Dion Chang
Dion Chang

Going nowhere slowly

“So is the flight on time?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies, lying through her teeth.

“Are you sure there are no delays today?”

“Not as far as I know,” she smiles, maintaining her chirpy disposition.

She hands me my boarding pass knowing full well that once I pass security, there is no way I can leave the departure lounge and come back to the counter to show her what a real hissy fit looks like … which is what I (and approximately 300 other people) want to do once we find out that — yet again — there is another domestic flight delay.

For many, flying regularly around the country has become part of normal, 21st-century business practice. I even know some poor souls who are forced to commute between Jo’burg and Cape Town (and if you happen to be reading this, my heartfelt sympathies). You see, as one advertisement for a budget airline points out, everyone has become a “jet setter”. It’s true, except that flying has become as glamorous as cleaning the airport toilets.

There’s no jet-setting joy any longer.

Travelling for business is no longer the preserve of high-flying executives. A combination of a shrinking global village and cut-price air fares has resulted in local business travel becoming as commonplace as driving across town for a meeting. OR Tambo airport at 7am looks like a massive suit and briefcase convention. It’s like a scene out of Pink Floyd’s movie The Wall: cheerless, desensitised souls (all in dark suits and carrying briefcases) are herded, sheep-like, on and off planes every hour.

If only it were that organised …

However soulless and joyless it is, I would actually love to be herded, sheep-like, on and off a plane — on the hour. But these days things aren’t that punctual. Planes seldom leave on time, and the delays are always blamed on a mysterious ailment referred to as “a rotational problem” — a handy phrase that covers everything and answers nothing. It’s part of a new South African trend pioneered by the government, and it’s affectionately known as “taking collective responsibility”. The concept is quite brilliant. You say you’re sorry, but no one ever takes flak for the problem. It’s like a blanket amnesty, in reverse.

For airlines, this non-committal excuse works seamlessly and effortlessly. Once you leave the skilled illusionists at the check-in counters, you enter the departure hall only find out that your flight — usually along with those of two or three other airlines — has been delayed.

They generally let this sink in slowly by only posting the fact on the electronic flight-schedule board. Once the news spreads and the mood in the departure lounge gets a bit edgy (I’m positive they monitor this through one-way mirrors), they make a lame announcement: “We regret to inform you that flight SLOW 666 has been delayed … due to rotational problems. We apologise for the inconvenience. Further announcements will be made in due course.”


They acknowledge the delay and provide a blanket and a non-detailed explanation, then leave you hanging with the prospect of another announcement … but cleverly don’t provide a timeline, so you’re never sure if the delay could last one or five hours.

The last four flights I have been on have all been delayed “due to rotational problems”. The last delay was a classic. I was booked on a 9pm flight, but finished my meetings early, so I changed my flight to an 8pm flight with another airline. I happened to arrive at the airport even earlier and managed to switch my flight again, this time to a 7.30pm flight. In a cruel twist of rotational fate, both the 8pm and my original 9pm flight (all of which were delayed) somehow still managed to leave before my 7.30pm flight … which eventually left at 9.30pm! Go figure.

As a result, local air travel has taught me two things: (1) purgatory does indeed exist; and (2) the portal to hell is in the Cape Town domestic departure hall. Not only is it far too small for the number of people that pass through it every day, but there’s nowhere to sit, the Wi-Fi hot spot is tepid, there’s nothing decent to eat and you are fleeced for the inedible food you are forced to buy when your plane is delayed anyway. Where else would you find hoards of anxious, desperate and tearful people praying for deliverance?

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/miriammannak Miriam Mannak

    How familiar does this sound. I luckily do not fly very often, but I have been doing so a few times. Especially in the mornings CT check-in hall is a bloody nightmare, with lines stretching from one to the other side of the hall. And when you have fi-nal-ly checked in, there is yet another line – to get past security. My sincere sympathies to all of you who do this on a regular basis. This cannot be fun.

  • Dawn

    Thank you for this brilliant description. Ironical that the first advert under this (when I read it) was for “ACSA AIRPORT SHOPPING”!

  • Jon

    Count your blessings. At least you have somewhere to go and you have to get there with a sufficient modicum of urgency to need air travel. In the old days even poor people could go by TransKaroo train in quite a high degree of leisurely well-catered comfort , but these days its replacement, the appalling Shosholoza Meyl, is slow, dirty, smelly and just too darned dangerous for the asking price. And food and bedding is not provided.

  • http://liechtensteinliving.blogspot.com Theresa Mallinson

    What I don´t understand is, since many of the airlines consistently experience “rotational” problems, why don´t they schedule a slightly longer time period between flights, to prevent this from happening. It´s all about the money, I guess…

  • Consulting Engineer

    I guess this is what happens when you choose a life of meetings to doing real work for a living. I dont feel sorry for those people.

    Why not just pick up a phone and make a conference call if you must discuss? Far too many meetings are unnecessary or a waste of time.

    But in the new SA the Indaba has replaced doing work. They all sit around talking of the work that needs to be done rather than doing it.

    At one stage I was heading that way. Spent too much time managing people and going to meetings. I felt guilty and didnt feel I was doing anything productive. I made a career shift and focussed on technical,design, implementation and development with far more time in the bush.

    If anyone askes me for a meeting now I ask why, what will we discuss, and why can’t we just discuss it now on the phone or internet conference.

    You must rather pull out my teeth than get me into a suit or kantoor manetjie clothes. Boots and T-shirts are my work clothing. if someone doesnt like it they can have a meeting with someone else.

  • http://mandrake.amagama.com Mandrake

    The annoying Kulula lady singing the jet-setter song comes to mind. Since some clever sod thought that low-cost airlines would do wonders for SA travel we’ve had the total opposite. If engines aren’t falling off at take-off, Mangoes getting delayed or frustrated ppl being moered by airport security for trying to donner useless airport staff…AAAHHH, gotta love this country.

    if you think CPT is bad, try using the ‘terminal’ at PE. After your nerves get frayed by the turbulance tossing the miniature light-aircraft thingy to bits you finally land. Then you have to “walk”(sheit) to the arrivals terminal. No bloody trolleys, 5 securities and 14 ACSA officials lounging around “keeping the peace”. make a mistake and ask them where the bloody trolleys are and he’ll tell you he’s not a trolley attendant.

    CE, i can picture you in a grey-pinstripe wif your laptop bag commuting between lanseria and ORTambo in them little planes. i bet the hostesses will get constant abuse from your whisky laced nerves. Maybe you can get Hansie’s broer as your pilot.


  • Consulting Engineer


    You here as well my witty friend. Havent worn a suit since a colleague’s wedding about 15 years ago.

    I flew in Pumas plenty long ago but no hostesses, or free drinks and the abuse came from the sgt.

    The departure terminal was hot and dusty, and the departure lounge was your arse in the dirt. The arrival in angola was worse we came into land. No trolleys, porters or attendants waiting there. They would burst out in laughter if you expected a hotel and hired car on arrival, or even a refresher towel.

    By the way, i don’t fly from OR Tambo. I fly out of Jan Smuts. I thought the airport is Jan Smuts and only the sign is referred to as OR Tambo. If Tambo wants signs named after him, that is fine. Smuts can have the airport.

    But I think the chance of getting shot and killed on arrival is the same in angola as Jan Smuts. The only difference is the terrorists are not in the bush, but in the union building. And in angola your luggage wont be stolen.

  • lynne

    @ consulting engineer:

    I see you are fond of posting on various subjects on these blogs. May I offer you some advice:

    “It is better to remain quiet and be thought a fool than tospeak up and remove all doubt.”

    I have yet to see a single rational posting from you

  • Craig

    Flight delays in the UK are bound by regulations that force the airline to being compensating passengers after at least 2 hours.

    You would be amazed how many delays are 1:55 😉

  • Craig

    @Consulting Engineer, I take it by the length and frequency of your posts that you have forsaken all these meetings for surfing Thought Leader?

  • Odette

    @ Lynne

    LOL – thanks. I needed the giggle.

  • Eugene Marais

    “It is better to remain quiet and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”

    What I find quite amusing, is that as soon as someone posts something you do not agree with, they become irrational fools. Just a thought, I doubt wether it will lead. Although, by my understanding, a wether is sheep without balls.

  • Dennis

    Long distance flights can be awful, especially all the hassles at the airports.
    Slightly off the subject, but on a more local note
    the chance to fly from say Johannesburg to Dundee and other small towns no longer exists.
    The small regional airlines of twenty years ago have dissapeared – this was highly enjoyable flying with few formalities, easy access and wondeful views of beautiful South Africa.
    Along with these small carriers many of the small town airfields are also rapidly dissapearing.
    Denysville has a sprawling informal settlement over it, van der Bijl Park is derelect with the control tower smashed and the hangers demolished.
    Rustenburg has an informal settlement right next to it and there are often people crossing the runway.
    Given the efficiencies of moden medium sized propjet aircraft, it is possible to run a regional service from many small towns across South Africa but many of the navigational beacons have not been maintained by government.
    If we are to continue to grow tourism, our small airports need to be maintained so that visitors can reach places like The Battle Fields in an hour instead of 4.
    Local airfields also make medical evacuations possible for local communities.
    Losing these facilities, which took decades to put in place, is short sighted and a great loss to rural South Africa.
    Sadly, no one in government has the slightest interest or understanding of the value that regional airservices could add to communties across South Africa.
    If the attitude persists, most of the general aviation infrastructure will be gone and cost of replacing it will be prohibitive.
    Perhaps the Mail and Guardian can draw attention to this sad state of affairs with a special report.

  • Tess

    This is not only a problem in SA. Been to Oz recently and of the 7 flights inside OZ only one departed on time… the one back to SA.

  • Cecilia

    Consulting Engineer, You should have stayed in the bush, believe me during the time that you were flying Puma’s to Angola, the Union Building was invested with the filthiest form of cochroach, you seem to be yearning to the ossewabrandwag days.

  • http://mandrake.amagama.com Mandrake