MODERN: Cape Town International Airport compares well with Geneva and Zurich.
MODERN: Cape Town International Airport compares well with Geneva and Zurich.
Picture: Mujahid Safodien
Picture: Mujahid Safodien

Johannesburg - With a light dusting of snow on the peaks of the Helderberg mountains and, further back, the Matroosberg, the picture postcard scene through the large viewing windows at Cape Town International Airport was reminiscent of Switzerland.

And, I must say, the overall experience at the airport compared favourably with the airports in Zurich and Geneva, which are considered some of the best in the world.

Perhaps I was in Cape Town on a good day, but I couldn’t help remembering that time in the 1990s, before it was totally rebuilt, when the Mother City’s airport was a disaster area. The city once bid – unsuccessfully, thank goodness – for the Olympic Games. At the time, I wondered how on earth that old creaky airport would cope with all the extra numbers. That train of thought followed a Sunday afternoon arrival in Cape Town and a further hour to get my luggage and get out of the terminal. A Sunday!

OR Tambo is another place which is a shiny, clean reminder of how far our airports, and we as a nation, have come. Remember the old Jan Smuts? All policemen in grey uniforms and brown belts, grey granite and stone slabs for walls, a sense of claustrophia once inside the building and the warren-like tunnels beneath it.

Durban’s King Shaka International also stands up well in comparison with international medium-sized airports: It is bright, airy, clean and things seem to work well.

I have certainly seen worse in my years as a travelling journalist and as a travel writer.

The hard benches at Lusaka airport, my home for almost a day while I awaited deportation. Nothing in the shops. The decor hand-me-down British colonial service, the wood paneling very much the worse for wear.

Dar es Salaam: unpainted, hot, smelly and suspicious. Ground staff sat unmoving while a queue of passengers built up. Nothing happening until the clock hands hit a certain magic mark.

Eros airport in Windhoek, Namibia. Small town, sometimes small minds among the officials, even though it was used only by private and charter planes and the military. Small runway, too. Coming in at night, acutely aware of the Auas mountains on one side and the Khomas Hochland on the other, it was always a relief to exit that terminal building.

For interesting-chaotic, you should try the airport in Napoli (Naples in Italy). The Italians march to the beat of a very different (and slow) drummer. The day I flew from there, the plane was late, the check-in was slow and once we had boarded the Air France plane for Paris, it was discovered that two passengers had been given the same seat, each with the correct boarding pass. How is this possible in a First World, computer-driven country?

Good question. Never even seen that in Africa.

When two people and their luggage were finally offloaded, we pulled away from the ramp almost two hours late.

Then we came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the apron. The French pilot, clearly peeved, came on to explain what had happened – again, something extraordinary in the modern age. Apparently, Gennaro “is - a - put - a too mucha benzina inna plane”, so it was too heavy to take off in the hot, summer afternoon.

We had to park at the end of the runway for 20 minutes burning off fuel, because, so we were told, you can’t siphon off jet fuel like you would with petrol in a car.

Most amusing was the reaction of the Air France manager who met me at Charles de Gaulle to show me around. “You’re late,” shrug of the shoulders. Had that been someone from Lufthansa or Swiss, I am sure he would have offered me his first-born child in compensation.

Mind you, as I was leaving ORT, I looked at travellers heading every which way, dragging their suitaces with them and I came back to Earth with a thunk.

Most of them had their cases wrapped in plastic, a grim reminder that the thing our airport staff seem to do best is steal from their customers. Despite the improvement in theft of baggage and items within baggage, it is still a blot on the reputation of our country.

Another thing which crossed my mind as I made my way to the parkade was that ORT has also been the starting point for a number of brutal robberies and hijackings by gangs who follow people as they arrive. Anyone say: inside job?

And, we don’t even have snow-capped mountains as compensation. - Saturday Star

l What’s your best and worst airport? Let me know. – [email protected]