Surviving 16 Hours in Coach to Jo’burg

I survived 8,433 miles nonstop over 16 hours between Atlanta and Johannesburg IN COACH!

Earlier this month I made another trek to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, this time taking my sister and an old friend. Nothing new about going to the Kruger for me (see a long earlier post about it). I love the place and have been visiting the wildlife park with regularity since 1991.

But for the first time in almost 21 years of frequent travel to South Africa, I flew in coach. Yes, I endured Delta’s longest nonstop flight: 8,433 miles. When the wheels go up on Delta 200 southbound and DL 201 northbound, the flight, using 777 aircraft, could last well over 16 hours before kissing the tarmac again. The actual flight times depend a lot on head winds and tail winds.

In all my many previous trips down there I managed to fly in Business or First Class, but this time I knew it had to be on the cheap or not at all And there were no great deals to Johannesburg in a premium class–at least not for travel in August, 2011. So I bought the cheapest economy fare available, which was around $1200 altogether, and prayed that I wouldn’t end up in an asylum when the plane touched down.

Delta came to my rescue in a small way by providing a slightly improved coach product called “Economy Comfort” class. The first four or five rows of economy just behind Business Elite have 4 inches of additional legroom and a little better recline. I gained access thanks to my Platinum status. Economy Comfort also provides all entertainment options gratis, and free booze. But there’s no charge for alcohol in the rest of the economy sections of these flights, so I guess that’s not a bonus.

The extra legroom probably made the flights a bit less uncomfortable than they might have been. Since I didn’t fly in the normal economy seats, I can’t say for sure. Any way you cut it, however, it certainly isn’t possible to say that either leg was comfortable. The flights were, at least, endurable, and that’s a revelation to me.

I viewed this trip as an experiment to see if I could endure one of the world’s longest commercial flights in a cramped coach seat. I did endure it.

Furthermore, I think I could do it again, and that opens up a lot of possibilities for me since I can afford a lot more coach trips to South Africa than in a premium cabin.

So what was it like? Well, descriptors that come to mind include boring; uncomfortable; tedious; unending; claustrophobic; at hourly intervals either too hot or too cold; and extremely cramped. The food served was of a quality a prison warden would have trouble defending to the Texas state legislature, a body reknowned for its insensitivity to prisoner well-being.

The flight attendants were long in the tooth and pursued their dry cabin crew duties and routines with what looked like studied resignation. They made me feel young, and I am 63. Advanced age is not intrisically a bad thing, but some of our FAs seemed to have long ago seen the joy of their work escape them.

So sour were their demeanors and dour their contenances that I suspected the cabin crew might have received special training for these flights from ex-East German border guards. Their strict stinginess metering out even a full can of Coke to those bold enough to ask raised more than a few eyebrows, and they were unapologetic about their reluctance to provide more than water.

The seats did recline a bit more than usual, but the bottoms were hard as iron. I was among many who put a pillow or blanket between my backside and the seat bottom to relieve the pain.

One very bright spot that helped me to live through it was the entertainment system. I didn’t count the movies, but there were surely over a hundred on offer, along with a deep HBO selection of goodies like “Curb Your Enthusiam” and “Big Love” and comedy specials like Wanda Sykes. When I couldn’t sleep–which was most of the flight–I watched movie after movie after HBO special. The entertainment system saved my sanity for 16 hours.

That’s good, as I could not in good conscience read the books I’d brought. That’s because the overhead reading lamps were so bright that they disrupted the sleeping or dozing or watching of every surrounding passenger within a row in each direction and sideways. I felt guilty using the overhead light, and I noticed noone else used theirs to read, either, presumably for the same reason.

The FAs came around at about hourly intervals with trays of water, and they left big water bottles in mid-cabin for self service. We all served ourselves a lot of water. In between the FAs disappeared en masse to the large galley in the rear of the plane. I went back a couple of times to get a Coke Zero and a cup of ice, and the cabin crew obliged. I also spent a good deal of time in the mid-cabin area standing and stretching to combat fatique and the physical pain of sitting in the tortuous seats. That helped, too.

The lavatories were, with so many people in coach (almost every seat was occupied), never short of queues, and they became dirty quickly. No FA ever came proactively to give them a periodic facelift and clean-up, so we had to ask for more tissue, TP, and paper towels.

Writing this now has brought back the awful feeling that swept over me when I realized about 8 hours into the flight that it was barely half over.

The absence of the flight attendants (that is, as they stayed mainly in the back) made it all more tolerable. Other passengers were as patient and cautious as I was in managing emotions and nurturing needs (mine and others), sort of like an impromptu support group. We had to deal with the experience alone, without much interaction with or from the cabin crew, and ironically that seemed to work pretty good. I can’t explain why, but I am sure we all felt a bond and mutual desire to keep a lid on ourselves and others around us.

If the cabin crew was abnormally remote and cold, that didn’t diminish the spirit or amplify the pain and discomfort. Despite the challenges, I did it, I survived it, and I know I could do it time after time now. Which is what I plan to do, because I love going to South Africa and the Kruger National Park. Thank goodness Delta provides this ATL/JNB option.

A closing comment about the Business Elite section, which I closely inspected: Delta’s new sleeper seats have been installed on these 777 airplanes. They are angled in as on other carriers’ premium cabins and appear to be nothing novel. They are run-of-the-mill lie-flat seats.

I picked up one of the Business Elite menus as I left the plane in Johannesburg and inspected it later. It is depressingly titled “Food & Drink.” Not even a pretense of style or luxe. How very sad. Inside it lists unimaginative descriptions (e.g., “Mixed Green Salad”) of limited options, with a thin selection of 7 very inexpensive wines (if you count the port as a wine).

After gaining the confidence that the coach class 16-hour experience is clearly endurable, I marveled at how any airline could offer such a minimalist mediocrity as the Delta Business Elite product and yet ask $10,619.30 round trip RDU/JNB for it compared to about $1,200 round trip for a coach seat.

Bottom line: I’ll be flying this route again on Delta in economy.

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