THE CHEAP FLIGHT THAT COST PLENTY by Lucinda E Clarke
I can’t remember the reason I was travelling from Johannesburg to London, but I was looking forward to it. I was used to flying, I love flying, so what could possibly go wrong?
To start with I was going on a standby ticket courtesy of a family member who worked for one of the airlines. No problem, we’d flown standby from South Africa to the USA and on to Canada and back, it was a breeze.
The first evening I queued up, exchanged my ticket for a boarding pass at the check in desk before being waved through. I bounced down the ramp only to be brought up short at the desk by the open door of the plane. Then I was bumped. Yes, still clutching my boarding pass I was refused entry and sent away. They didn’t seem to care that my suitcase was already nestling in the hold.
For three hours I prowled round Jan Smuts airport suitcase hunting. It was nowhere to be found.
“Come back for it in the morning” they smiled as they ejected me from the building.
Already 600 kilometres from home, I phoned a friend and spent the night in Johannesburg before being dropped back at the airport. Now, I had a whole day to spend there – due to the heat and the altitude long haul flights take off in the evening.
Plenty of time to find my suitcase I reasoned and combed every nook and cranny before deciding it was probably sitting waiting for me at Heathrow.
Evening finally came and I queued up again – until it occurred to me I was now clutching a boarding pass from last night’s flight. I didn’t have a ticket. I grabbed a passing person in uniform and together we raced from one office to another to retrieve the bedraggled piece of paper which was by now full of holes and staple marks and covered in dirty thumbprints.
Back to the check in I galloped only to find a long queue of other stand-by hopefuls. Eavesdropping and asking a few choice and carefully-considered questions, I discovered several pilots with horrendously large families patiently waiting to grab the first empty seats. Since I was the relative of a lowly flight attendant, I could not compete with this, so time to implement plan B, change airlines – most of them are linked in sort of share schemes. Clutching my tatty ticket and thrusting last night’s boarding ticket into my pocket I made for the South African Airways desk, hoping that some of their local passengers, not known for their excellent time keeping, might miss the flight and leave an empty seat for me.
I should mention at this point that all I had now was a very small carry-on bag and a bottle of water.
The lady behind the desk looked at me with ill concealed distain, ripped my ticket apart and handed me another boarding card before confiscating the water and then insisting the cabin bag must go in the hold. While presumably my suitcase could travel without me, I could go nowhere without one in the hold.
Again I arrived at the boarding gate and gazed lovingly into the bowels of the plane. The man at the door studied my boarding pass and frowned.
“There’s someone in that seat,” he said, then seeing my face, he continued “well hop on anyway.”
Sure enough, one look at the paper and the flight attendant shook her head and pointed. There was a man sitting in MY seat!
“Hang about in the galley for a while and I’ll see what I can do,” she smiled before greeting more passengers. As they flooded through the door I wanted to attack all of them. Each new arrival lessened my chances of getting to London.
Eventually, the stewardess returned and told me sadly there was only one seat left – would I mind very much going first class? What a stupid question!
She ushered me through the curtain and the passenger near the aisle rose to his feet, held out his hand and introduced himself. Goodness, was this how they behaved in first class? I gazed into the distance to peer at the seat in front of me and had to be helped to find my tray and TV set. I slept like a baby.
The return flight was almost as eventful. I got on, by pretending I was the pilot’s aunt (don’t ask, it was all arranged by my relative and a friend). I just hoped I didn’t meet the pilot any time before landing.
Once again I was ushered into first class, rather the flight attendant walked and I floated, as I watched them store my case into the over head locker. I was there for less than ten minutes and just exploring all the knobs, buttons and goodies they scatter around in first class when I was unceremoniously ousted from my seat by the cabin manager.
“She can’t sit here in first class,” she hissed. “She’s only on a standby and I have a frequent flyer for this seat. (I learned later it was vacant because the intended occupant had lit up a Marlborough on the air bridge, but to be fair to him he was very drunk at the time).
They frogmarched me upstairs to a jump seat behind the flight deck, no window, no telly, no table, no light, twelve hours in a black box. No sooner had I strapped myself in, when they found me an economy seat on the top deck.
“What the hell is going on?” the passenger next to me sneered. “Why do they keep moving you around? And how much did you pay for your ticket?”
Average ticket price in those days $1,000, I’d paid $25 return. I acted dumb.
And the suitcase? Well that was delivered to the door three days into my holiday, minus the outer cling wrap and most of the contents.