It was perfect on paper; a direct flight, stopping only to refuel in Dakar, Senegal, and run by the national carrier of our final destination. We believed we had found the perfect flight to South Africa.
Oh, were we wrong. Very wrong.
The first indication something is amiss occurs when South African Airways phones the morning of our departure, informing us that they have rescheduled our flight from 5:40 pm to 11:45 pm. At the airport, they inform us our flight is cancelled, rescheduled for the next morning. To avoid hauling our bags to a hotel (including 100 lbs of books for a library in the Soweto township), we decide to check our baggage. And suddenly it gets worse, much worse.
“You need at least one blank page in your passport to visit South Africa,” the agent informs me.
“Yes,” I reply. “There are three blank pages in the back.”
“Those aren’t the appropriate blank pages.”
At 7:45 am the next morning we arrive at the National Passport Center and stand in line for emergency passport page additions. Efficient, the NPS modifies our passports and we each have 48 new pages in our passports by 11:00 am. We immediately head back to Dulles in order to catch the 5:40 pm South African Airways flight, 24 hours later than our original departure.
While waiting for our passport pages, internet research indicates South African Airways schedules exactly one plane for the route between Johannesburg and Washington, DC. A look at the flight arrivals and departures during the past few days shows a rolling series of delays and cancelled flights. It’s not a good sign.
At the airport, we ask the agent at check-in if our flight is still scheduled for a 5:40 pm departure. Believing there to be a single airplane on this route, we proactively plan to request that we be put on another airline. “We have a second airplane on the ground right now. The flight will depart on time today,” she replies. “They’re just finishing up some last minute maintenance on this second plane.”
At our departure gate, 5:40 pm passes with no airplane. The gate agents pass out $10 vouchers for dinner and tell us to return at 7:00 pm for our flight, indicating some last-minute maintenance issues. Burgers at the restaurant across from the gate cost $13 each, plus tax and tip.
At 7:00 pm, several hundred frustrated people gather at the gate, including an angry group from Senegal now into their third day of delay. Things go from bad to worse when they discover that South African Airways failed to inform them about an alternative flight they could have flown. The gate agents call security, and several Fairfax County cops arrive to help keep the peace.
At around 9:00 pm, the agents cancel the flight citing maintenance issues, informing us that it will now leave the following morning.
Passengers line up to receive their hotel vouchers. Kent and I, remembering the sage advice of world traveler Chris Guillebeau, opt to keep moving forward. We refuse (politely) the hotel voucher and ask to be booked on another airline. We receive vouchers (a coupon indicating South African Airways will pay for our tickets) for a British AIrways flight departing at 11:30 pm, 30 hours after our original departure time. The agents inform us our luggage will not be re-routed, but will go to South Africa on their plane and will be waiting for us when we arrive. [Note that our British Airways flight is scheduled to arrive on Johannesburg after the re-scheduled South African Airways flight now departing the next morning.]
Having burned though our emergency change of clothes, we visit a tacky airport gift shop and purchase some Washington DC souvenir tee shirts. Sadly, no shop offers souvenir socks or underwear.
The British Airways flight to London is uneventful. During our 11-hour layover in London, we book a hotel, got some sleep and shower, still hopefully peering in airport shops looking for souvenir socks and underwear. That evening, the British Airways plane to Johannesburg flies as scheduled.
We finally arrive in South Africa on Saturday, mid-morning, over 40 hours later than our originally scheduled arrival of early Thursday evening.
Now, what about the South African Airways flight our luggage took without us, which supposedly left the morning following our British Airways flight? We look up at the arrivals board and note the ominous phrase “Indefinitely Delayed.”
We file a lost baggage claim, and head to the mall where stores offer clean clothes along with (YES!) socks and underwear!
We begin our vacation, now two days (15%) shorter than originally planned. At this point, we are not impressed with South Africa or their national airline, South African Airways.
Now, here’s the thing that really makes us furious — we think it sure looks like South African Airways lied to us. Things clearly went terribly amiss with the South African Airways schedule, but did they tell the truth to us? Was there really a second airplane? If South African Airways did not have a second plane, they could have immediately booked us (and other passengers) on alternative flights at check-in. Why did they wait until most of the evening’s international flights had departed before canceling the flight? And why did they repeat this behavior day after day? If a company operates identically from one day to the next, is it repeated poor judgement or is it instead their policy? Would South African Airways deliberately lie to passengers, causing them delays measured in days, rather than pay their way on an alternative airline causing them mere hours of delay? We suspect a hotel room voucher costs less than an airline flight voucher …
And, why bother telling us to make sure we had at least one blank page on our passports when the South African government wants a blank page at least four pages before the end of the passport? South African Airways turns people away every day. Ask folks at the National Passport Center! Wouldn’t it be better to have clear instructions for passengers? After all, they are the national carrier for South Africa and are best equipped to understand local regulations, right?
How it all ended:
After arriving over 40 hours late and having spent an additional $875 on transportation, hotels, meals and clothing, we finally receive our baggage the following afternoon. In South Africa, South African Airways informs me that they never reimburses passengers for expenses incurred during delays or for lost luggage, but that we may be eligible for a free ticket. Unfortunately, our free transportation and lodging in Pretoria, South Africa is a one-time occurrence, so a free return ticket is of limited value. We’ll see what they say here in North America and update this post when we get some answers.