It’s better to hurry up and wait
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Johannesburg - One of my recurring nightmares is of arriving at the airport, bag properly packed, ticket in hand… and no passport. There is no time to go back and get it. So I know the flight will leave without me.
As someone who is near-obsessive about being on time, I have never missed a flight in my 30-odd years of travelling as a journalist. I have, however, delayed two… and neither was my fault.
On the first occasion, I arrived with two hours (or so I thought) to spare before the departure of my Zambia Airways flight to Lusaka from Harare.
I checked in, got my boarding pass and went to have a cup of coffee. On the second sip, I heard my name being called as the “passenger delaying the flight to Lusaka…”
I was mortified and embarrassed by the scowls of fellow passengers when I rushed up the steps and into the cabin. Then I checked my ticket. The flight time was an hour later; Zambia Airways had arbitrarily decided to leave early – and no one among their staff had bothered to tell me.
Another embarrassing moment was on Air Zimbabwe, when the passengers waiting to leave from Lusaka to Harare gave me an ironic slow handclap as I stumbled aboard, 20 minutes after their scheduled departure time. I had been interviewing Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda who, as was his wont, was in full flow. When I started glancing anxiously at my watch, KK said: “Don’t worry Brendan, you will make your flight.” I was taken in an official car to the airport, with a motorcycle escort clearing the way and given the accelerated VIP treatment through immigration before being taken to the door of the plane. Zambia’s No 1’s people had told the Lusaka control tower that the plane wasn’t to leave without me.
Even after all these years, I am still anxious about being late. After a visit to VW’s Uitenhage plant this week, I was worried I wouldn’t get to the airport in Port Elizabeth in time. I like to be there at least 1½ hours before for local flights, so when I was dropped a mere 40 minutes before take off I was panicky.
Yet, as my hosts said, PE is not Cape Town or OR Tambo in Joburg and the queues were minimal. I still had 90 minutes to go through e-mails before boarding started.
I realise that airports can be traumatic places, even for experienced travellers – but for the inexperienced some trips can go badly wrong.
As happened recently to one of our readers who arrived at the airport for a flight to Europe via the Middle East, not knowing or realising that his flight had been brought forward 45 minutes because all flights in that area were making detours due to threats by Islamic State rebels to shoot down civilian planes.
He says no one from the travel agency notified him about the change so he continued to believe his original itinerary. Even when he got his boarding pass, he says no one drew the time change to his attention. Nor, he says, did he hear his name being called, warning that he was about to be offloaded. In the end, he missed the flight and had to pay a lot extra for new tickets.
That sad story reminds me of the three things you need to do with any travel bookings: Check, check and check again.
Flights can be changed – often at short notice – for a variety of reasons. Check with the travel agent or online the day before you leave to make sure. If you can check-in online, do so. In practice, it won’t save much time, but it will help calm you down. Get all your documents sorted the night before and check them again before you leave for the airport.
If possible, have a second set of eyes to check. Or better yet, draw up a checklist and only cross off an item once you physically see it or have it in your hand.
Then, if you are flying overseas, get to the airport at least three hours early. You will probably end up twiddling your thumbs for an hour or so but you will get on the plane.
It can take as much as an hour to check in on some busy routes (online check-in and bag drop sometimes makes things faster, but sometimes doesn’t). It can take another 30 to 40 minutes to clear security and immigration.
Always check your boarding pass. There is a natural human tendency to relax once you have made it to the check-in counter – well, there’s no way I’ll miss the flight now.
Check the boarding time and the boarding gate. Then find out where the gate is and how long it will take you to get there. Most airports will have indications for this.
Always check the departure information boards. It sounds obsessive but it is immensely liberating to know when things are running smoothly. So, try a bit of “hurry up and wait”.
l Do you have any horror stories about missing flights? I’d love to hear them. E-mail [email protected]