June 10, 2014

Into Africa: Airbus Style

This is the story of two flights, two airlines and two aircraft – both Airbuses (or is it Airbii? What is the plural of Airbus anyway?) Two flights that brought my family and I from Miami to Johannesburg via Frankfurt. One an Airbus A380 operated by Lufthansa, registration D-AIMK named “Dusseldorf” and one an Airbus A340-600 operated by South African Airways registration ZS-SNC with the Star Alliance special scheme.

Having booked this trip many months ago, the time finally came for us to make our long trip from home for our vacation. Move time to 23 hours before the flight – that’s right – 23 hours, not 24 hours like most airlines for online check-in. Despite that quirk, it is a simple process to check in with Lufthansa, verify the passport details and then print out the boarding passes. The day of the flight is always fraught with last minute panics – “Oh gosh – where did I put the passports?” or “I thought you packed the toothpaste”. But this day we had it fairly easy. We were very lucky in that we were dropped at the front door of terminal J and didn’t have to wade through the masses on public transport or fighting for a parking spot at the local low cost parking area. Dropping the bags at the counter is just as easy – show passports, show boarding passes and the bags are whisked away – probably to go through inspection somewhere in the depths of Miami International Airport. Then comes TSA and security. On Thursdays, and when you are on the first international departure of the day, it is a fairly easy process and we even had entertainment in the form of a TSA agent trying to get a local person to stop videoing the security check point. Even if it was because Grandma was going through, it’s still not allowed.

The first leg of the journey was flown on Lufthansa's A380 Dusseldorf (XFW Spotter)

The first leg of the journey was flown on Lufthansa’s A380 Dusseldorf (XFW Spotter)

Finally, trudge down the length of the South wing of Terminal J to where the double decker mammoth is parked hooked to its 3 air bridges. We are here – in plenty of time – so there is time to sit and relax for a few minutes until they start boarding. Then we looked at the departure board and there are the dreaded words: Now Departing 8:00 pm. Arghhh a delay of 3+ hours. This is where the efficiency of the German carrier kicks into gear. From the moment we got to the gate, announcements were made as to the status of the flight and there were always management staff around to answer any questions from the many passengers roaming in the gate area. You kind of feel a lot safer when the announcement says “the inbound aircraft was hit by lightning on approach and we are running full system checks to ensure the aircraft is safe to fly”. Immediately presented as well, meal vouchers to take to any restaurant in the airport for a snack to tide you over until we start boarding. So, head off to get said snack, feeding the starving 10 year old (why are they always starving at the airport?) and then congregate back at the departure gate to wait for the departure. Of course, being Miami, there are masses of interesting aircraft to see too – Lan OneWorld colors, TAM Boeing 777-300ERs, Avianca different colors including Star Alliance jets, Copa Airlines with scimitar winglets – all incredible things to shoot – when you are not stuck behind tinted and dirty glass and there is no hope of a decent shot.

Then comes the great announcement “the plane looks good, we are moving up the departure time by half an hour”. Bright smiles start to shine all over the gate area. Finally the announcement is made that the boarding process will start. The boarding process for the A380 is fairly simple; first class and business on the one side and coach on the other side, grouped by a series of row sequences. Once first and business class are loaded through the jet bridge that is attached to the top row of the aircraft, then coach starts to load, from the back of the aircraft first through the jet bridge attached to the lower deck of the aircraft. The first impression when walking into the aircraft is that of neatness. The slim line Recaro seats that are fitted in coach class are extremely comfortable for being so slim. While I am a tall person at 6’4”, I found the seating comfortable and even with the seat in front of me fully reclined, there was still a lot of space. The overhead compartments are huge as well being able to accommodate a large number of hand baggage items. Once the doors were closed and push back was done, the engines were started and we headed to runway 9 at MIA. One of the very surprising things I found about the A380 was how quiet everything is inside. The engines are surprising quiet, even in full power on the takeoff roll. At full power, you can still talk to the person next to you in a lowered voice and hear everything perfectly. With the 4 main bogeys of the landing gear settling into their bays with a resounding thump, we set course for Frankfurt heading straight out over the Atlantic.

The In-flight entertainment is delivered through 5¼” high definition screens that have amazing resolution. Watching a movie on the flight, of which a lot of the latest and greatest are available, was amazing with the HD effect of the IFE screens. My one criticism of this system is that its response time is very slow. It took a good 3 minutes to be able to get to the list of the available movies. Once the move was playing though, there were no issues with it. I put it down to 500-plus passengers on one aircraft all going “Awesome lets watch a movie” at the same time, but there is no indication to the passengers that it is loading anything or doing anything when a button is pressed. Soon after take off, the efficient crew served drinks, including alcoholic beverages, juices, soft drinks, etc. Prior to the commencement of the dinner service, the crew came around with the special meals, one of which was a children’s meal for my son. His main course was grilled chicken, mash potato and corn.

Lufthansa's main course of chicken, rice and vegetables. (Mark Lawrence)

Lufthansa’s main course of chicken, rice and vegetables. (Mark Lawrence)

Lufthansa's children's meal consisting of grilled chicken with corn and mashed potatoes (Mark Lawrence).

Lufthansa’s children’s meal consisting of grilled chicken with corn and mashed potatoes (Mark Lawrence).

Another surprise when you look at the tray was real metal cutlery, something I have not seen on an airline, even international trips for ages! The regular meal service gave the choice of chicken, rice and vegetables or vegetarian pasta. Catering for 500-plus passengers on an aircraft is a task at the best of times, but in this case, the food was definitely tasty and left the eater feeling full. Following dinner was a round of coffee and tea with liqueurs served as a side offering. With the late hour of the departure, most of the passengers settled in for some sleep or watching the in flight entertainment. During the night, crewmembers came around every hour with fruit juices and water for those still awake and feeling thirsty. Also, if any of the passengers wanted drinks with more frequency, stations were set up in the galleys that were always stocked with fruit juices and water. The morning came all too early in the northern hemisphere and soon enough we were back in the morning sunlight, although through the descent into Frankfurt, that would change to mainly cloudy skies. Breakfast was served 2 hours out of Frankfurt that consisted of an omelet, fruit and most importantly coffee. The in flight entertainment system does contain 3 camera views. One that I watched was mounted on the tail of the A380 and it was certainly interesting to see the flaps being extended, the spoilers raised and the approach to the runway. A flawlessly smooth landing on Runway 7R following by the taxi to the Z gates of Terminal 1 completed the very pleasant and enjoyable flight from Miami. My one pet peeve of this flight was something that they did not have: on a great number of the international airlines, there is a little package containing eye shades, a small toothbrush and toothpaste, etc. – like a care package – but not on this one. All that was left to do was to find something to occupy us during the 11-hour wait for the second leg of the trip that was accomplished by heading into Frankfurt for some sight seeing.

The flight to Johannesburg was operated by South African's A340-600 wearing the special Star Alliance scheme. (Wikimedia Commons)

The flight to Johannesburg was operated by South African’s A340-600 wearing the special Star Alliance scheme. (Wikimedia Commons)

After the visit to the city of Frankfurt, we headed back to the airport and to the B gates of Terminal 1 to await the flight to Johannesburg. Spent some time browsing the shops of the airport, partaking of a snack and spotting some aircraft and in time, it was 8:00 pm and time to start boarding the aircraft that had been towed to the gate. Because the flight from Johannesburg arrives in the morning and the turnaround departure is in the evening, the aircraft is towed to a remote hard stand for the day and brought back just before boarding. Again, the boarding was done with business class first and then coach class following that in groups organized by row numbers starting at the rear of the aircraft. The A340-600 can hold 300-plus passengers so again, it can take a while to get organized but this was achieved with the minimal amount of fuss in the boarding process and by the time 8:30 pm came, everyone was settled in their seat for the 8:45 pm departure. Again, the aircraft was fitted with comfortable Recaro seats, although an older model than were installed on the previous flight. The in flight entertainment system was also a little older model because of the age of this aircraft compared to the previous flight, but it was still good resolution to be able to watch the movie. As with the in flight entertainment on the A380, it did take a while for the system to be responsive, although not as long as the A380. What was nice was that the plane was not completely full, so the 3 of us had 4 seats across the center of the aircraft that gave us a lot more space. After sitting down, the cabin crew came around with the care packs for the night – eye shades, bed socks, etc. – that would be greatly used during the night. Similar to the A380, the A340-600 is a quiet plane inside which later in the evening would serve well for sleeping.

With the camera setting on the in flight entertainment system set to the tail camera, we taxied out to the southern Runway 18 for departure and after a short wait, we were climbing out on the southern track heading for Johannesburg. Soon after the seat belt sign was extinguished, the service began with drinks. When it came to my turn, I had to ask if there was any of my favorite South African brandy on board. As soon as the flight attendant nodded, I was already very happy! After all the drinks were served, the cabin crew began the dinner service starting with the special meals. Once again my son had a special children’s meal that consisted of a breaded chicken breast with vegetables and the most awesome chocolate desert. The main courses were a choice of braised beef in a peppercorn sauce and chicken with pasta. I chose the braised beef and I have to admit that I struck a flying first – I totally emptied my main course plate along with the salad, bread, crackers and cheese. All of us finished our meals it was that good. After the meal and coffee were served and cleared, the lights were dimmed for the night to allow everyone to get some nights rest. For anyone that has flown down the length of Africa, there is always turbulence around the equator. I don’t know if our Captain caught reports from aircraft ahead of us, but by the time we reached that area, the turbulence was cut to a minimum after we climbed to 37,000 feet. The other thing that our Captain must have observed were tail winds as at 5:30am, the lights in the cabin were slowly raised and the crew began serving breakfast, usually done 1½ hours before landing – which would ultimately be at 6:48am, 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

Back to breakfast, the kids meal was scrambled eggs and sausage, which was also one of the main breakfast choices as well the additional adults choice of a continental breakfast. All the meals were as tasty as the dinner and eaten with great gusto as we headed into Johannesburg on our approach, all the excitement of the approaching vacation building the closer we got. A very calm and smooth approach in clear but cold skies brought us to a smooth landing on Runway 21R at OR Tambo International Airport and another very enjoyable flight was completed. Once the taxi to the terminal was complete and my son and I were given a tour of the cockpit, we headed into the terminal for the long lines and I mean VERY long lines of immigration and passport control, but that is way outside of the realms of South African Airways.

Overall, both flight were extremely comfortable, the service of a very high standard and the food of an equally high standard. Of course, my experiences are one thing, but, when it comes to the true experiences of a flight, who better to ask than a 10 year old who has traveled this route 4 times now and has the best answers for everything. So, I asked him a few questions about the trip.

Dad: What did you think of the food that was served on the planes?
Son: It was very good, I liked it. It was some of the best food that I have eaten on our trips.

Dad: Did you like the two planes that we flew on?
Son: Yes I liked them both, they were both very comfortable, I was able to sleep pretty well.

Dad: What did you think of the entertainment systems on the plane?
Son: The games system on the Lufthansa flight didn’t work; we couldn’t get the consoles to play the games. (Author note: this was something I forgot about until I asked – then it came back to me – the cabin crew said there was an issue with the entertainment system that didn’t allow the games to be played). South African Airways games worked great. The movies on the flights were really good; I got to see some newer movies that I hadn’t seen before like Planes.

Dad: Compared to the other flights we have done to South Africa, how did these compare?
Son: I have to say that they were some of the best. The food and chocolate when we flew Swiss was the best food, but they were great flights.

There has been some really bad press for South African Airways over the past few years regarding service, food, and generally the experience on the aircraft. We were a little apprehensive ourselves getting on that particular flight. I can happily say that those fears were well allayed! It was a great experience as was the Lufthansa experience as well. We will, in 3 or so weeks time, be returning to the US, this time exclusively on Lufthansa with two A380 flights. Of course, now that I have reviewed the coach class of Lufthansa, if any executives of said company would like to allow my family to experience Business Class on any of the return flights, we would be very glad to oblige with a review!

Mark Lawrence, Producer, is a South Florida-based aviation fanatic that has been around the industry since he was a small boy. As well as being an avid photographer, he also runs his own blog that can be found at http://amateuravphoto.blogspot.com.

About the Author

Mark Lawrence
Mark Lawrence is a NYCAviation staff member and a south Florida-based aviation fanatic. He has been around the industry since he was a small boy. Mark can be reached at [email protected]



Lurking Behind the Germanwings Cockpit Door

In light of the tragic news earlier today, Columnist Erika Armstrong explores the culture of those who fly professionally and the ultimate betrayal among their ranks.
by Erika Armstrong


Why Take Your Cat? Qatar Airways Lets You Fly With Your Falcon

Traveling with your falcon is possible. Qatar Airways has allowed them onboard for several years, knowing the importance of these animals to their owners.
by Paul Thompson



Today in Aviation History: January 6

Happy birthday to Lufthansa! United Grounds Ted, the US Marines take delivery of their first AV-8 Harrier and more...
by NYCAviation Staff


Today in Aviation History: November 20th

America's first municipal airport opens in Tucson, an aircraft reaches Mach 2 for the first time, several tragic crashes, and more...
by admin


Awesome Vintage Aviation Photos: New York International Airport

Join us as we celebrate the airports, airlines, and aircraft of yesteryear, through the vintage aviation photos of Bill Armstrong. This week: JFK and its predecessor, New York International Airport.
by John F. Ciesla


  • capnaux

    Great experience, Mark! Glad you got your shot of Klippies and the young man got his special meals. Too bad the game consul didn’t work. Interesting to see the “evolution” between the two planes; strange to think of a 340 as “older” now! The food looks much better than most of the…meals we get served up front…not naming names here…cheers!