I’ve spent a fair bit of time in airports lately. I flew around the world in four days, I jetted to Tokyo for a week, and now I’m just back from France. I forget the number of hours I’ve spent in terminal buildings, boarding gates and security queues, but it must add up to a day or three.
And happily, I can say that our gleaming new airports (courtesy largely of the 2010 World Cup) stack up to the best. New York’s JFK is low ceilinged and dingy when compared to the likes of Cape Town or King Shaka.
Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 2 had me leaving the EU twice, and then re-entering before I could get to my gate for the flight home to Cape Town. I’m not surprised the Tom Hanks movie ‘The Terminal’ was based on a real-life traveller stranded in Paris’ main airport.
So by and large our airports rank up there with some of the best, although passport control is still not as calm and seamless as Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok, and our restaurants could take a leaf out of Heathrow Terminal 5’s book.
Because tourists, like Napoleon’s army, travel on their stomach. Give a man a good meal and he’ll happily (well, sort of) sit through another hour’s delay.
But it’s nigh on impossible to get a decent meal on the airside of any of our airports. And no, a grey Wimpy burger or over-sized under-flavoured Mugg&Bean muffin doesn’t count. At Heathrow, however, you can find modern British cooking courtesy of Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food, top-notch sushi at Itsu, and Asian street-food at Wagamama. Then there are pubs and sandwich bars and the rest.
By contrast, what does ORTIA offer? A sandwich bar or two. The best bet flying out of Joburg is the Africa Lounge, with good views and reasonable food. But it’s hardly going to set the culinary world on fire.
Our airports also have a bad rep in terms of light-fingered luggage-handlers, but let’s give credit where it’s due: based on a subjective survey of one traveller (me), I think ACSA and the airlines have done a good job of cutting down on pilferage, and it’s been an age since my bags were tampered with. Ditto for friends and family who travel a bit. Although I do have to laugh at the strangely South African approach that I and many other travellers seem to have: that happiness when our bag emerges and it hasn’t been tampered with. A nice surprise that we weren’t entirely expecting.
But why this love-fest for our airports? Well, it’s because I wanted to highlight the good before I launch into my latest moan about ACSA. And if you follow me on Twitter (@onanotherplane or @iafricatraveled) you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
The thing I love about Terminal 5, Hong Kong Airport and Singapore Terminal 3 is that they are quiet. All you hear is the swish of feet on carpets, perhaps discreet chatter from fellow travellers, the tinkle of water from indoor fountains.
Now I don’t really need waterfalls and indoor gardens (yes, Singapore has both)… but one thing I also don’t need is Afrikaans power rock blasting out of the rooftop speakers at 7am. Or some no-name DJ jabbering away at me about everything and nothing. And what I definitely don’t need is the flipping Macarena playing out while I’m trying to catch up on my email.
At first I wondered why on earth ACSA was spending the cash from those frightful airport tax hikes on an in-house radio station. We don’t need aural airport entertainment, and even if we did, this surely isn’t it.
And then, on a day-trip to Joburg, it all made sense. The announcer extolling the virtues of airport radio for potential advertisers. A not-quite-willing but most certainly captive audience of people just waiting to lap up your corporate blah-blah. Friends, roamers, countrymen; lend me your ears. So we can flog them to the highest bidder.
So now, instead of smiling at our world-class infrastructure, every time I step into Cape Town or Johannesburg airport I grit my teeth and utter a low growl of annoyance. My headspace turned into advertising space so that ACSA can make more money. As if the 11 percent fee increase for long-term parking wasn’t enough?
Or perhaps I’m being a grumpy old(ish) traveller. Maybe I should tap my feet and break into a sing-along when I next hear thumping beats from Airport Radio. Perhaps what businessmen on the red-eyes really need, instead of a quiet space and a good coffee, is a conga line through the concourse?
Perhaps, but it’s not for me, and how I wish ACSA would stick to landing planes and processing passengers instead of spinning discs. To steal a line from Frasier Crane’s famous show intro: “This is Richard Holmes, and I’m not listening.”
What do you think? Grumpy or got it... post your comments below.