As some of you may know, I’ve just returned from a two-week break on the Russian platteland. So, if you’re hoping this article contains a driving impression of some sorts, you’ll be sorely disappointed. For this I apologise. You see, I didn’t get to drive anything in Russia because I was mostly busy building MIG fighter jets from sand on a river bank to entertain my son, much to the amusement of 70-year old babushkas who, by the way, really shouldn’t be wearing G-strings. The rest of my time was spent mass murdering mosquitoes.
Actually I lie. I did get to drive something in a Russia – friend Boris’ Porsche Cayenne, in fact, but because like all Russians he believes safety belts are from the devil (ie, America), he has therefore come up with an ingenious way of permanently routing his safety belt behind his backrest, rendering it unusable. I couldn’t drive for more than a few kilometres because, bizarrely, without a safety belt I felt so exposed and naked that I lost all my driving ability. This made Boris put on his safety belt in the passenger seat and utter words that cannot be printed here, and not only because my keyboard doesn’t feature that alphabet.
But I digress. In Russia I had so much free time I even started to read the back of the shampoo bottles. And those were written in Russian. So, born out of boredom and a lack of automotive test subjects comes this, my rough guide to flying, something I’ve been doing a lot of for the past ten years and therefore feel quite qualified to comment on.
You see, motoring journalists spend a big portion of their lives travelling to the airport, at business lounges in the airport, and on aeroplanes. If you’ve got even a hint of an olive complexion and stubble on your face (as I usually do), you also tend to spend a lot of time sweating in front of the passport control officials. It’s part of the job, whether we like it or not.
I detest flying. I’m scared to death of it. Ninety per cent of my time on a plane is spent working out possible solutions to worst-case scenarios, such as at which point I should take my chances and jump out just before impact. Or what objects in the cabin I could potentially use to ensure my survival – I suspect I could possibly make one of those flying squirrel suits featured in Popular Mechanics out of the curtains that separate business and economy class, for example…
Following reports of people with bombs in their shoes and their underpants, I’m also deeply suspicious of anyone fiddling about too much under their blankets. That’s why I always make sure I’ve got a copy of a German GQ in the magazine pocket in front of me. If I’d ever be in need of a weapon on an airplane, a rolled up copy of this hefty publication would be as effective as a koekroller.
To make matters worse, and frazzle my nerves even more, the airlines are always playing movies featuring disasters (such as 2012 and The Day after Tomorrow), and the Time and Newsweek magazines supplied “for your reading pleasure” always have articles about plane crashes and terrorism in seemingly every issue.
The only way for me cope, then, involves red wine. Followed by port. And a foreign language movie so incomprehensible and boring that the brain is forced to shut down. But if you fly SAA your in-flight entertainment system is unlikely to be working. However, this is not such a big disaster as you may think. Our national airline’s in-flight magazine, Sawubona, is so mind-numbingly boring that it’ll put you into a coma. For me, this is the best way to endure a flight – comatose. British Airways and Kulula have the best in-flight magazines by the way, amusing enough to distract you from light turbulence and the Mexican passenger next to you who is busy tweezing his unibrow.
Sleeping on an aeroplane, however hard I may try, is never easy, and it doesn’t’ matter whether I’m in economy or business class. It is not only the fear keeping me awake, as I lie there listening for any odd sounds that may warn of impending disaster, or the fact that I’m trying to remember whether whatever model of Airbus I’m on has only two or the more preferable four engines. No, quite often my inability to fall asleep has a lot to do with the explosive reactions that are taking place between the peanuts and red wine in my stomach. For this reason, you must always choose the isle seat, because then your trip to the loo every five minutes won’t disturb the snoring elephant in the seat next to you. Of course, the best advice of all would be not to eat the peanuts.
A lot of people have asked me whether business class is worth the extra cost over economy. Not having paid for an international business class ticket myself, I don’t know what the cost is exactly so that’s a hard one to answer. I have however paid for a business class ticket on a regional Russian airline, though, because it was the last one available. I paid double the normal fare, and this got me a trip to the plane in a clapped-out Gazelle minibus with a sunroof but no working air-con, instead of the normal passenger bus that appears to have done duty during the Stalin administration, transporting people to the Gulag. Oh, and a sweetie from the stewardess before take-off. Not worth it…
Because Lufthansa once misplaced one of its aeroplanes (honestly), resulting in a delay in Frankfurt for several hours, they bumped me up to first class. This was an illuminating experience, too. You get a set of pyjamas, for example, and the pilot personally comes to shake your hand. Perhaps because he had the steely eyes of a Bruce Willis, giving me the impression of being able to land a rocket on Haley’s Comet without spilling a drop of sweat, I slept very well that night… I didn’t change into the pyjamas though, because if I were to try and get undressed, and then dressed again, in an airplane loo I’d end up entangled in a reverse Lotus position.
Packing is problematic because car launches tend to always include at least one surprise you can never foresee, such as white-water rafting in Leipzig. What makes it more complicated is that you have to pack with the specific airline and airports you’ll encounter in mind.
Travel through O.R. Tambo or Charles de Gaulle and your bag will almost certainly disappear. This happened to me three times in one year. In one instance my bag arrived in Milan when I was already on my way back, resulting in Fiat having to buy me an entire new wardrobe, which makes me one of few journalists to have car-maker sponsored Calvin Klein underwear and Benetton shirts. Being in a foreign country without your bag is a major hassle I can tell you that. The Luftwaffe‘s “courtesy” bag doesn’t help much, seeing as it contains a T-shirt made for somebody the size of an elephant – perhaps because pants are not included in the package.
Flying with Air France (or Air Chance, as it is often called) fills me with dread even though the food is great and the business class seats very comfortable. This doesn’t really make up for the fact that Air Chance has almost never gotten my luggage to arrive at the same time as me.
As a result of all this, I almost never take check-in luggage anymore. I travel very, very light.
Personally I’ve found the best airline in the world to be Cathay Pacific – they do everything with elegance and the meals look like they were prepared right there on the aeroplane by a man who knows his way around a kitchen. Even A.A. Gill would be impressed.
I know I’ve flown Delta before, but I can’t remember anything about it. This probably tells you all you need to know. And although British Airways has never disappointed me, they do tend to go on strike rather more often than the others. Being stuck at Heathrow, one of the world’s worst airports, is not an attractive thought, so I’ll avoid BA given the choice.
So far I’ve pretty much lambasted SAA, but truthfully they’re not that bad. Actually, once the plane is in the air and the entertainment system has been rebooted SAA is pretty good, with neat cabins, regularly cleaned toilets, nice enough food and generally excellent service from the middle-aged gay business-class flight attendant with a perm that you’re likely to find on every SAA flight. But if you ever have to deal with the ground staff SAA should be avoided at all costs as these people are hopeless in the art of communication. You’ll have more success in getting a resolution to your query by talking to your suitcase – if you still had it. You should also not waste your frequent flyer miles by joining Voyager.
Rather get a Lufthansa Miles&More card. I know I often poke fun at the Luftwaffe, because the food is terrible, the stewardesses are German copies of my mother-in-law and the seats – in fully reclined form – made for people without spines.
But besides all of that I’d still fly Lufthansa by choice. I prefer being flown by people named Wilhelm and Adolf. There’s something about teutonic efficiency and discipline that is also very confidence-inspiring. So, as bizarre as it may sound, the only lullaby that gets me to relax on a plane is a fearsome looking German pilot named Hans announcing that even though there’s some imminent turbulence, he’s going to fly exactly so many metres higher or that many km/h faster in an effort to avoid the storm. So that the bar can remain open.
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