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.”

Nice.

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?