Opinionista Simon Apfel 30 May 2013

The cheap seats

South Africa finally has another low-cost airline… but in a ruthless market fraught with economic terrors, spare a thought for the passengers compelled to throw their lives into the hands of those about whom they know precious little.

On 31 May, 2013, easyJet joined the ranks of South Africa’s low-cost air-carriers. Admittedly, those ranks have become rather meagre, yet there is nevertheless a widespread belief that the newly formed Pan-African airline, a subsidiary of London-based FastJet Plc, may be better equipped to survive than its predecessors.

Easyjet arrive on a corpse-strewn battlefield, almost six months to the day since 1Time last departed it, their luxurious leather upholstery obscuring a rather less-than-plush bottom line. Before them, Velvet Sky endured a short, turbulent lifespan which ended in ignominy, while Nationwide, after an initially promising trajectory, came down to earth with a bump. In the absence of any real competition, the remaining low-cost carriers, British Airways-backed Kulula and SAA-subsidiary Mango, have proved anything but.

It is against this background that easyJet arrive on the scene – backed to the hilt, spoiling for a fight, but well aware that this is an industry not for the faint-hearted.

Of course, it isn’t just the low-cost airlines that have to be stout of heart, but the passengers using these airlines – as demonstrated by the following story, the details of which, while seared into my brain, remain as scarcely believable and utterly surreal as when I was actually subjected to them.

The year was 2008. Obama had been sworn in as America’s first black president, the Taliban were resurfacing in Afghanistan, and in a completely unrelated occurrence, I was on board a flight to London, where I would be spending the holiday season with my mother.

I was on a student exchange programme in the US. There had been whispers going around the British contingent at the university residence where I was staying concerning a mysterious website offering filthy cheap airline tickets from Washington to London, with one insufferable Pom claiming he’d paid just ten quid for return fare. Without thinking twice, I went online and booked my flight on a new budget airline, called “Budget Airline”.

Here, let me just add an aside: what follows will most certainly test the boundaries of incredulity. Indeed, during the episode I am about to recount, there were times when I myself could scarcely believe what was taking place in front of my eyes. I’m the first to admit that I like to sprinkle a little chrein in my writing here and there for dramatic effect. Yet this is one time where there is no need for embellishment. I let the facts speak for themselves.

I arrived at Dulles International Airport filled with a spirit of adventure – or at least as much adventurous spirit as one can possibly muster upon heading off to a land of grey skies to spend the festive season with one’s mother. Slowly, however, that spirit ebbed away while I waited interminably to board the plane. Some kind of problem with the computer system. My frustration mounted. I rammed my trolley into the ankles of an old man in front of me and immediately felt better.

Gradually, the queue of people that had formed at the boarding gate returned to their chairs, and as the wait continued, some went shopping at duty free. Later on, a few even popped back home to check whether they’d left the oven on.

Eventually, the discovery was made that the problem wasn’t the computer at all, but rather the 85-year-old employee behind it, and so one of the passengers was recruited to operate the system. An interesting first taste of Budget Airline. Much more to come.

I boarded the plane, feeling a little calmer as I looked out at the runway from my cozy little window seat, legs tucked up underneath me. My spirits lifted still further when I glanced at the in-flight entertainment mag. I’d never seen such a line-up: The Simpsons, Seinfeld, a wide selection of the latest movies, art films, the Discovery Channel, BBC nature shows – there weren’t enough screens to watch all of this quality. I looked around and noticed that in actual fact, there weren’t any screens. There wasn’t even a projector.

To compound my disappointment, a morose, mustachioed, liquored-up Russian with red eyes and seven chins took up the seat next to me. Next to him a foul-smelling Rastafarian with horrifyingly loose-fitting garments, alien-like features, and whole colonies of insects living in his sideburns. This is what I had to get past just to make it to the bathroom.

Worse was to follow.

As the engines began to warm up, a troop of animals stormed the aircraft – a local DC football team. These guys must have been about 17 years old, all with greasy, peroxided hair. They were rowdy, raucous and randy. They stomped their way up the aisle, one throwing obscene gestures and comments at every female in sight and then turning to his cackling cronies. Another had dried shwarma meat all over his face. A third was spitting great globules of mucous all over the place as if it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. They were all chattering like chimps and they were all passing wind furiously, and I moaned in despair when they took up their seats almost directly behind me. Their farts combined with the stale cabin air, the petrol coming through the vodka-saturated Russian’s nostril hairs and the rich smell of the Rasta’s underarms, to envelop me in a thick blanket of fumes that sent my head spinning.

The time came for the safety procedure presentation, which in the absence of screens had to be done the old-fashioned way: unfortunate flight attendants swallowing all vestiges of self-respect, plastering imbecilic grins on their faces, and waving their arms around in utterly incomprehensible fashion.

It was then that I noticed the world’s least attractive air hostess. First let me say this: none of them were oil paintings (although their faces were drenched in oily paint), and they looked more like a herd of buffalo than anything else, but one of them was strikingly unstriking – barely female, short fat arms, thighs like tanks, ass-cheeks that had to contract and be clutched in whenever she wrangled her way down the aisle. Her granite-like features and her lack of a neck made her look like a rugby loose forward. In fact, if she wore a scrumcap it would have been impossible to distinguish her from former All Black Eighth-Man, Josh Kronfeld. It was this unfortunate soul that was tasked with doing the safety presentation for our section of the plane.

The wolf-whistles and snide comments from the football team started immediately and soon reached a pitch that even a Kronfeld in his prime would have been unable to withstand. With a ferocious scowl, she stopped in the middle of her presentation, her arms froze in mid-air for a second…and then she just sat down. We were all left screwing up our eyes trying to make out what the other air hostess right at the front of the plane was doing with her arms. Were there to be an emergency landing, there would be a whole lot of very confused passengers.

And now I reach the climax of this part of my story.

Earlier on when I boarded the plane, I was immediately struck by a wave of heat and stuffiness. Everybody now sat there, waiting impatiently for take-off so that the air conditioners could come into effect. Everybody, that is, except the Russian, who by this time had passed out with his head on my shoulder: dribble spilling out of his half-open mouth, vodka fumes from his nostrils, and farts from his anus making him a kind of ambassador for the general smell of the plane.

Take-off finally came, but to everyone’s dismay, the air conditioners remained off. Arms began to pop up all over the place, fingers fumbling frantically in futile attempts to coax the air from the nozzles.

It seemed that if this carried on any longer, the perspiration from the 300-plus passengers would start collecting in pools and form raging torrents of sweat down the aisles. But then something crazy happened: the air conditioning vents whirred to life…and started emitting hot air! Once again, arms were popping up all over the place in a fumbling frenzy, only this time they were trying to shut off the airflow; and once again, these endeavours were in vain. Things had reached breaking point, but after ten minutes of near-hallucinatory heat and stuffiness, the air conditioning was sorted out to a chorus of relief.

Relief quickly turned to surprise, surprise to shock as (no – I had to be imagining this) the entire
cabin crew suddenly descended upon us armed with cans of Axe deodorant– spraying them at our armpits, our clothes, our faces. And the crew just kept on coming. It seemed like air hostesses I never even knew existed were coming out of the woodwork, and at one stage somebody who looked like the pilot grabbed a can and joined in the action. And while the passengers choked and sputtered – too incensed to even say anything, the absurdity of the whole situation dawned upon me, and I began to laugh very, very hard as I thought: “This will make a great story.”

I think I’ve painted a fairly complete picture of the three-ringed circus that mistakenly called itself an airline. It was almost as if Basil Fawlty himself had ventured into the aviation industry, such was the complete incompetence on show. The truth is though that there were many more instances highlighting the wondrous ineptitude of Budget Airlines.

Firstly, the command, “Kindly make sure all seats are restored to their upright position during take-off and landing” was utterly superfluous. The button to tilt the seat back didn’t work. On any of the seats. Throughout the flight, people writhed and squirmed in their chairs like octopi on heat.

Secondly, when we finally got going after a 90-minute delay, the aircraft circled and re-circled the runway dozens of times. And just when the engines began to warm up, they would die down again, and the plane would continue circling the runway. This continued for over an hour and did little to increase our confidence. At this point nothing would have surprised me, including finding out that the senile gentleman at the boarding gate was also the one flying the plane. We felt doomed and helpless, but all I could think of was how, if the plane did go down, the world would never find out whether I really was the messiah.

Thirdly, after the air-conditioner debacle, Kronfeld came round with some much-needed refreshment. I couldn’t care less that it was tap water. But what I did care about was that after I’d drained my first cup, she refused my request for a refill, and with saliva spewing forth, she grunted, “Only one water per person!” In a similar vein, when I asked one of the male stewards whether I could borrow his pen, he said simply, “No.”

By the time we landed, nerves jangling amidst the terrifying touch-down of a seven-hour flight that had taken nearly ten, the thought dawned on me that the person who paid ten pounds for his ticket had just about got value for money.

I arrived at my mother’s place in London, head throbbing from lack of sleep, and changed my return ticket to American Airlines.

The enormous price difference was not a factor. DM


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