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SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS
South African Airways (SAA) departs out of Terminal 4. Although JFK is one of my least favorite airports (what crackhead designed it?), the new Terminal 4 is one of my favorite terminals. It's bright, modern, has high ceilings, plenty of shops, restaurants and plenty of other amenities. When I arrived at the SAA desk two hours before departure, I was stoked to see that there was no wait in either the coach or business class lines. The agent behind the counter was friendly and stunned when I told her I had no bags to check. "Are you serious?" she asked. "Did you send your bags ahead of time?" Nope! I just pack light and went on to tell her exactly what I had packed: seven pairs of underwear and socks, three pairs of shorts, three t-shirts, two button-down shirts, a pair of dress pants and shoes, a rain and dinner jacket, two hats, sunscreen and bug repellent … all for my two week trip. She was not as impressed as you might think and asked why I had only packed seven pairs of underwear. I assured her that I would get laundry done halfway through my trip. And I told her not to forget about what I was already wearing ... jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt and sneakers. Believe it or not, I still over-packed.
I was really lucky to be flying in South African Airways' Premium Class (business class). They only have two classes on this route: Economy and Premium. I was handed my boarding card and a pass to the lounge. The lounge is shared by a variety of airlines so it was busy but not packed. Like all airline lounges, it was a welcoming oasis from the crowded gate areas and inside were the usual snacks and an open bar. Several computers were available for use, all with free Internet, though I'm not sure if they had free wireless, too. Plus, they offered an all-day menu with free food. The choices were salmon and cream cheese bagel; olives, humus and grilled pita; seasonal soup; fresh fruit salad; or a selection of cheeses. I wasn't even hungry but who can pass up a free bowl of hot pumpkin soup? Not this fellow.
When they called the flight it meant it was time to go through security. Yes, the lounges in Terminal 4 are before the checkpoint. Sometimes the first/business class lines aren't always the quickest. I noticed a flock of flight attendants walking towards the checkpoint and I had a feeling they were going to choose the Premium line. They get to cut the line so I jumped into the longer economy line and sure enough, I ended up breezing past all the stuffy first-class passengers who were in front of me. Bunch of suckers, eh?
SAA flies the Airbus A340-300 on this route to Johannesburg, via Dakar, which is the same aircraft I flew on when I was on the inaugural flight of the world's longest commercial flight. Once I got on the plane, most of my fear melted away, quickly turning into excitement. And I got even more excited when the captain announced that the flight time to Dakar was just seven hours. Seven hours? That's it? I thought it was going to be at least eight. Who knew Africa was so close?
SAA'S WEBSITE: Before I go into a detailed review of my flight, I must start by saying that SAA must have one of the worst airline websites in the industry. It's slow and difficult to navigate. Check it out for yourself (FlySAA.com). See if you can tell what time flight 204 is due to land. Visitors should be able to find this information in less than 10 seconds; I bet you can't.
BUSINESS CLASS SEATS
Luckily, SAA's actual service is much better than that on its website. I was seated in seat 15A, a bulkhead
window seat. I thought it would be a good choice since no other seat could impinge on my legroom. But that wasn't the case. You see, SAA has the new shell seats that don't impose on anybody's space. Instead of reclining back, they slide down and these seats are plush! They have a 73" pitch and are 24" wide. The best part is that they go completely flat and I mean a full 180 degrees. This is key for someone like me who has difficulty sleeping on planes. More good news? The seats are configured in a 2x2x2 configuration so there's no getting stuck in a middle seat.
TIP: If you are seated by the window like I was, bring a sweater. It gets cold!
MORE INFO ON SEATS
The seats are so comfortable they are almost like those expensive recliners you find yourself lounging in at Brookstone stores in the mall. These too have a lumbar massage rolling up. They also have three automatic settings to make for quick positioning: upright, cradle or bed. There's a privacy screen to shut out your seatmate but mine was cool so I didn't need to pull that bad boy up. If you can't sleep and are worried about disturbing others, don't stress. Seats have a personal snake reading light. But when they aren't in use, they do get a little annoying, as they don't sit flush with the seat.
Each business class seat has a 10.4-inch personal video screen; in coach they offer the entertainment systems too. The choices for on-demand movies are extensive but not all were available. I didn't care. I actually didn't even watch a single one. Instead, I stared at the live map in awe of the places I was about to be traveling over for the very first time while I worked on my laptop. Yup, seats have a 110-volt AC power port that doesn't require any special adaptors.
The flight attendants (FAs) for the most part were friendly and during the food and drink service, they were attentive. But in between, they were virtually nonexistent. Before takeoff, they came around with U.S. and S.A. newspapers and drinks. But I got really ticked off when, without warning, they came strolling down the aisles with aerosol cans of some Febreeze-like spray and started polluting the air. I barely had enough time to cover my nose and mouth. There was no announcement so I have no idea what it was or if it was harmful for someone with asthma. I imagine it was some kind of insect repellent that the South African government mandates, but who knows. Another thing the FAs did was unofficially declare my foot space (for 40 minutes!) the designated holding area for three bags filled with cheap headsets. I'm not sure why they left them there or why, given the superior product that they have in business class, they would hand these out. They should be using Bose noise-canceling headsets.
Maybe the pilot was pressing the wrong button on the PA system but he didn't update us at all on our 45-minute delay at the gate. We had no idea what was going on or how long it would be. But he made up the time when we did finally get those wheels rolling. Would you believe that at 6pm at JFK we took off within 10 minutes? Now that's newsworthy! It was exciting to see the lights of NYC glimmering against the night sky, but even more exciting was to think about all that was in store for me on the other side of the ocean.
Immediately following takeoff, the FAs handed out toiletry kits and hot towels and rolled out the drink and food cart. The FA serving us was a bit of a rookie; my seatmate asked for a South African beer and she handed him a Heineken. She insisted it was South African but when he refused it, she gave him a Windhoek. The food was served quickly, which was a good thing because I was starving and ready to get some shuteye. For our appetizer, we had shrimp over tomatoes and avocado, followed by a salad with balsamic dressing. For my entrée, I chose an authentic Cape Malay dish: curry chicken. They were all quite tasty and the fattening tiramisu dessert was even better.
When I pressed the bed mode and kicked off my shoes to go to sleep, I was absolutely chilling. The large pillow and soft duvet were the most comfortable I have ever had on a plane. No wonder the flight attendants collect them before landing. I fell asleep staring out the window, amazed at where I was headed, soaking in the view of the bright stars illuminating the black sky.
Although I had heard a bunch of travelers to South Africa complain about how greatly they disliked stopping in Dakar to refuel because it breaks up sleep patterns, I was still stoked. It was a chance for me to catch a glimpse (albeit brief) of another country. So while most everyone pouted when the announcement was made 27 minutes out, to put their seats in the upright position and the cabin lights were illuminated, I had my eyes wide open and my camera ready. We landed around 6:30am local time and it was dark but in the minutes it took to taxi to the gate, the sky brightened visibly.
Parked next to us was a Delta plane doing the same route as us, except that it had originated in Atlanta. I was surprised to see how many passengers got off the plane. I thought it would just be to refuel but clearly it's not. Passengers who were headed to Johannesburg were told to stay on the plane. A cleaning crew came on, followed by a new flight crew and more passengers. I wanted so badly to get off and at least touch the ground but I wasn't allowed. However, I was able to talk one of the FAs into letting me go out on the gangway so I could feel the warm morning Senegal air
and pose for a cheesy picture.
FYI: My blackberry didn't work so I couldn't check emails, make phone calls or find out the score of the football game.
BREAKFAST OVER AFRICA
We were in Dakar for an hour and on takeoff, I watched kids play soccer in a field nearby and gawked at the Senegal architecture. It was too cool. From Dakar to Johannesburg is eight hours, which really isn't too bad. The first round of drinks consisted of a choice of smoothies or orange juice and a fruit plate with yogurt or cereal followed immediately. Then came scrambled eggs with turkey and a cooked tomato. The eggs were light and creamy and were seriously the best eggs I have ever had on a plane.
DAKAR TO JOHANNESBURG
As we flew down the coast of Africa, our new pilot "strongly suggested" that we set our watches to South African time, which was 10am, so we could adjust to the new time zone. But then he ordered the FAs to shut the blinds so everyone could get some sleep. Huh? How is that adjusting to local time? Everyone followed his instructions. Not me! ONE: I was too excited to sleep and TWO: I didn't want to not be able to sleep a few hours after we arrived at 6pm. It was so memorable to watch the in-flight map and see where we were flying and then look out the window and view, from 37,000 feet up, what the countries below looked like. Especially faraway places like Guinea-Bissau. After some work on my laptop and another hot meal service, we were finally in South African airspace. My excitement escalated as I heard the landing gear being let down and the flight attendants making their last run through the cabin.
NEXT WEEK Next week a Christmas flight Stay tuned!
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SOME OF LAST WEEK'S READER AIR-eMAIL
Can't believe you went to St. Kitts, I used to work there, and my friends live there who run Dive St. Kitts from the Bird Rock Beach Hotel, where I used to work. There are some fun things to do there that you didn't mention. Hire Smokey, the taxi driver, to take you on an island tour (869-664-3786). You'll not only see the batik factory & the fort, but you will also see the heiroglyphics, the beautiful beaches and coves around the island, Black Rocks and Ottley Manor, a totally gorgeous plantation. On top of it, it's a great pub crawl, island style, if you're so inclined. You also have to go to Turtle Beach and check all the bars on the beach, especially Mr. X's, who has a great restaurant. Another most excellent restaurant is Marshall's. Horseback riding is a fun activity. there are good restaurants and places to drink in Basseterre. The glass shop is terrific. For the drinkers in the crowd, getting cheap beers at the booths at the harbourfront is a great way to see how the locals do it. Jeez, I miss it! Nicole S – Sydney, Australia
Please don’t use incorrect English terms such as “Me and my Pop”. It is “My pop and I”. I really enjoy your writings otherwise. Dr. Ron L, Educational Consulting Foundation -- Bakersfield, CA
Loved your St Kitts review, Johnny. We were at the Marriott soon after it opened in 2004, and it was beautiful! You missed what I thought was the numero uno highlight--the Sugar Plantation train that goes around the entire west side of the island close to the ocean. I think it was about four hours--one of the best things I have ever done in the Caribbean. Great timing on the Brisbane reviews--I'll be there with my son for a half day later this week on our way to Sydney. Big five and refueling--you must be on your way to my home country--South Africa!!! Theo B -
Ah - St Kitt's - one of the prettiest islands I've had the chance to discover. I've been there twice - the last time being when the Marriott was just beginning construction. I also noticed many huge homes being built in that general vicinity, too.....and thinking "there goes the neighborhood"! The Marriott looks great and probably IS the only hopping place on the island. I think it's because there are no Colombian Emeralds or Diamond Internationals or other Caribbean chain shopping areas that I really enjoyed St Kitts. The island ALLOWED you to relax - which is not a bad thing! And there are some nice beaches. It's too bad you didn't have the opportunity to enjoy a meal at Ottley's Plantation. Not only was the food terrific, the view was spectacular. Next time.......and I hope it's soon! Mary C. - Hermantown, MN
You're going on African Safari!?!? I'm sooo jealous... It's on my dream travel list! Kara R – Miami, FL
Saw the clip in the NY Post the other day... re: meeting people in airports. Happened to me once! DH – Danbury, Connecticut
Your story about "down under" is so engaging it got me through a pretty boring day at work. Your travel buddy is a lucky gal and it’s official I'm super impressed with the services that your website provides, I just booked a flight and got a really good deal... Patty C – San Francisco, CA
Thanks for the stories Johnny Jet. In my life which is quite hectic, I feel like I am vicariously traveling through you and your site full of adventure. I just had a recent death in my family, and in between emails, I had a chance to look at the poems on your site. It made me feel better to get stronger. What a comforting feeling. Thanks once again! Your work is more the information on traveling, it is information at all levels. You are doing really well for everybody and helping everybody’s journey. God bless you. Keep up the good work. Giselle B – Long Beach, CA
FEEDBACK FOR JANOS
Great report. Makes me think that Johnny Jet needs to get into that business! Francis J. DiScala Jr., South Norwalk, CT
Regarding the Medical Tourism article by Janos: This is a hot topic for me because soon I'll be taking my second trip to Europe for surgery and I'm so excited about this new industry. I'm glad you guys are writing about it. My first trip was to Stockholm and my second will be to Prague, and the services and quality of care are amazing. The lower prices are only one advantage. The other is the aftercare which is extensive and status quo overseas. I'm just shocked at what I get for my money, including massages and spas, which they feel help in the recovery process. Certainly not something I'm use to in America. I would like to have seen a more extensive article, but glad to see it covered. Thanks. Susan M – Novato, CA
Dear Mr. Janos: Your story about the new trend in people seeking medical help outside their borders is good. I have left the US on several occasions to have minor medical procedures performed.
Over 14 years ago, I went to Canada to have fluid buildup in my wrist removed. The cost was $53.00 Canadian. The doctor used a syringe and the ganglion has not reappeared. The quote here in the US to operate was from $2500 to $3000. Of course, not one of the US doctors would even suggest using a simple syringe!
Two years later I went to the best hernia hospital in the world in Thornhill, Ontario Canada, The Shouldice Clinic, to have an inguinal hernia fixed. Again the total cost plus air from Chicago was about $2200. Shouldice only does hernias. Plus they "guarantee" every operation and perform many of the "botched" hernia operations from doctors elsewhere.
The US will now have to compete with other Nations for medical business. This is what's necessary to reform the US health system which is over-priced, wasteful and open to fraud from both its patients, professionals and its suppliers.
The party's over and not soon enough.
Good health & keep walking,
M. C. Marasco
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