Monday, October 17, 2011
Business Class on South African Airways
"My" South African Airways A340 waiting for departure at Cape Town International Airport.
On Sunday October 9, 2011, the day the Australia Wallaby's defeated South Africa's Springboks in World Cup Rugby, I flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg on South African Airways flight 236. Despite South African Airways having almost hourly service between Cape Town and Johannesburg using 737 equipment, I chose flight 236 because it was an Airbus A340 aircraft and I had never flown on that aircraft before. I have now :)
Despite the flight being only 2 hours long I opted for a Business Class seat because 1) I am spoiled and 2) I wanted to get a glimpse of what Business Class is like on another International carrier. If I am not mistaken I have now been in Business Class on international flights operated by British Airways, Braathens (Norway) Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Air France, TAP Air Portugal, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Quantas, plus Delta, Northwest, US Airways, United, Continental, American Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines. I wanted to see if South African Airways met or exceeded expectations I had from any of the earlier Business Class experiences.
The check in area of Cape Town International Airport
Check in for Business Class in Cape Town was rather confusing. Despite there being clearly marked lines to follow to get to a check in person, it seemed that pandemonium reigned. While standing in at least two different "lines" I was informed by someone in another line that I wasn't in "the" line. It was beginning to feel like I was in a Monty Python skit. All the while we were going through the torturous process of Business Class check in I could hear screams of excitement and despair from people in airport pubs who were watching the World Cup Rugby game that the damned Aussies eventually won 11-9.
Upon finally reaching the check in agent (after standing behind a woman with a New Yawk accent who packed and re-packed her bag three times before finally giving it to the check in agent) the process went smoothly and I received my boarding pass. I was seated in Seat 1A as I try to be on every flight I take. There is just something about the bulkhead window that I enjoy.
Because I was in Business Class I was allowed access to South African Airways' "Baobab Club" departure lounge. The lounge was well stocked with some great South African wines and there was enough food available to feed a horse.
When boarding time came we were crammed into some buses and transported to the edge of the massive jet. Luckily there was a separate entrance for Business Class passengers.
The Business Class section of a South African Airways A340 aircraft
Seating was in the standard 2/2/2 alignment that is common on most large jets. Space on the plane seemed spacious and there was ample overhead storage where I could place my carry on bag.
"My" Seat on South African Airways flight 236
My seat was a standard Business Class seat that reclined about 3/4 of the way and that had all the bells and whistles one expects on an international flight. This flight was going to Johannesburg and from there to Frankfurt, Germany. I'm sure it was more than adequate for the 11 hour nonstop to Europe once it left Jo'Burg.
We left the gate a bit early and took our position for take off to the south on runway 19. Unfortunately for me I was seated next to one of the most arrogant assholes (in my opinion and I'm sure in the opinion of anyone else who has ever met him) that I have ever met. "I teach Economics, Political Science and Law at Columbia University in New York" he started, "what is is that you do?" That was how he greeted me.
While we waited for departure this nitwit bitched about everything around him. The plane was too hot and then it was too cold. The in flight information was inadequate however the in flight magazine contained too many pages. As we trundled down the runway he informed me that we were taking off to the west "we should see Table Mountain beneath us" he told me. When I pointed out that we were on runway 19 and that meant we were taking off at 190 degrees or almost due south he didn't believe me. I told him "We will quickly see False Bay below us" and he told me I didn't know what I was talking about. About 2 minutes after take off we could see False Bay off the starboard side of the plane. The arrogant law professor said "you must be Robinson Curusoe. I'm taking you on every trip with me from now on."
After take off the flight crew came through and offered everyone their drink(s) of choice. I went for a South African red wine vinted in Stellenbosh. My arrogant seat partner wanted tomato juice. However when it was presented to him he complained that it was V8 and not "real" tomato juice. My wine was perfect however. Then the flight crew came through with a mid-afternoon "snack" that would have been a dinner entree on any US based airline. I ordered the vegetarian meal and my seat partner snickered and said "I would have never guessed that."
He had ordered a special meal (no doubt coated in gold) but it was not loaded on the plane. He asked about options and was told he could have the vegetarian meal or the beef sandwich. His immediate response was to look at my meal and quip "well that vegetarian meal doesn't look very inviting to me" (It tasted great), "I think I'll have the beef sandwich." However when presented with the beef sandwich he said there was too much fat in it (looked lean as hell to me) and ordered it returned. He then said to the flight attendant "You people (South African code for "blacks") should be ashamed of yourselves passing this off as Business Class service."
It all seemed pretty nice to me!
As we flew east to Johannesburg this horses ass continued to bitch about everything. Still the plane was too cold or too hot (you'd think he was going through menopause) and the in-cabin noise was too great causing him to be unable to concentrate on what he was reading. It seemed that no matter what it was this person found something negative about it. He would, as we used to say in northern Wisconsin, "bitch if he was hung with a new rope."
By now I was enjoying the hell out of Business Class on South African Airways if for no other reason that it likely upset this jerk next to me because someone wasn't as miserable as him.
About halfway through the flight, when we were at 41,000 feet above sea level, he turned to me and asked if I had ever seen the curvature of the earth. Yes, several times, including once from the top of a 16,000 foot mountain in Peru, and again that day as I looked out my window over South Africa. "No, you can only see it from 58,000 feet in the Concorde. I know this because I've flown the Concorde."
I guess the curvature I was looking at through the cobalt blue sky was a mirage.
On approach to Johannesburg, flight attendants came through and re-filled my wine glass and asked this arrogant prick if everything was ok. He instantly began bitching about how horrible the service was on South African Airways and how it was such a waste of money to fly on them and how he never wanted to fly on SAA again. Unfortunately he forgot to mention to the flight attendant what he told me before departure in Cape Town, namely, that the University where he was teaching in Cape Town purchased the roundtrip airfare for him from New York to Cape Town. In other words he didn't "waste" a penny on the flight. It was all paid for him. Many years ago on a flight from Miami to Detroit on Republic Airlines an old colleague named Paul Sykes bitched to the flight attendant on our flight claiming that "this is the worst food I've ever had on a plane. I can't believe I paid for this." After his tirade I had the pleasure of informing Paul that his plane ticket was paid for by the tax payers of the United States and it didn't cost him a penny.
On arrival in Johannesburg (early arrival) we were taken to the International terminal but not allowed to disembark through the walkway because it was a domestic flight. Instead we all walked off the plane and boarded buses for a short ride to the domestic terminal. As predicted my arrogant seat mate bitched about that.
In the terminal as we walked to baggage claim a woman who had sat in the row behind us was walking behind my seat mate. He, predictably, was bitching about her walking so close to him. He finally turned around and said to her "Why don't you just pass me if you 're in such a hurry?" Dumbfounded, the woman just smiled at him and stayed where she was behind him. A few more steps and he turned again and told her to pass him. She kept her distance. Finally he turned around and said "you must be a South African." She smiled and said "no, I'm an American like you only I'm not a fucking asshole like you." Several people around us stopped and began applauding.
I hope this jerk had a miserable flight home.
Other than my patently arrogant seat mate Business Class on South African Airways was a treat. It would be fun to see what service would be like in Business Class on a long haul flight like from Washington DC to Johannesburg. Maybe some time I will have to check it out.