This is part 10 of my series exploring my March 2017 trip to South Africa and Namibia, which started here.
Air Namibia Flt. 704 Cape Town to Windhoek (via Walvis Bay)
Sched. Dep. 11:30am Actual Dep. 1:09pm
Sched. Arr. 1:20pm Actual Arr. 4:30pm
In the aftermath of Unitedgate, where everyone became an expert on the ins and outs of the airline industry, consumer protection law, the history of regulation in America, and police brutality, and became attuned to bumping of one guy as the great moral crisis of our time, someone told me I didn’t have any knowledge about the airline industry, as my blog is just about business class flights. Now none of my last five blog posts had anything to do with flights at all, but this one will be – but don’t worry – it was in coach. The only other thing I’ll say about what’s going on with United? It reminds me of a famous saying: “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.” Now onto Air Namibia….
I had two nonstop options to get from Cape Town to Windhoek: Air Namibia and SA Airlink. They both fly two flights a day. Air Namibia has an 11:30am flight, and an evening flight; SA Airlink has a 6:30am flight and a 2:55pm flight. Neither airline is known as phenomenal, but they’re not fly-by-night operations. (Air Namibia’s IATA code is SW, going back to the country’s days as South West Africa). Air Namibia is a pretty small airline, fully owned by the Namibian government, with a fleet of only 10 planes – 4 A319s, 4 ERJ-135s, and 2 A330-200s. The A332s are used for its one long-haul flight, to Frankfurt, whereas the A319s and Embraers fly out of Windhoek’s Hosea Kutako International (WDH), Windhoek’s smaller domestic Eros Airport, and Walvis Bay.
I decided to go with the Air Namibia midday flight as it would allow me a few hours in the late afternoon to explore Windhoek, and paid a bit more than the 2:55pm Airlink flight. Alas, that was for naught.
I had big goals of waking up early and working out at the 15 on Orange gym before leaving for the airport around 8:30, but that didn’t happen. I checked out around 8:20 and ordered up an Uber. I was leaving for the airport well earlier than I probably needed to for an 11:30 flight, but I wasn’t sure if there would be rush hour traffic (there wasn’t in that direction) and I also needed to stop at Thrifty and pick up my Kindle. There was an insane Uber surge, though, and the fare was over $30, when it typically would have been about $12. (I actually could have gotten an Uber Black for only about $1 more.) While that was more than I paid for my pre-arranged transport on the way in, I didn’t bother to explore other options and just went with it, and was picked up by a friendly Zimbabwean driver in a clean and new small VW. We had some good chats, and he explained he had been in Cape Town 10 years, he loved it, and it was amazing to see the sea for the first time.
The ride took only about 20 minutes. You can’t actually be dropped off at the car rental area, but it’s a few minutes’ walk from the terminal. Nonetheless, since I was dropped off right outside the check-in areas, I figured I’d drop my suitcase before picking up the Kindle. And thus, the Air Namibia adventure began. It was under three hours before scheduled departure, and there was no one to be seen, except a line of passengers that was already beginning to form. So, I trekked over to Thrifty, where, unlike some of the other rental companies, there was no line, and I got my Kindle no problem.
I got back to the check-in area, and still there was no one but a growing line of passengers. At around 9:10, 2h 20m before scheduled departure, an agent came out and re-arranged the line dividers (at the same time as the Emirates agents at the adjoining counter started setting up for a 12:25 flight), and adjusted one of the computer screens to reflect a separate line for the Walvis Bay flight. I thought that was weird, because the Walvis Bay flight was not scheduled to leave until 2:45pm – and a guy was already on the line. (Actually, two were, but the first realized he was actually flying SA Airlink to Walvis Bay at 11am.) As the agent made some more changes to the computer screen, some more info got trotted out – the screen for my flight said “WDH via WVB” – WVB being Walvis Bay. I confirmed online that I indeed had booked a nonstop flight. And then I saw that my flight was delayed by 90 minutes to 1pm, later changed to 12:50pm – killing any chance of me having a full half day in Windhoek, but I would still be in by 3pm – or so I thought. (I definitely could have done the gym and not paid the big Uber surge!)
The agent then left, only to return with 3 other Air Namibia agents at 9:35am, less than 2 hours before scheduled departure of an international flight, which is highly unusual. That’s when they started setting up the check-in desks. Emirates check-in for its 12:25 flight was in full swing, and there was a line of over 50 people at the Air Namibia check-in. At 9:45, the first customer was helped. At that time, a very angry Namibian woman marched herself from the back of the line to the counter, and her shouting at the flight attendant revealed some more information- because of light loads on the Walvis Bay flight, Air Namibia had decided to just combine the two flights – and rescheduling it between the Windhoek flight and the Walvis Bay one. The distance isn’t that big between the two – 184 miles as the crow flies (not on the way), but when a flight is only about two hours to start, adding an extra landing, disembarkation, boarding, and takeoff is substantial. And as I discerned from checking Flightstats about the inbound aircraft, they had done the same on that flight too – explaining why a 25-minute delayed departure on the inbound flight was becoming a 110-minute arrival.
Unfortunately, Air Namibia doesn’t credit to any bigger frequent flyer programs, so I couldn’t even get extra miles out of the rerouting. When I finally checked in, I asked if I would have to disembark in Walvis Bay, and the agent said no. I asked what time the expected new arrival was, and it was 4pm – Oh, and she said I should keep an eye on the boards, because the weather in Walvis Bay was bad. Perfect sense- divert a flight via a city with bad weather. From the rants of some of the Namibians, this happens quite a lot.
Cape Town is primarily a domestic airport, but does have a bunch of flights across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a few flights to Europe and Emirates and Qatar flights (and a tag flight on Singapore via Johannesburg). While there’s one check-in hall, there are separate security queues for domestic and international departures. For international, my flight was the only one trickling through at that time, and there was a minimal wait at security and no wait for passport control. I was through to the International Departures area at 10:00am.
If you’re going to be delayed, at least you can hope for a nice lounge to pass the time. There’s a Priority Pass lounge, the Bidvest Premier Lounge, which was much nicer than I was expecting. The agent at the front desk asked me about the Windhoek delay and was friendly. Upstairs, there was a horseshoe like space, with glass windows looking out onto the terminal. There were long working tables with plenty of power outlets, a smoking room, several arm chairs, and more traditional dining tables.
The food display, though not huge, was beautifully presented. A bit odd, at 10am, they had both breakfast and heartier lunch/dinner options out. The hot dishes were roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes, chicken with mushrooms, and rice. There was a variety of cold salads and such, cheeses, fruits, chips, muffins, and some very nice looking desserts. Separately, there was a full self-service bar, and a coffee machine. I had some breakfast, and worked for a bit on my laptop.
The lounge had its own internet which worked much better than either of the free airport options, until the lounge got much more crowded. It also had private bathrooms, which was welcome given how many lounges don’t. About an hour in, I helped myself to one of the mini-bottles of sparkling wine (cheap swill, sooo sweet), some chips and cheese.The whole time, there was staff milling about, clearing garbage and such. It really was a lovely lounge.
The flight left out of a satellite area downstairs from the main concourse. As I waited to board, I noticed how much German was being spoken – probably due to the fact that Namibia still has a large German speaking population, and that Air Namibia has a nonstop flight from Windhoek to Frankfurt (though that would entail a long layover). I noticed it was the same staff as at ticketing. At 12:30, boarding began, i.e., everyone at once could go through the door to board the buses to the plane. The bus was pretty full and I was one of the last on, and, due to rude people, I also managed to be one of the last off. As a result, I wasn’t able to get a lot of pictures of the interior of the plane. But I did get some shots of the Air Namibia livery.
The A319 didn’t look that different from some older US domestic planes, with a business class that resembled U.S. domestic first but with more legroom. It seemed a bit of a waste of space given that Air Namibia’s longest scheduled A319 route is to Durban, which includes a stop in Gaborone and still is only just over 3 hours. I somehow had gotten myself a bulkhead seat, which had nice leg room, but was a bit narrower due to the seat tables in the arm rest. The inability to store anything under the seat in front during takeoff and landing was particularly irksome due to the two takeoffs and landings over 3 hours. But the interior was clean and relatively new. About half of the 16 seats in business were occupied, and it was almost completely full in coach.
There was a purser and three flight attendants. The flight attendants were not super-polished looking, but it had been a long day for them already and would be even longer. One woman insisted she didn’t want to sit in the exit row, so she had to be moved, and one of the male flight attendants swapped her with some young female passengers he had been flirting with. At 1:10pm, we finally pulled away from the gate, 110 minutes after scheduled departure. The drop-down TV screens weren’t working, so the FAs switched to a live display for the safety demonstration. Then my rowmates, an older German couple, started arguing about a purse going up for takeoff and there seemed to be a little racism involved.
It was about 1 hour 45 minutes scheduled flying time to Walvis Bay. There was a drink service almost immediately after takeoff, and I had some bad white wine and water. The dropdown screens started working and showed some dated pictures of wildlife, while I read the in-flight magazine which was a hodgepodge of advertorial content on cars, hotels, and tourist sites in Namibia.
Despite the short flight time, there was a hot meal service served, and it came promptly after drinks. There was a choice of chicken, beef, or fish, and I went with the chicken. It came in a tomato sauce, served in a dish with rice, some carrots, and zucchini. It was a bit dry and was a small portion, but fine for the short flight. The accompaniments were a roll, butter, cheese, and crackers, along with a pasta salad that had waaaayyy too much mayo for my taste, and a piece of cake. Fifteen minutes after the meal, there was a second drink service. At that point, an episode of Modern Family appeared on the dropdown screens.
I fell asleep and woke up as we approached Walvis Bay, which afforded some stunning views of the dunes of the Namib desert, which I’d see closer up in a few days. About 20 people got off in Walvis Bay, and after a 15-minute ground stop which ended up closer to 40 minutes (and no passengers picked up), we were back in the air.
On the second, short leg of about 45 minutes, there was a service of water and a packet of biltong – a jerky-like product popular in Namibia and South Africa. There was a juice box after that, and then finally, at 4:30pm, we were on the ground in Windhoek – more than three hours late.
It was a bit of a walk to the terminal, where I was able to see some other interesting planes lined up. There was a body heat scan at the entrance to the terminal, before immigration, which was itself an ordeal. There were four separate lines: Diplomatic, Namibian, SADC (Southern African Development Community), and Visitors. There were three “Visitor” stands but somehow there was drama at all three. There were a number of Chinese passengers from an earlier-arriving Ethiopian flight and there was something going on. Then there was a solo backpacker from somewhere in Scandinavia, who was arguing with the agents because he didn’t have any address in Namibia to provide as he was just wingin’ it.
So it was almost 5pm when I got through to baggage claim, and when I finally got to the Arrivals Hall, the driver I had pre-arranged was not there. I had emailed from Cape Town to inform them of the delay, so it was a bit annoying. I figured I’d get a Namibian sim card and try again. There are two carriers: MTN and Telekom Namibia. The MTN shop had a sign that said “SYSTEM OFFLINE,” so I went to Telekom Namibia. The Namibian Dollar is pegged 1:1 to the South African Rand, and the currency is pretty much interchangeable within Namibia. I paid 200 rands (~$15) in cash for 1.5 GB of data service and 100 rands voice credit. Alas, still no driver. The other drivers there were helpful though ad called him – apparently, he had given up after waiting and was already halfway back to the city.
Hosea Kutako is Windhoek’s “new” airport, and is pretty much in the middle of nowhere – 45 km east of the city. But the 25-minute drive was pretty, taking in the green vastness, and I arrived at the Hilton Windhoek at 6pm – almost ten hours after leaving the hotel in Cape Town.