Archive for March, 2014
Our trip had gone well. We had enjoyed our short stay in Johannesburg and were now looking forward to the trip home.
Our schedule had us flying our of JNB at 8 p.m. Monday evening on a British Airways Airbus A-380, arriving at LHR at 5:15 Tuesday morning. I was pretty excited about that, I had only seen that plane a few times, this would be my first time to ride in it. At 10 a.m. Tuesday we’d board an American Airlines 777-300 for the flight to DFW. I was looking forward to this too, I had not been on an AA 777-300 — it’s the top of their fleet, and we had been upgraded to Business Class. We were scheduled to arrive at DFW at 2 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, catch a 4:30 flight to Austin, and with luck, I’d be home by 7 p.m. on Tuesday. At least that was the plan.
We went to the British Airways ticket line in JNB to check in and handed the young lady our passports. She entered some information into the computer and we could immediately tell something was wrong. She called over one of the other ladies and whispered something in her ear while pointing at the screen. Then she typed some more and made a phone call to someone. This seemed like it went on for 10-15 minutes, but it might have only been 5.
When she got off the phone she looked at us and said “We have no record of your reservation.”
“No!” I said, “Look again, we’re on the A-380 to London and even have our seats confirmed.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t even find your names in the system.”
“How can you not find our names in the system, we flew in on your airline two days ago!”
This was not going well. She looked at our printed itinerary, asked for our ticket numbers which I provided, and then a few moments later she said, “I can’t find any record of you, you’ll need to go to the British Airways ticket office at the far end of the concourse.”
Now we’re getting a bit uneasy. We walked the length of the terminal, found their office, and explained to the young lady behind the counter what had happened. She appeared to go through the same process as the first lady had done, but this time it really did take 15 minutes. When she was done she announced, “American Airlines canceled your reservation, you’ll need to call them, we can’t do anything for you.”
Before I could say a word my friend, in a very loud voice let her know that this was terrible customer service and not the way to treat customers; we had a confirmed reservation on her airline, we expected to fly on her airline, and it was very rude of her to just blow us off an AA and expect us to call them when we’re thousands of miles from home.
His loud voice attracted attention and a supervisor came out from the back room to ask what the problem was. We explained it (again) and she said she would make the phone call for us. She went into a back room and was literally gone for more than 20 minutes while we just stood there, getting more uneasy and angry as time went on.
Finally she came out, got on the phone in front of us, wrote down some numbers, hung up the phone and said, “I’ve spoken to American Airlines. No one seems to know what happened to your reservation. We have a flight out at 9:40 this evening, we’re putting you on that plane, we’ll try to get you an upgrade, and you should get to London in time to make your connection to DFW.”
Okay, this was good, we’d still get home on time. I was disappointed that we’d be on a 747 and not the A-380, but the important thing was that we would get home.
We went back to the first ticket counter and ended up with the same young lady we had spoken to originally. She looked in the system, couldn’t figure out what she saw, had to make a phone call, but eventually was able to issue us our boarding passes. We were now flying on something called an exchange ticket and apparently that makes the paper trail a bit more difficult to follow. Eventually she was able to issue our boarding passes, I couldn’t help but notice that there was no seat assignment; she said they would take care of that at the the gate.
So, everything seemed in place now. We went upstairs to the BA lounge, and basically killed 3 hours waiting for our flight. Finally it was time for us to depart, we went downstairs to our gate and I noticed something — there was no airplane! After a closer look I realized it was one of those gates where you did not get on a plane, you got on a bus that takes you out to the plane at the other end of the airport. That’s okay, we were still good to go.
Approximately an hour before departure a gate agent arrived, took our boarding passes and reprinted them for us, we had indeed received an upgrade to BA’s World Traveler Plus service. Not quite Business Class, but we’d have a much nicer seat than in coach.
They soon announced it was time to board the buses, and we made the long trip across the airport to our 747-400. We boarded, and I have to admit I was pretty pleased with our seats.
We had wide seats, pillows, blankets, amenity kits, leg rests that extended out. We would not have a lie flat seat, but we did have a very comfortable recliner. This was quite all right with me, and I looked forward to making our connection at LHR.
At 9:40, right on schedule, we taxied away. About 10 minutes later I looked outside and realized the view looked very familiar. We were back where we had started from! The pilot came on the public address system to announce that the gauge that says how fast the aircraft is flying had malfunctioned and would take only 30 minutes to fix. That was okay with us, we’d still make our connection in LHR.
Thirty minutes later we had not heard any further updates. At 10:45 they announced that we could take off our seat belts and the pilot had given his approval for us to eat on the ground.
At 11:00 p.m. they announced that the problem was with the pitot tube and we would need another hour to fix it. Twenty minutes later the captain came through the cabin, explaining what the problem was, stressed safety, but also added that ground personnel were already looking for hotel room for us for the night, just in case. I appreciated him doing that. He added that if the part was not fixed by a certain hour, the crew would go over their limits and we would not be able to fly.
At 12:15 they started to serve dinner. At 12:30 the replacement part was delivered and installation started. The pilot said he was not sure if it could be installed and tested in tine for us to fly tonight, but he would let us know by 1 a.m.
1:15 — no word.
2:25 a.m. — flight was officially canceled. We would fly out again the next day at 9:40 p.m. In the meantime BA would put us up in hotels overnight.
There must be 250,000 moving parts on a 747, and those parts can sometimes break. I have no problem with that. Safety must come first, and BA did the correct thing in cancelling the flight. I understand that. The complete mess that occurred after this point, combined with our missing reservations however, is inexcusable.
We waited for the buses to take us to the terminal. Once we got there we found that since we had gone through passport control before boarding our plane, we had officially left South Africa, and now we needed to go through passport control to get back in. At that time of the morning with minimal staff on duty that took time, but we eventually got it done.
Now we had to get our luggage. No one from BA was there, a group of young ladies from the airport management company seemed to be in charge. No one seemed to be their supervisor, they were just all there. We all stayed at the closest luggage carousel for 15 minutes when they finally told us that our luggage would be at the carousel at the far end of the luggage area. So we walked to the far end of the terminal, got our bags, and found out that there were different hotels for the passengers depending on what section they were seated in. First Class would get the best, Business the next best, and so on.
What we needed at this time was someone to take charge, someone to say “Coach passengers stand over here, First Class over there,” and so on. Instead we had to figure out on our own that we had to go up to one of the ladies who would look at a list and then tell us where to stand.
Eventually it was all sorted out, or so I thought. My group made its way to one of the terminal exits and we all stepped outside into a powerful thunderstorm. Thunder, lightning, we had it all. Thankfully we had a roof over our heads and the rain was not hitting us directly, but it was cold, windy and wet. And that was the condition in which we waited.
What had started out as four distinct groups based on their ticket class now blended together into one large group.
Eventually a van came from a hotel: it pulled up to the front of the group of passengers which now stretched across 4 terminal exits. where it was quickly surrounded by a crowd and as many people as possible (8-10) with their bags got in and were driven away. Ten minutes later another van, another crowd surrounds it, and 8 lucky people drive off.
Were these the vans for the First Class hotel or the coach hotel? Who knew? What class were the people who got in the vans? No idea. But it did not take too long for the hundreds of us to realize that all the vans were going to stop at the beginning of the line, and with that, people simply started pushing ahead of other people to get to the front.
Was there any separation between the coach and FC passengers? None. Was anyone stopping the vans at the right spot to make sure that correct passengers went to the correct hotel? No. All we had was 400+ people mobbing the first available vehicle they could find and trying to get on it.
Someone needed to be keeping the passengers from the different classes apart from each other. Someone needed to be stopping the buses and vans and making sure that the correct bus went to the right group. With someone in charge, that might have happened, but in this case it did not.
Eventually we were able to get on a bus that had no luggage compartment, so we had to stack our luggage in the aisles. It took us to a hotel where I finally was able to check into my room at 5 a.m. To put that into context, I had arrived at the airport at 4 the previous afternoon.
In no time at all I was asleep. I woke up around noon, and went for lunch, which was provided at no charge. Then it was time to get back on a bus and return to the airport.
At 9 p.m. we boarded the same 747 we had been on the night before, but at least this time it was actually at the terminal and we did not have to take a bus to get to it.
We each received an apologetic note from BA for our delay, reminding us that safety was the number one priority. It asked for our name and email address which I provided and returned the form to the flight attendant.
Thankfully, the flight to London went smoothly and I was able to sleep for several hours.
We landed, had to go through a security check, then go to an American Airlines ticket area to get our boarding passes for the flights home. The agent pulled up our records and immediately frowned as he tried to figure out our itinerary. So many exchange tickets had been issued for us that he did not know what to do.
“Excuse me,” he said, “I need to call BA to see if they can explain this to me.”
After ten minutes he came back and issued us our boarding passes, but mentioned that he would need to keep calling BA to get the matter settled.
Boarding passes in hand, we went to the AA Flagship Lounge. It was small, but quiet, served hot food (pancakes hit the spot!) and gave us a place to relax, eat, and shower.
Three hours later we were aboard a 777-200 for our flight to DFW. I was a bit disappointed by this, if we had stayed on our original itinerary, we would have been on a 777-300 and had nicer accommodations in Business Class including lie-flat seats. But we were on our way home, that was most important.
We landed on time at DFW and went to the Customs area to clear immigration. We all started to go to the lines where we could check in with the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agent when a CBP lady came out and started to yell/scream at us to get off of those lines and go to the other end of the check-in area where we could use the automated kiosks. It sure would have been nice if they had sent us there to begin with.
I went up to the kiosk which was somewhat similar to an ATM machine. I was able to insert my passport for it to be scanned, my picture was taken, and I answered all of the normal questions one gets when entering the country, (do you have more than $10,000 in cash? etc.). When I had gone through all this I hit submit and got a message telling me that I had been selected for secondary screening. It then printed out something that looked like a receipt which included the picture it had just taken, and a large black X, under which it said “Hardware Error,”
I heard complaints from the people at the other kiosks, they were getting the same results. We called over the lady to show her this and asked if we could go to the booth to be checked in by a human being. Her screeching reply was “No one moves until a supervisor has looked into this!”
So, after our nine-hour flight, we just stood there. In the meantime, another plane or two had arrived and those people all lined up behind us, wanting to know what the delay was. After 10 minutes a supervisor arrived and said we could go through a standard check-in that we had tried to do earlier. With that announcement, the crowd surged towards the check-in lines, any hope of staying in our same original order was hopelessly lost.
The check-in process went very very slowly. Why? Because they did not have enough agents on duty because they had these fancy kiosks to do the work.. It was all very frustrating.
We eventually completed the process, went to the correct terminal for our Austin flight, and were back on the ground in AUS at 9:30 p.m.
I was so annoyed at this point that I wanted to complain to the highest levels at American Airlines. I sent a message to the usually excellent AA Twitter team asking for the snail mail address of Doug Parker, CEO of AmAir. They replied that they did not have his email address. I wrote back that I did not want his email address, I wanted his snail mail address. They replied that they did not have that information. Really? They didn’t have the address for their corporate headquarters? That’s hard to believe. I wrote back that I am a shareholder and Investor Relations would provide this information to me.
When all was said and done, I got home 29 hours later than scheduled: I would have been on time if our reservations on the A-380 had not disappeared.
I earned 22,243 Elite Qualifying Points, 21,742 Elite Qualifying miles, and just over 44,000 redeemable miles at a cost of 2.9 cents per mile. Not great, but trips under 3 cpm have been very hard to find lately.
My friend earned the same mileage, but it took 11 days for his to post: they had to run a Discrepancy Report due to all the ticket changes. The fact that I was traveling on the same ticket and had already received my miles did not matter. I guess that is what happens when rules trump common sense. By the way, they saw the need to run a Discrepancy Report to decide whether or not to pay him the miles he was owed, but I am not aware of any such report being run to find out why our JNB-LHR confirmed reservation disappeared.
I never sent a letter to Mr. Parker. Instead I followed standard procedure and had several phone calls with AAdvantage Customer Relations about compensation. We eventually settled on each of us getting an AA voucher that was worth more than 50% of our initial ticket price.
British Airways sent me an apology letter for the delay with a BA voucher of £75, approximately $125. The only place I can spend that is on a BA ticket, so it may go to waste.
I’ve made a lot of mileage runs. This one was both one of the most pleasant and most miserable trips I have had. We’ll be doing another trip to Johannesburg soon, I hope it goes better than this one did!
Disclaimer: I own stock in Boeing and American Airlines Group.
Our time in Johannesburg was short, barely two days, so we had to allocate our time wisely. We decided that we should spend our first day visiting Lion Country Safari. After all, how many times does one get the chance to do this?
We had landed in Johannesburg at 6 a.m., got to our hotel, checked in, ate, then rested for an hour or two. At noon our tour guide came to pick us up.
He told us his name in his native tongue and frankly, we could not repeat it. It did however begin with the letter T, so he said we could call him Mr. T, or just T. So be it!
We had a 40 minute drive to the lion park. The cars in South Africa drive on the left side of the road, the opposite of what we in the USA are accustomed to. This shattered an urban legend I had heard that the only places where cars drive on the left are islands (Ireland, the United Kingdom, etc.). So I guess I can stop telling people that one.
As we drove to the park, we asked T about all the buildings we saw with the high walls and fences around them. He explained that was due to the high crime rate and added that personal and building security was the number one growth industry in the nation. We stopped at one intersection and saw a large sign posted by the provincial government, “Warning, you are entering a high crime area.” Even with that, we never felt threatened or in danger in the short time we were in the country.
We eventually arrived at the park.
After the souvenir shop we had our fist chance to see the animals: these were not particularly wild, they were behind a fence that we could walk up to.
After seeing these animals up close, it was time for us to get in the car and have T drive us out to the area where the lions roamed.
I was very happy at this time that I had bought a new camera, the Fuji SL1000. The 50X optical zoom would come in handy as we drove by, but not very close to, the large cats.
T drove us around the rest of the park, we saw more lions, some wild dogs, and some more lions. By now the day was starting to catch up with us, it was Sunday afternoon and we had been on the go since we left Austin on Friday evening, so we were very glad to hear T say that we had seen the entire park. After another quick stop at the souvenir shop, he drove us back to the hotel.
We had dinner and then called it a night. I looked forward to sleeping in a bed for the first time since Thursday night. Suffice to say, we slept very well.
Day two in Johannesburg
We slept fairly late, then went to the hotel dining room for a wonderful breakfast; we again sat on the outdoor veranda and enjoyed the mild weather.
My friend loves to drink iced tea, even with breakfast; when he ordered it, the server had no idea what he meant. Eventually he figured out the best thing to do was to order a pot of hot tea with two large glasses of ice. That worked.
We were still tired from the previous day and decided to take it easy, we’d walk over to Mandela Square, located just a few blocks from our hotel.
Nelson Mandela Square is not an outdoor square like Times Square in New York, you can’t drive by and see it. Rather, it is the interior courtyard of a large group of buildings that include an upscale hotel, a shopping mall, a library, many restaurants, and offices. It seemed fairly obvious to me that its construction was not only a tribute to the great man, but also part of the economic development of the Sandton area of Johannesburg.
We had to walk through the shopping mall to get to the famous Mandela Statue, it was worth the effort.
We shopped at some of the local craft shops located next to the library, then ate lunch at a restaurant in the square. By now it was past noon, so we walked back to the hotel, packed our bags and checked out.
The hotel had a shuttle bus that took us to the Gautrain station. We took that, and went to O.R. Tambo International Airport, went to the British Airways counter to check-in, and that is where one of my most fouled up trips ever began. I’ll share that story in the next article.
The first of our two mileage runs to Johannesburg, South Africa, got off to a good start. My friend and I had a flight from Austin to DFW at 6:30 on a Friday evening, so for once, I did not need to get up before sunrise to catch my flight.
We arrived at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and had an easy check-in, things go so quickly when you don’t have any bags to check! After a visit to the Admirals Club we boarded our flight to DFW. We had been upgraded to First Class, and while we were not sitting in the same row, that was not a very big deal since our flight would only last 34 minutes.
Unfortunately, the flight was 15 minutes late leaving Austin. We only had a one-hour layover at DFW for our London flight so we were a bit concerned about this. But as the old saying goes, if you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.
We had a smooth flight to DFW and quickly made our way to Terminal D, where boarding had already started for our London flight. We had been upgraded to Business Class and, with boarding already begun, hoped there would be room in the overhead compartments for our bags. Fortunately there was, so we stowed our bags, made ourselves comfortable, and prepared for our 9-hour flight.
We were on a 777-200: Business Class had a 2-3-2 configuration. We were in the middle section, and I was in the middle seat. The seats on the 777-200 go flat, which will help with sleep, but they are not parallel to the cabin floor, there is a slight downward angle to them. Some refer to these as the wedgie seats. I hoped this would not interfere with my sleep.
Once we took off my friend sampled the movies in the IFE, while I watched some shows that I had loaded on my tablet. After a while, it was time for dinner.
Our earlier concerns about the wedgie seats were unfounded. The late hour, the pillow and blanket (and a sleeping pill) assured me a good night’s sleep.
I slept for a few hours, woke to an omelet for breakfast, and then got ready for our arrival at London Heathrow.
We had one of the worst layovers you can possibly have: 6 hours. That is long enough to be boring, but not long enough to allow enough time to go into town.
We spent the entire time at BA’s First Class Lounge at Terminal 5.
We had very little to do for the next few hours.We ate, charged our phones, walked around a bit, I took a shower,and that was about it. Like I said, a boring layover. Our flight to JNB was scheduled to depart at 6 p.m., so I started to look on the departures screen for our gate number. At 2 and 3 p.m. the flight was listed, but the gate was not. Four o’clock came and still no gate number.
I asked the lady at the desk about this, she replied that BA does not post gate numbers until 90 minutes before departure. That seemed to be an odd policy to me, American Airlines always lets me know the gate two hours in advance, but there wasn’t much I could do about this.
4:30, departure minus 90 minutes, and still no gate number. At 4:55, far less than an hour before boarding would start, we still did not know our gate number. The lady at the desk suggested we take the train to the B terminal, we’d probably be at gate 35.
So, we took the train to the B terminal, got off, looked at the departure screen to finally see some information, our flight would be departing from Terminal B. They still hadn’t posted a gate number, but at least they listed the terminal. We walked down to gate 35 where we saw a sign announcing our JNB flight so we relaxed, at least we were in the right place. The boarding area was fairly crowded, we never figured out how all those people knew what gate to go to.
We boarded and went to our seats. We had Business Class on American Airlines, but no such luck on BA, coach seats, three across. My buddy had the aisle, I was in the middle, and a gentleman had the window seat.
We took off, and soon ate dinner. Shortly thereafter, it was time for me to go to sleep. As I mentioned, I was in the middle seat in coach. The guy to my right could not keep his arm off the arm rest that we could supposedly share. He wasn’t being rude, it’s just that he was a big guy who could not fit very easily in a coach seat. So I pulled my arms in as close to my body as I could and slept for a few hours.
Thankfully, I was able to get some sleep, awoke for breakfast, and then our 6 a.m. landing at O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg. The South Africans spent billions of dollars upgrading facilities for World Cup — one of those was the improvement of the JNB airport into a new modern facility that I would favorably compare to any other terminal I have been in.
After clearing customs we made our way to the Gautrain station. Gautrain opened in 2009, in time for World Cup.
We had a short ride to our destination, the Sandton district of Johannesburg. Sandton is one the most significant business and financial district in South Africa. Everywhere we looked we saw modern buildings, shops, restaurants.
It took us just a few minutes to find our hotel. While everything in Sandton is new, our hotel was the exception. In the 1870s it was a place where people could stop and get water for the horses when riding from Johannesburg to Pretoria. It later grew into a 300+ room hotel that opened in 1949. I think you’ll find its history to be both interesting and entertaining.
We checked into our room, a suite with two bedrooms, then went to for breakfast.
After eating we went back to our room and rested for a few hours, we had a busy day ahead of us — I’ll share that story in my next article.
Disclaimer: I own stock in both Boeing and the American Airlines Group.