Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Big Jet to Johannesburg

View of the forward Business cabin 'upstairs' in the Emirates A380 which took me to Johannesburg (it didn't really look that purple to the human eye, but I haven't attempted to 're-balance' the shot).

Monday, 13th February 2012

I made my way to the departure gate at the recommended time. They hadn't started boarding but I was a little horrified to see how many people were waiting to board.  Because of the crush, I had to wait until nearly everyone had shuffled towards the aircraft before I could present myself at the final boarding pass check. I was a little tired by this time so when I was directed to a lift, rather than the line of people moving towards the aircraft, it took a moment for the significance to sink in. Finally, I realised - the aircraft was a huge Airbus A380-800 and the business class boarding was directly to the upper deck via a high-level airbridge. It was my first flight on a A380 and I discovered that the business class was divided into two cabins and I was in the larger, forward cabin in seat 11K. I'm afraid it didn't particularly appeal at first sight. I believe the Emirates configuration gives 400 Economy seats downstairs and 100 Business seats in the two upstairs cabins. There's presumably a few First as well, but I didn't see that.

In Business, the seating is sort of 1-2-1. I say 'sort of' because each line of seats is staggered so as to make better use of the floor area. This is particularly noticeable on the 'window' seats - for instance, seat 11K is next to the window with a kind of 'bedside cabinet' on the aisle side whereas on the next row the seat is next to the aisle with the 'bedside cabinet' next to the window. To give privacy, a 'cubicle' surrounds each seat and, to me, it suggested those terrible open-plan offices full of workers in individual cubicles lampooned mercilessly in the Dilbert cartoons. The cubicle walls were all shiny material topped with stainless steel handrails - practical but not very relaxing. The rather claustrophobic atmosphere was heightened by cabin headroom which seemed less generous than the 777 of my previous flight (after all, we were on the upper deck on the A380), smaller overhead lockers, narrower aisles and apparently narrower openings to get from the aisle to the seat. On the plus side, every business passenger had an aisle seat.

With four big turbofans urging us skywards, taking off seemed to present no problems. Drinks and light refreshments were available but the crew seemed keen to get people to sleep for most of the seven hour flight. With a proper lie-flat bed, I was able to sleep for part of the flight but I also watched a couple of films. One was a Sci-Fi yarn called 'In Time'. Can't remember what the other was (must have been good). I gave up on 'Tin Tin' for the second time.

About an hour out of Johannesburg, they gave us a reasonable breakfast. The 'Airshow' giving details of the flight included a 3-dimensional simulation showing our track over the curving globe (as did the 777). What kept irritating me was that the detailed picture of our aircraft (in correct Emirates livery) was about 200 miles in length! As we got near to the runway, I was furiously switching my display between the 'Front View' camera, the 'Looking Down' camera and the 'Tail' camera. At 10:47 local time, we touched down on runway '03 Right'. Even with noisy reverse thrust, we used nearly all of the runway (I could read the runway designation '21 Left' upside-down near the end of the runway) before turning left onto what appeared to be a dedicated taxiway for A380s. After some delays, at 11:08 we pulled up at one of the special stands for A380 next to 'Air France' and 'Lufthansa' A380s. Connecting the upper-deck air bridge seemed to cause some delay so, by the time we started to disembark, passengers were streaming off the lower deck as well.

There's a useful Wikipedia article on the A380. The Emirates aircraft are equipped with the Engine Alliance GP7000 turbofans (Engine Alliance is what happened to GE and Pratt & Whitney).

There was the usual lengthy walk to Immigration, made a little easier by a number of moving pavements but my heart sank as I entered the already-full Immigration Hall. There were at least a couple of A380s-worth of passengers moving very slowly towards Passport Officers who were hidden from view by the arrivals in front of me. There's usually one or two staff deciding to shift people from queue to queue so, although hundreds of people arrived after me, somehow I became the last person to pass through at 11:55. I managed to stay civil but, as you may imagine, I was not best pleased. At least my two pieces of checked baggage were waiting for me on the carousel. They were the only pieces on the carousel - everything else had been collected!

Customs was uneventful so I then had to decode the rather ambiguous instruction in my itinerary - "Complimentary shuttle from the airport. Meet the shuttle at the bus terminal behind the Intercontinental Hotel. The office of 'Lux Express' will assist." To my surprise, I found the 'Lux' office but I'd the best part of half an hour to wait for the next shuttle bus which run to a timetable, not on demand. As our A380 stopped at the gate, I'd spotted the Protea Hotel, not 300 yards away from the gate as the crow flies. But when the shuttle picked me up (and one member of the hotel staff), it took him best part of a quarter of an hour, zig-zagging around the complex road system, to reach the hotel.

By this time, I was unsurprised to discover that the room would not be available until two o'clock (and it would be a Smoking room at that. Yes, South Africa still allows smoking in some places). The car booked for 13:00 to take me to my business meeting was already waiting so, rather than the quick shower and a change of clothes I'd been looking forward to, I had to settle for a quick wash in the Ladies Washroom.

Johannesburg sprawls over a large area in a rather unattractive way, the various elements linked by a complex road system which always seems busy and often at a standstill. A programme of road improvement works adds to the fun. On our way to my meeting, we seemed to be forever leaving one freeway and joining another, either by elaborate slip roads or sometimes strange 'back doubles' on residential streets. It took best part of an hour to get from my hotel to my destination in Aeroton. After a pleasant couple of hours talking to Paul, my car took me back to the hotel. We were travelling before the afternoon rush hour and made better time going back, completing the journey in around 40 minutes.

The Protea Hotel adjacent to O. R. Tambo Airport, Johannesburg

This time, I was able to check-in, go up to room 319 and finally have my shower. The Protea is a modern hotel with an aeronautical theme. The facilities in the room were quite reasonable.  The room was at the 'back' of the hotel, looking across to the airport with only a grassed area by the hotel pool and a dual carriageway between me and the apron! My pictures of the Protea O. R. Tambo are here.

My computer readily found the hotel's Wi-Fi and connected but I couldn't reach any web page. When I queried this with reception they said "Oh, the internet connection is down at present - it won't be back today!" so I was reduced to off-line text preparation.

I decided to take dinner in the hotel. The old aircraft photographs I found interesting and I was intrigued by the use of pilot's clipboards and aeronautical charts all over the place. The restaurant floor was a full-colour oversize reproduction of an area chart for Johannesburg - quite impressive. There was an aircraft simulator next to reception (switched off on Tuesday). But I was less convinced by the way the general architecture was themed 'industrial', with lots of floor plate used inappropriately (as wall cladding - some sheets fitted the wrong-way round!). The restaurant was called 'The Warehouse' so exposed steel beams abounded with 'fake' bolts and, as befits a warehouse if not a restaurant, wooden packing cases. However, the fish dish I ordered was good although I found the place rather noisy. I never understood the engine block in reception suspended from three (?) chain hoists or the oversize G-clamps attempting to stop the top of the reception desk from floating away. On its own admission, the hotel is seeking to be a 'Hot' destination in Johannesburg so I suppose it was doomed to not quite please me. 

After the meal, I returned to my well-appointed bedroom. The room had a smallish opening window and I was surprised to find it only single glazed. In fairness, I was some distance from the main runways and there was no disturbance from the arriving and departing aircraft. A couple of times, I could hear large turbo-fans starting up but it wasn't a problem. There was a continuous rumble from the road traffic, occasionally increasing as a particularly noisy lorry passed but, with the curtains drawn, it didn't spoil my sleep.

More when I'm able.