South Africa 2008 - For Goodness' Sake, Go to the Airport Early
This trip to Africa was a reunion of sorts. My wife is the 4th of 7 kids, ranging in age from 38 to 18. This is the first time in over a decade that all seven kids have been in the same place at the same time. Folks are spread all over the world, so it's a challenge.
Our flight today was from Jo'burg to Paris, then to Amsterdam, and then on the lovely direct flight to Portland from Amsterdam. The Jo'burg flight left at 8:30pm. I really really like to not miss flights, plus I know that Murphy's Law always comes true. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong.
I suggested we leave for the airport at 3pm, which was heresy to the family, truly. Five hours early, are you insane?
I'm not sure what it was, but something felt wrong and I tried to find a balance between getting to the airport with some buffer and spending as much time with the family as possible. Certainly one doesn't want to break up a reunion by stressing about time.
We ended up getting to the airport at 5pm, which was nothing short of a miracle. It took about an hour to drive to the airport, plus the Jo'burg airport has a fairly complex parking structure, and there's some construction. It took another 20 minutes to load the bags and get to International Departures.
We were flying Air France this time (KLM before) and we knew that bags need to weigh less than 23kg/50lbs leaving the US, and 32kg/70lbs on the way back into the US. When we arrived at the Air France counter there was large sign that said just that - 32kg. Turns out that this weight limit changed in January, it's 20kg/44lbs for economy. Only Business Class gets 32kg. Everyone was having a problem with this today, and the guy in front of us was going insane. Like "I'll never fly Air France again" insane.
Weight is always a tough thing when travelling, and my wife and I always go back and forth about it. I tend to travel obscenely light. She wants to get her money's worth and bring everything and more, pushing to exactly whatever the limit is. However, airlines aren't giving folks any quarter these days, and I so people a few kgs over getting nailed with $50 per bag fees. We try to find a balance as a team.
We usually weigh our bags with a scale, and I highly recommend you to also, and give yourself 5 pounds of wiggle room. The Jo'burg airport is interesting because it has a scale before you check in and they are strict. We had no trouble this time because we were prepared, but it was close.
The real trouble happened when we tried to check in. On the way to South Africa we had had a little problem with my infant son. He has my last name while my wife kept her name. However, apparently most airlines put a "lap child" record under the mother's ticket record. Suffice to say, someone got confused, and confused people usually mean confused computer records. They ended up putting in two infants. One with my last name and one with my wife's. When they asked if six folks were travelling, I said, no, five "souls" in four seats. (They say "souls" in the airline industry.)
The first guy deleted the baby doppelganger and we travelled fine. This was over three weeks ago. Fast forward to today and when we go to the airport, the baby is gone. They'd deleted his record and ticket completely. But, he was still in there, floating around Tron-style in the system. The guy was doing his best, it was clear, but some foreign-key relationship was definitely not working. He spend literally 90 minutes working on this, going back and forth to ticketing, management, and IT. He ended up deleting our entire ticket completely and starting over issuing new tickets to get us boarding passes.
For me, in these situations, I seem to have infinite patience. For the most part these folks are doing their jobs, and announcing "I'll never fly Air France again" does zero good. I just kept thanking him for his patience, and for sticking with me. In the end, he fixed us, but also ensured us the baby bulkhead row as well. Thank goodness we showed up 3+ hour early or we would have been screwed, and the guy said as much.
The family was getting worried and stressed out, but we just keep reminding ourselves that this is all part of the fun. Everything is fun on vacation, and that is what we tell the kids. Sure we waited for and hour and a half at the Air France counter, but we did it together.
We had a final meal as a group at Nando's outside security then headed in to Passport Control. This was tricky also because after waiting for a useless 90 minutes, folks figured that any urgency had passed. However, outbound Passport Control at Jo'burg is always busy and there's usually very few agents working. I knew we could spend, easily, another hour waiting for our outbound stamp. The flight boarded at 7:55pm, and I was only able to get folks to say their good byes and start walking at 7:15pm. I didn't even bother mentioning that it was a full 2 kilometers between Passport Control and gate A17.
We played our trump card. We had a 3 year old and a 1 year old, so we went to the assisted passenger lane at Passport Control. This allowed us to avoid a line of over 300 people. However, we got stuck behind some UN guy whose papers weren't in order. Remember what I said about Murphy's Law? It gets better.
After another 20 minutes as the next folks in line at Passport Control we moved up to talk to the agent. I remembered my trouble from before with my Passport at the Jo'burg airport and I wasn't going to make the same mistake again. Whatever trouble was coming, I was ready to be submissive and beg for assistance.
The agent started processing our passports. This consists of typing in the Trip Numbers from our South African Visas to show we departed. She typed with one finger like a slow tempo metronome. My passport was fourth and when she hit it, she couldn't make out the numbers because the original guy who got me out of the incoming trouble signed his name over the Trip Number. The agent went looking for help, and wouldn't you know it, she went and found the same guy from before. This is the guy who argued with the young girl about whether or not we were allowed to put Visas on the amendments pages of American Passports. He totally remembered us and said that he'd doubled checked after the unfortunate trouble before, and that yes, you can put Visas on the amendments page via a special memo from the US Embassy.
Anyway, at this point, it's 7:45pm and we're really pushing it. We take off speed walking with the 4 bags, and two kids, which isn't really speed walking at all. It was easily 2km to the gate, and they were boarding when we got there.
It's always amazing to me when I'm walking onto a plane literally within minutes of missing it that things work out at all. I mean, we started packing at 9am, we left the house (late, I thought) at 4pm, for an 8:30 flight and we needed every minute.
Any additional hiccup, any bathroom break or trouble over this day-long process would have caused us to miss the plane. I am sad that we've left South Africa this year, but I am glad that we didn't miss our flight. I believe we didn't because we went to the airport early. I will always show up for international flights at least three hours early and now I've got a fun story.