The first warning sign was a message informing me that my booked flight had been cancelled and I was now on a flight that departed some 30 minutes later. Not great but this seems to be something of a frequent occurrence these days. What can you do? Not much but little did I know how bad it was about to get!

Arriving at the boarding gate having been summoned from the lounge where I almost feel as though I should be hanging some personal pictures, I arrived at the boarding gate and took to the awaiting bus. Already most of the passengers were on board and there we stood, like sardines in a tin awaiting our fate. And so we stood…5…10…15…20…25 minutes passed (how long some of the early Sardines must have been standing is but conjecture!). Eventually with no sign of a bus driver or any progress, I make my way out the sardine tin and walk back to the gate to inquire what is going on. “Waiting for closure” I’m told – this has to be done 10 minutes prior to departure. Pointing out that the 10 minute deadline had passed some 12 minutes ago (I rounded it off to 10 naturally) was met with a mute response – something I would reflect on later as being the most intelligent response I would receive from the SAA staff all night. Why didn’t they send the over full bus to the plane and then provide another one (either one of the two standing idle on either side would have done nicely) for the stragglers? Of course this would mean two trips – each trip being about 1 minute and so I guess customer comfort was being sacrificed for the sake of saving a trip. This logic of making to two trips was ignored for reasons I was still to discover.

Eventually, to the cheers of the waiting Sardines, a driver arrived and off we went flooded with new found optimism. Arriving at the SAA Express (there’s an oxymoron of note!) plane, the dark and lifeless cockpit should have sent alarm bells ringing. However, this obvious observation was over-looked by another 5 minute delay standing in the over-crowded bus whilst SAA staff chatted outside. The Sardines were by now close to revolt. Eventually the door was opened and a staff person got in and announced that the pilot and crew were not in the plane. If he was either surprised or concerned by this discovery he did a good job at masking it. I think I heard someone behind me offer to fly the plane himself and we all knew we could certainly get by without flight stewards. His heroic offer wasn’t accepted and we were then informed that we would be returning to the terminal to await the crew. “They could be here any minute” said the Sardine Controller in order to quell the impending Sardine riot that was now threatening to get really ugly…not to mention smelly. A fellow Sardine next to me then found out that the incoming flight that had our crew was a delayed flight from George  that wasn’t due to land until two hours later! This was more information then had been given us by the SAA staff…and more honest! It later transpired that they knew all this but for obvious reasons had omitted to inform us! One can also only deduce that this was information they had at the gate but I guess they had decided that either we needed a joy ride to cheer us up or hoped that by some miracle a crew would emerge from somewhere. Exactly which one it was I’m still not sure.

So, it was back to the lounge…the one small oasis in this sorry mess. At the newly appointed time the Sardines made our way back to the gate. The SAA staffer then asked us whether or not we wanted to board the bus immediately or all wait at the gate until all the passengers were present. Clearly he had taken my earlier rant to heart and perhaps thought a participative management approach would go down well. The thing was that several passengers were missing as Wimpy vouchers had apparently been given out as some sort of misguided appeasement earlier on. “Someone has gone to call them” was the Staffer’s cheerful news – this in spite of a boarding call having been made. It was at this point that a fellow Sardine shed some scales. “Make a final boarding call…now!” he said in a manner that didn’t leave much room for misinterpretation or negotiation. A call was duly made except it went out as a “first” boarding call, this in spite of it now being 5 minutes before the new departure time. My Sardine mate was none too pleased and the Staffer, sensing something close to a Sardine run, showed some good sense and immediately opened the gate. So, back onto the bus we poured.

The final point of aggravation was the complete denial of any sort of responsibility from the pilot. It might well not have been SAA’s fault but  placing the blame on some nameless and faceless source just doesn’t seem right somehow. From the customers point of view I have an ‘agreement’ with SAA to get me to my destination on time. If one of SAA’s strategic partners lets them down that is something they need to acknowledge and something for which  they need to accept responsibility. Passing the buck just doesn’t cut it and seems like cowardice.

So much of the irritation could have been avoided through better communication. Why did we go to a crewless plane? Why didn’t they level with us as to what was the situation? Why didn’t they give us the necessary information? Why did it take going online to find out what was really going on? Why didn’t they speed things up the second time round?

So, an anticipated Friday night at home, having been away all week, turned out to being one in transit…once again! I eventually got home at 12:20am. Having already sworn off Kulula  I am fast running out of options! What will it take the Airline industry to really understand its customers? Naturally one accepts there will always be things beyond the Airline’s control, but I simply want to be treated like an adult and to be kept informed of what is really going on. Is this too much to ask or expect? Ultimately, it is a failure in leadership that cascades all the way to floor level.

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