appears to only handle 5 planes simultaneously at the building gates.

My seatmate said she’d get through passport control quicker and would meet me on the other side while she waited for her bags to come. I joined her and she suggested since she had to work the 1-7pm shift at the domestic terminal, that I leave my luggage with her so I wouldn’t have to haul it around. She had a photo id, and many other employees had spoken to her, so I ended us deciding to take her up on it.. So I removed the camera and a few other things and my little over the shoulder bag, and started out on my Cape Town adventure. That will be in the next post!

1 comment:

Yzerfontein said...

Great writeup, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. We run a South African flight site, and I'm going to include a link to this article in the next newsletter we distribute.