REVIEW: British Airways / Comair Economy Class Johannesburg - Livingstone, Zambia
As I explained in my previous report about my British Airways (BA) flight into Johannesburg, I was able to get to South Africa on a relatively inexpensive ticket through London. As excited as I was to be visiting Africa, I didn't think Johannesburg was really a destination that I wanted to spent a significant amount of time exploring on my first trip to the continent. There are certainly interesting things I'd like to see and explore there, but for a first time visit I thought perhaps there were better sites to really get a feel for the southern tip of the continent.
So with a little bit of research I decided I wanted to hop a little further north to Livingstone, Zambia - home of the famous Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) and easy access to Botswana. Fortunately for me British Airways has a subsidiary based in South Africa called Comair that operates a lot of regional flights out of Cape Town and Johannesburg. This meant I was able to use some of my BA Avios award points to redeem for flights to and from Livingstone. So after a little research and me forking over 4500 Avios and $136 USD, I was booked to Zambia. Booking this round trip itinerary with BA/Comair or South African Airways would have cost me north of $500 USD, so the 4500 Avios was a good investment in my opinion.
This entry is going to cover both the flights up to Livingstone and back down to Johannesburg to give a fuller picture of the in-flight experience.
Check-in with British Airways/Comair was sadly pretty lackluster. There weren't many smiles or attempts to be welcoming, but I still was able to get my luggage checked to Livingstone and a boarding pass in hand. The check-in agents weren't very proactive about directing me to the correct security line to access my flight either, so I spent a good 15 minutes wandering the terminal being bounced around from checkpoint to checkpoint until I found the correct one that would lead me into the area of the terminal where my flight was located.
A lot of the regional international flights, including my flight to Livingstone, depart from Joburg's Terminal A from bus gates. I made my way through the terminal and found the large escalators that lead down to the tarmac level. At the bottom was a large waiting area with a row of desks where various flights to cities across southern Africa were departing. I found my gate with ease, which was located next to a Air Botswana flight to Kasane, another Air Botswana flight to Maun, and a Korongo Airlines flight to Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To this day those are some of the most unique destinations I've seen on departure boards.
Based on nothing other than the a rough count of fanny packs, I'd say the passengers waiting in at these bus gates were approximately 70% tourists and 30% locals.
Delayed flights seemed to be a common theme for these regional flights, regardless of airlines, as pretty much every gate in the holding area seemed to post delays between 20 minutes and 2 hours, all of which were greeted by a mix of moans and groans from the mix of tourists and locals. Luckily my flight was only delayed about 40 minutes and soon enough they announced that boarding was ready to commence and we started to queue up to have our boarding passes scanned. There was no scrum to board as everyone seemed to conduct themselves like well adjusted human beings and slowly moved through the process of getting past the gate agent and on to the waiting bus with decorum. Bravo people!
There really weren't many people that seemed to be on our flight, so we were all able to squeeze onto a single bus. I, unfortunately, was in the middle of the pack so I was only able to snap one quick photo from the bus of the tarmac at O.R. Tambo.
This miffed me quite a bit as there are so many interesting airlines taxiiing around and parked at gates at this airport. It's aviation gate heaven for those who are into far flung destinations and rare airline sightings. We weaved through the traffic and made our way out to an area of the airfield where various smaller regional aircraft were parked awaiting their passenger loads.
Despite being in the middle of the bus I somehow managed to be one of the first people out the door once we parked and shot up the staircase into the aircraft. A smiling FA greeted me with a glance at my boarding pass and an invitation to head down the aisle and take my seat.
The seats on this Boeing 737 were a rather stiff blue leather and laid out in a 3-3 configuration in economy class. White paper cloths were attached to the velcro at the top of each headrest to provide a sanitary barrier for your resting pleasure.
The leather was a bit firm but still comfortable enough for a short flight of just under two hours. The fully upright position of the seats seemed a bit ridged and I almost felt like I was being forced to lean slightly past 90 degrees during times of the flight where seat backs were required to be in an upright position. Overall it wasn't my favorite seat but still wasn't in the category of seats I felt need to publicly identified and shunned for their torturous tendencies.
I had requested a window seat in anticipation of being able to see views of Mosi-oa-Tunya while coasting into Livingstone. The windows were fairly clean, which is great for picture taking, but were indeed quite square which indicated to me the age of the aircraft. It seemed a bit older with the sharp edges, and the wear and tear around the cabin seemed to support that this was an older bird. The softer, rounder windows tend to be found on more modern aircraft, at least in my experience.
With only a single bus load of passengers to board, soon enough the captain was on the PA welcoming us aboard and discussing the particulars of our flight. The load factor on today's flight was only at about 30%, which meant I had an entire row to myself to spread out.
The doors were closed and FAs started making their way down the single aisle ensuring seat belts were fastened and seats fully upright. I looked out the window to see if I could catch a glimpse of any fun aircraft, but sadly all I got was a view of our neighboring British Airways/Comair plane as we taxied through a dead zone of plane traffic and were rocketing off over Johannesburg fairly quickly.
Despite having a fairly empty plane and two hours of flight time, the cabin crew didn't lollygag with the service. As soon as the captain turned off the seat belt sign they were up in the aisle handing out entry forms for the Republic of Zambia. I started to fill mine out while spreading out along my three seat "couch". I did swing back around to take a quick shot of the leg room for a single seat though.
The leg room space was standard - nothing that really stood out as exceptionally nice but not too tight for comfort on a short flight either. I had a few inches of space between my knees and the back of the seat in front of me, though I do think that if someone in front of me reclined that it would be a bit tight for working on a laptop or tablet.
With such a light load on the plane the FAs were able to serve beverages pretty much at the same time as the complimentary meal. A smiling FA offered me my choice of drinks and I settled on a good ole fashioned Coca Cola. Today's meal choices were a pasta with white sauce or a chicken piccata. Chicken is a pretty solid choice any time you're on an airplane, but I was feeling like going all sorts of buck wild now that I was in Africa and selected the rebellious pasta dish as a celebration of this joyous occasion.
The tray was handed over by the FA with the lid still covering the entree. Also on the tray for my dining pleasure was a side salad that consisted of olives, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese cubes, and some lettuce. A creamy Italian dressing was included. For dessert a Nestle milk chocolate candy bar was placed on the tray.
The chocolate bar was immediately relegated to the "do no eat" column due to my allergy, and the side salad got picked over since I am not the biggest fan of olives or cherry tomatoes. The entree itself was very tasty though a bit oily. It turned out to be a carbonara of sorts as it featured a very healthy topping of pork/bacon. Also included were mushrooms, which made me pretty happy. Adding mushrooms to anything is a great idea, in my humble opinion. Got a headache? Throw some mushrooms at it. Bank account low? Eat a mushroom. Your father have an issue with you dropping out of college to pursue your career as a interpretive dancer? MUSHROOMS.
Service from the FAs was friendly and attentive. I hadn't finished my meal for more than one or two minutes before someone passing through the cabin noticed and asked if they could clear my tray. With a smile.
I've purposefully mentioned multiple times during this post that the FAs were smiling. I do that because it was a big part of this trip - the cabin crews were phenomenally friendly. Unlike their check-in counter compatriots, these men and women appeared to really car about providing a welcoming, satisfying experience on my flights. A real showcase of South African hospitality.
To slightly modify a Dave Chapelle quote - "I wish that I had two more hands so that I can give your customer service four thumbs UP."
It's a relatively short flight and there isn't much else to comment on regarding the remainder of our time in the air. There was no in-flight entertainment, so I passed the time happily watching the African landmass pass below our wings. The captain announced that we'd be make our landing in Livingstone in about 20 minutes and the cabin crew came through to make sure our seat belts were fastened and seat backs were uncomfortably upright.
My window seat selection paid off as we did, indeed, have views of the famous Victoria Falls as we came in for landing. We cruised alongside the Zambezi River and in the distance I laid eyes upon the white puff of "smoke" that gives the falls their true name - Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders.
Arrival at Livingstone simply meant taxiing to an area of the tarmac where the local airport staff could wheel some stairs up to the door and let us walk off and directly into the airport terminal. I was able to snap a photo of the plane as I walked into the immigration area without any issue, though I've read online that others weren't so lucky and were chastised by ground crew for taking photos.
Immigration was a bit of an interesting process, though I was able to get through it pretty easily despite one snag. I was requesting a visa upon arrival, and this requires a cash payment. I ran into some problems as I needed a multi-entry visa since I planned on leaving Zambia to cross into Botswana before eventually returning to catch my flight back to South Africa. When the immigration official asked for me to make my payment, I handed over the fee and stated I need the multi-entry version of the visa, to which he wrinkled his nose and stated he had already stamped my passport for a single entry. My heart sank a bit and he stared back at me without saying much. Undeterred, I asked whether there was any way to fix this issue and explained that my travel plans were going to require the multi-entry, no ifs ands or buts about it.
He hemmed and hawed for a minute or two before finally saying, "Well, perhaps I can fix this." At first I thought he was going to attempt to ask for a bribe, but it turns out all he needed to do was cross out the "single" on my passport stamp and hand write "M/E" (for multi-entry) along with his initials on the still fresh ink. With that being done, he handed me my passport and sent me on my way to meet my pick-up from the bush camp I would be staying at while in Zambia. I felt a little silly getting so worried about the stamp issue considering the "fix" he applied was something I could have done on my own and no one would have been the wiser.
So with a weird snafu and no request for a bribe - welcome to Africa!
Leaving Zambia on British Airways/Comair was pretty much the exact same experience as entering, from the check-in experience with rather disinterested associates to the super friendly and welcoming flight attendants onboard.
The exit immigration queue was the most frustrating part of the airport experience. Only two officials were processing passports and the BA/Comair flight to Johannesburg was departing around the same time as a South African Airways plane headed to Joburg as well. While our BA/Comair ended up being pretty lightly loaded, the South African flight was packed and the line extended all the way back toward the check-in counters (as you'd probably expect, the Livingstone airport is pretty small). There was no real sense of urgency to process the queue, and one of the agents even got up to go to lunch in the middle of the rush and was only replaced by another staff member after about 15 minutes. The boarding gate (only one was being used for all flights) is visible from the queue for immigration and there were many panicky passengers on the South African flight that could see people walking out to their plane as the gate agents made "last call" announcements and realized they were still ages away from being processed.
Apparently this is a very common situation though as neither the ground staff boarding the flight nor the immigration officials showed any sign of distress and eventually everyone was processed in a shuffled on to the plane. I allowed several passengers on the first flight to cut me in line as it was very obvious they weren't going to start boarding my flight until the SA one was completed, so there was really no reason for me to worry about my own flight at that point. I was stamped out of Zambia with ease and wasn't in the tiny waiting area much more than two minutes before they were calling for passengers on my flight to head out to the plane.
Just like before I was greeted with a smile and sent back to my seat. The cabin and seats were identical to the flight up from Joburg, and the cabin load on our flight was a little heavier but still no more than 60%. I had an entire row of seats to myself once again. Oddly enough we took off from our parking spot right on time despite the immigration queue fiasco, and being a small airport we were immediately cleared for take off and our Boeing soared into the skies over Zambia.
Flying out of Livingstone affords some amazing views. While I was able to see the Zambezi River and Mosi-oa-Tunya on our arrival, our departure provided me with a view of the landscape around the city as well as an excellent view over the Zambezi gorge. My bush camp was located along the lip of the gorge, so I mentally waved as we flew past.
Having the plane sit on the tarmac in the hot African sun between flights heated the cabin up significantly, so I was happy to notice that this aircraft comes equipped with individual air nozzles for passenger comfort. I hadn't noticed them on the way up, though I'm unsure if that's because I felt like I didn't need them and forgot to look or if it was because the plane didn't have them at all.
Meal service on this leg was also complimentary though the food was dropped off before the beverage this time. No hot meals were provided on this leg, as it appears catering is done entirely in Johannesburg so the return leg from Livingstone is provided with food that requires no heat.
Today's meal was a chicken sandwich with another Nestle milk chocolate candy bar. The sandwich was fresh and filling, though overall a very lackluster offering in the flavor department. Sandwiches on airplanes are always difficult to eat since the cabin humidity is so low. Most passengers are suffering from a severe case of dry mouth unless they've kept very well hydrated, so getting a mouthful of bread isn't really the most comfortable of feelings. It always feels like you're trying to chew and swallow cotton.
Having indulged in quite a few extravagant meals during my stay in Zambia and Botswana, I figured I should try to cut back a little and ordered a Coke Light. That'll help keep my figure in check, right?
Even though the planes looked exactly the same and were laid out in the same 3-3 fashion, the leg room on this plane seemed to be slightly better than on the way up. You can see that there appears to be an extra inch or two in space between my knees and the seat back compared to the picture on the way up.
My impressions of British Airways/Comair were quite good when it came to the in-flight experience. The regional routes they operate face a lot of competition from low cost carriers and African flag carriers competing for business between sub-Saharan Africa's business hub in Johannesburg and the rest of the continent. The friendliness of the staff was definitely a leg up. Additionally, if the idea of flying on an African airline that you've never heard of is "scary" (personally it's not, but I'm fully aware that many folks are not as confident on the safety standards of airlines based in Africa), the affiliation with British Airways that Comair maintains can have a calming effect on nervous travelers. I saw this a few times during my trip to and from Livingstone, as well as another flight I took on BA/Comair from Cape Town that I won't be writing about. Passengers often expressed their relief to a travel companion that the airline was associated with a trusted European company. Whatever floats your boat folks.
As is the case with a lot of airlines, the real downer side of traveling with BA/Comair was the ground service in both Johannesburg and Livingstone (and Cape Town for that matter). Staff just didn't seem interested in being engaged with customers, and continued having personal conversations amongst themselves while working on my reservation. While I didn't detail it here, I took a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg later in this trip that was operated by BA/Comair and there was a problem with the ticket. I had been given an operational upgrade to business class and apparently there was an issue with the way the upgrade had been processed so the agents weren't able to check me in. Instead of providing me with the information I needed on where to go to get my issue fixed, the agents simply tried to shoo me away and told me my ticket was "broken" and they couldn't do anything about it. I had to break out my sassy heels for a few minutes and give them a piece of my mind on their obviously deficient customer service skills before they finally directed me to the correct desk about 500 ft away where I could get the issue corrected.
While this is poor service I can't really say that this is unique to British Airways/Comair. Generally speaking I find many airlines across the globe have pretty poor ground service staff, whether they're contracted or employed directly by the airline. I'm still quite happy with my flights with the airline and they'd definitely be on my list of airlines to consider the next time I'm looking to move around the southern tip of Africa.
British Airways/Comair operates many domestic flights within South Africa as well as short haul regional flights to international neighbors including:
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
British Airways/Comair will also be adding a new flight to their route map in 2016 - St. Helena. This is a remote island between Africa and South America which up till now was only accessible by boat from Cape Town. This island is best known as the location where Napoleon was exiled by the British. While a few days jaunt on a British mail ship sounds like a great travel adventure, the accessible of a flight by BA/Comair is likely much more practical for locals and curious visitors alike.
BA/Comair offers a solid product with good in-flight service, so I'm sure they will be seeing me on-board another one of their flights soon enough!