Another UA ordeal getting home from South Africa

September 15. 2021

Flying to South Africa proved to be an anxiety-ridden ordeal, thanks to United Airlines scuttling my flight from RDU to Newark, as I wrote about a couple of posts ago. Getting home was easier, though not without more hiccups caused by United.

As always, SA Airlink, the South African privately-owned regional carrier, provided dependable service from Skukuza to Johannesburg. But before I departed Skukuza Airport, I got a message from United Airlines that my flight that night (August 6) back to Newark was going to be at least an hour late.  Uh, oh. That would cause me to miss my connection to Raleigh, so I began to stress over being stranded at Newark on Saturday, August 7. Here are my real-time notes en route home as I struggled to get reliable information from United:

Delay! That’s the message United Airlines conveyed at 905am Friday, 11 hours before my Newark flight’s scheduled departure. It said the flight would leave an hour late at 900pm, but no mention of the new arrival time in Newark. The scheduled arrival was 545am, so the implication was the actual arrival time would be an hour later at 645am.

Trouble was, my connecting flight Newark to Raleigh departed at 755am. With the inevitable long queues waiting for Newark Airport immigration and the security screen, the two hour connection window when the Johannesburg flight lands on time was adequate to make my flight to RDU. 

But if the plane from Johannesburg landed an hour late, all bets were off that I could make it in just one hour rather than the usual two. In which case I’d need to scramble to see what later flights fo RDU were available with a seat open, a dim prospect in this busy summer of travel. Thus I needed to know exactly what time I’d get in to Newark with the delay.

Since United’s message failed to give a new Newark arrival time, I consulted both Flightaware and Flight Stats, my go-to sources for accurate, up-to-date flight data. Thank goodness I’d signed up for an AT&T international text and data plan before leaving the USA. 

I was quickly able to pull up UA187 on Aug 6 Johannesburg to Newark on the apps and was dismayed to see the projected arrival time was 708am on one site and even later on the other. I’d sure never make my 755am Raleigh flight if the inbound hit the runway at 708am. 

I checked my UA app again, but no new arrival time was posted–very frustrating since the airline had presented me with only half the facts, that is, the Jo’burg one hour departure delay, but not the Newark arrival time. I’d have to either hope for the Johannesburg to Newark flight to somehow make up enough time for me to connect to the 755am Newark to Raleigh or I’d have to see if I could get rebooked on a later flight. 

Hope is not a strategy, so I opted for emailing my travel agent, Steve Crandall, owner of Discount Travel in Jacksonville (FL), with the United snafu to see if any later flights had open seats. God bless Steve for being up early and checking his messages. He was able to get me on a 300pm flight to Raleigh. 

A 7-hour wait at Newark after a 16-hour flight is daunting, but no other flights were available: no seats. Seven hours in Newark would be a living hell, but what else could I do? I reluctantly accepted the new option and gave up my 755am reservation. 

I recalled that the 755am departure had itself been booked a week ago because United had canceled my 825am flight Newark-Raleigh. Had that flight not been canceled, I could have made the connection even with the delay.

All this rebooking I did while waiting at the beautiful Skukuza Airport for my SA Airlink flight to Johannesburg. Having to focus energy on fixing another United screw-up was the last thing I wanted to do on my last morning in the Kruger National Park. 

The SA Airlink flight landed on time in Johannesburg at 220pm.  Patrick, the porter who helped a week ago, met me at the domestic terminal at 234p after I collected my bag. He walked me and my luggage to the United Airlines check-in counters. I was impressed he showed up and tipped him R100 (about $7), plus gave him a big lot of clothes I’d brought to distribute. 

UA counters B1-B10 opened at 315p for the 800pm flight. Which was now 900pm. Or later. No one at the United counters knew. I just got a good-natured primal shrug when I asked. Sad. I made my way through security, handing over various Covid-related forms now required by the South African government as I went, and waited in the business class lounge for flight time.

To my great surprise, and without any announcements or messages from United, the plane left very close to flight time. Service on board was identical to the outbound flight a week earlier.

My United Airlines Johannesburg/Newark flight–the one that United repeatedly advised me yesterday would be late–touched down at 545am, which was exactly on schedule.  Go figure! 

Thanks to being registered in the TSA Global Entry program, I was through the Newark B terminal immigration and customs hurdles by 604am and out the door. I went straight to the nearest United agent to see if I could change back to the earlier flight to Raleigh. 

The UA agent working the connection desk tried hard to get me on the EWR/IAD/RDU flights (755am departure from EWR) that I moved off yesterday when United said the inbound flight from Jo’burg would be late, but the IAD/RDU flight had no seats on account of the Spirit Airlines collapse this past week. 

That leaves only the 300pm flight to RDU, which at least is a nonstop. I checked in online for that one, thanked the agent, took the Newark Airport Airtrain to terminal C, went through security (PreCheck) using my electronic boarding pass, walked the long way to the only United Club open at the airport, which is across from C74 (same as last week), and the agents on duty let me in using my inbound business class boarding pass at 629am, 44 minutes after my plane landed. Heck, I could have made even a 700am flight had there been one! Certainly could have made the 755am to Washington Dulles (IAD) if the connecting flight to Raleigh had seats. 

Instead, I wait 8 long hours here in the same overcrowded hellhole as last week–but it’s better than waiting on the concourse. Even so, 8 hours is half the time of the 8,053-mile Johannesburg-Newark flight, and this interminable wait is due to United Airlines’ bad information. 

My travel agent and I tried to find earlier flights or connections from Newark to RDU today on every airline serving this airport. No seats available. Even JetBlue is chock-a-block today. Nothing on Delta or American, either. I was lucky to get the United 300pm to Raleigh. Given the realities, I’ll practice my zen meditation and be happy to get home at 500pm. 

By the way, the crowds here at Newark this Saturday morning are Thanksgiving-busy. Many people are flying this summer. Pent-up demand being released despite the Delta specter. And perhaps providing just the right circumstances for further spread. 

It was a great trip to the Kruger despite the headaches caused by United Airlines at each end. I got a great business class fare on United, or else I would NEVER have flown the airline. For the same reason (cheap business class fare), I’ll be on the same flights in business class twice more in Oct/Nov and in Feb/Mar.

But I wish I wasn’t on UA. Delta Airlines is far from perfect, but I’ve never experienced such chronic problems on their flights to Johannesburg.

A short history of post-9/11 flying

September 8, 2021

Jetlagged after the 16 hour flight from LAX, which had followed six hours of flying from Raleigh to L.A., I woke up at 3:45 AM in the Millennium Hotel in Sydney, Australia on September 12, 2001 and turned on the TV to see if the inanity of talking heads would lull me back to sleep. That didn’t happen. The shocking horror of the 9/11 attacks dominated reporting on every channel. The 14 hour time difference meant I was watching live coverage at 1:45 PM on 9/11/01 in the United States.

By then it was a known terrorist attack, and more were expected. Little else was certain. I immediately phoned my wife back in Raleigh and advised her to gas up the car and have water, food, and go-bags ready in case more attacks came. We made a plan for emergency evacuation that included having cash in hand in case credit cards stopped working (I was trying to imagine worst-case scenarios).  After hanging up, I reflected that this tragedy would certainly have a negative impact on the experience of flying, though I couldn’t yet imagine how. I recall thinking that the epicurean delights of flying in First Class in the luxurious QANTAS 747-400 front cabin I’d just enjoyed might be in jeopardy. I had no idea how right I was.

Civilian air traffic resumed on September 13, albeit with increased security measures that echo down the years to now. I returned from Australia a few weeks later to a vastly different world of flying. At the time I was flying every week, sometimes several times weekly. I learned quickly to adjust my arrival at airports from one hour before flight times to two or more hours in advance. The extra time and long queues took a toll on my psyche and my productivity. It was wearying and stressful. I had to factor the uncertainty of security queues into my travel planning and time with clients. Clients didn’t like it, and I sure didn’t, either. It was especially bad at places like Chicago O’Hare and even Raleigh/Durham, my home airport. Being a super-elite flyer didn’t count for much, suddenly. First class and TSA Pre lines hadn’t yet been contrived.

Ditto for boarding. In the early days after 9/11, TSA agents would show up at gates with folding tables and randomly search carryon bags when boarding commenced, despite everyone having been subjected to thorough screening already. Holding a first class seat counted for nothing; many times I was “selected” because I never checked my luggage, boarded first, and therefore made a juicy target.  The searches took a long time and usually ensured the overhead compartments, even in first class, were full by the time I was allowed to continue into the jet bridge. Flight attendants, themselves stressing over new security-related routines, had little care or sympathy for my plight if I couldn’t find a place to put my suitcase, no matter my ticket’s high fare basis. 

Fear of the unknown hung over airports and flying like a dense fog. The existential threat of more terrorist attacks on airplanes was unrelenting. A palpable scent of dread permeated the skies. I frequently overheard airport club murmurings that the terrorists had succeeded in killing the general sense of wellbeing in naïve America, even if the perpetrators were rooted out and destroyed. Flying would not be the same again. I tended to agree. Flying had ceased to be fun. The armored cockpit doors that began to be installed on every airplane represented more than a way to prevent further attacks; they signaled a chilling of the friendly skies.

Lots of grumbling, too, in the immediate years after 9/11 about the steep decline in airline service. Slow decay in service and comfort had become evident in the 90s, and we very frequent flyers began to sense that airlines were using 9/11 as a convenient excuse to impose additional misery and austerity upon its highest revenue customers. The outrageous hypocrisy of grinning airline executives in video ads claiming their carrier’s service superiority grated on my nerves. Food and beverage service diminished, first apparent on routes under 1,000 miles, a standard that continued to drop until virtually no meals were offered. I certainly experienced it on every airline and constantly complained. Despite my millions and millions of miles, all I got in return amounted to a few placating computer-signed letters of apology and sometimes an extra thousand frequent miles dumped into my account.

But frequent flyer programs were already twenty years old in 2001 and becoming long in the tooth.  Even then airlines were beginning to look for ways to make program benefits harder to obtain.  So an extra grand of miles was a drop in the bucket. Mostly, my complaints fell on deaf ears.

Still, business flyers like me clamored in public and made such a fuss about crummy schedule-keeping and sucky service and ever-spiraling fares that service began to improve a little by 2008; well, at least for denizens of the front cabin.  Then the Great Recession of 2009 hit, the second big blow to the airline industry.  Under the cover of dismal bookings, airlines resumed cutting service and paring back frequent flyer benefits on a continuum to the present. 

Made worse, as I recently observed, by the travel ravages of the third big blow: COVID.  As I wrote in that post, on a recent flight from Minneapolis to Fargo, not even air-conditioning or water was available.  With no explanation from either the captain or the flight attendants, let alone an apology.  Just a one-word excuse: “Covid.”

I don’t need airlines to resume serving me Beluga caviar and Krug Champagne as was common in the 80s and 90s (though I wouldn’t turn either down), but the twenty year nose dive in service no longer excites me quite as much to get to RDU.

Yep, flying is just an expensive bus service now. Nonetheless, my short stint on this planet as animated star dust has been a rich and wonderful experience thanks to existing in the flying era. I’ve been able to see the world from a plane!

UA 188 Newark to Johannesburg in business class

September 1, 2021

On July 29 I was scheduled to fly on United Airlines from Raleigh (RDU) to Newark (EWR) to connect to United’s nonstop Newark-Johannesburg flight that night.  I wrote about United abruptly canceling the RDU/EWR segment at 2:00 AM with no alternative, which led to an all-day ordeal of misery to get to Newark in time for my flight to South Africa.  That story was posted on my old blog site (Allen on Travel) and on this site (Will Allen on Travel).  No thanks to United, I made the connection.  Finally now I am writing about the international segment to Jo’burg, a much more pleasant experience despite being an hour late and with service hamstrung by Covid restrictions.

United assigns new 787-9 aircraft for the U.S-South Africa 15-16 hour flights, configured up front with the newest generation of seats.  UA calls it Polaris Class.  Here are my real-time notes from the flight, which inexplicably boarded late and left late:

UA188 pushed back from the gate at EWR at 2144 (944p), 59 minutes late (scheduled departure was 2045).  No announcement of courtesy explaining why either by the gate staff or pilot once on board.

Off ground quickly at 2208 (1008p), no doubt an expedited taxi-to-takeoff due to the need to conserve fuel for the 8,003 miles to Johannesburg. 

My bulkhead seat 1L on the starboard side of the new Polaris cabin shows the tightly-configured, layered arrangement, about which more later.

The computer flight map says ETA JNB (Johannesburg) 1825, 40 mins late. That number kept creeping later until it was 1849 (649p), over an hour late, making a liar out of the captain who said tailwinds would help us arrive at a half hour late at 615pm local time in Johannesburg.

Constant turbulence for nearly an hour over the Atlantic due to severe thunderstorms arriving over New York. Tornadoes were forecast for Newark just before we departed. No service at all then, of course, not even a bottle of water. 

Then, abruptly, an hour and 25 minutes into the flight, the purser showed up with a hot tray dinner:

Prime rib and gravy (superb! delicious!) with carrots and broccoli and rice (all shockingly flavorful) served with a salad (fresh and tasty) and ended with small (really small) container of mango sorbet (scrumptious!). Poor presentation, but good food. Well, except for the stale prison farm roll.

Accompanied by Ayala French Champagne (never heard of it, though Joe Brancatelli vouched for it) that had a tangy but not great “dosage” with too much Cognac for my taste, but the bubbly was French and served properly chilled. I had four tiny, ugly plastic glasses of the stuff as I was desperate to relax and to feel I hadn’t totally wasted my money. Pre-Covid crystal glasses, or just regular glassware, now a fading memory. Sad. 

By then it was nearly midnight my time, and I was relaxed for the first time since I learned at 700am that morning that United had canceled my flight Raleigh to Newark. The first real food and drink I’ve had today (two 16 oz. bottles of water) certainly helped. 

Seat 1L is starboard bulkhead and thus near the forward galley. All row 1 seats are more spacious than every other row, which, as I said before, are configured zig-zag to maximize the seat capacity.

Seats are arranged 1-2-1 across the Polaris business class cabin (compared to 2-3-2 in Premium Economy and 3-3-3 in coach), so lots of privacy. The odd-numbered rows on the hull have two windows each and are more distant from the aisles; even-numbered rows are close to the aisles with just one window. The privacy, extra space, and two windows are why I selected 1L.

An annoying discovery was that the United headsets provided on this 787 have unique plugs with one larger than the other. Making the plug on my Bose noise-canceling headphones incompatible. My Bose phones are far superior in comfort and noise reduction, but were rendered useless without a special adapter plug, which I didn’t know I needed until we were in the air. 

Nonetheless, I enjoyed two movies using the pathetic United headphones after getting the purser to write up the issue (she agreed most business class customers bring their own Bose phones).

I always enjoy following the computer map of our progress.

Eventually, I fell asleep for about 4 hours after adjusting the seat to the lie-flat position and using eyeshades and earplugs. I found it was hard to breathe wearing both a mask and eyeshades until I discreetly pulled my mask down over the tip of my nose. Flight attendants either didn’t notice or didn’t squawk about my sleepy-time mask transgression, and I rested well. 

Trying to adjust to the six hour time change (this time of year), I made myself frequently get up and walk up and down the cabin after my nap, stopping in the galley area to stretch for 10-15 minutes at the time. It’ll be time to go to bed again once we clear immigration and make the short walk to the City Lodge hotel across the airport parking deck, and I know from experience that it’s better to be tired when I reach my room in order to sleep through the night. 

Or at least most of the night.  I’m always jazzed to be back in Africa! 

Now just two hours to go to Johannesburg, we are overflying Namibia after crossing the SE corner of Angola. Then over the Kalahari Desert of Botswana before reaching South African airspace and making our descent. Breakfast is about to be served (although it’ll be late afternoon when we arrive in Jo’burg).

I spent a couple of hours chatting with various flight attendants and came away with a more charitable view of United. They’re doing the best they can under trying circumstances (Covid-related austerity and precautions).

Bottom line is that after an extremely poor start, United folks on this flight have partially redeemed my view of the airline. I can’t forget, too, that my extremely low business class fare $1600 round trip) was less than Delta’s premium economy fare ($1800)—a great bargain, in fact.  Just the same, I’ll be very glad not to deal with United Airlines again until I have to fly home in 8 days.

  • End of real-time in-flight notes.

 My day-to-day experiences getting to and from, and, most importantly, being in, the Kruger National Park are posted on my Allen on Africa blog at https://allenonafrica.wordpress.com/.

Shelter from the storm

August 24, 2021

Last weekend my wife and I accepted a friend’s gracious invitation to spend a few nights at Emerald Isle, one of our favorite North Carolina barrier islands.  After a solid month of feverish travel battling airline screwups flying to and from Montana, Newark, South Africa, and Fargo (yes, North Dakota), and then driving 1,044 miles round trip to Tennessee, I was more than ready to cool my jets and do nothing but get sand between my toes and salt water up my nose: shelter from the metaphorical storm.  And from a meteorological storm, too, as it turned out, in the form of Hurricane Henri, which luckily remained far offshore as it moved up to New England.

Their rented beach cottage sits directly on the ocean.  Just as it should be.  In my view, if you’re not situated in an oceanfront house on the beach, then you’re not really at the beach.  You might as well be 100 miles inland.  After a short two and a half hour drive from Raleigh,

In North Carolina we cling to the quaint term “cottage” to refer to all manner of bloated palaces on the sand as if the monstrous sea citadels were the charming little beachfront bungalows of the twentieth century.  Heck, the seaside gazebo of this castle is larger than some of the modest shacks I rented on this same stretch of shore as late as the 1980s:

(This oceanfront “cottage” is three down from the one we stayed in.)

With seven mouths to feed, I fried up 24 softshell crabs for dinner Friday night.  Softshell blue crabs are a southern delicacy, so popular nowadays that it can be hard to find live ones rather than frozen.  From long experience I’ve learned that live softshells will yield a superior flavor when cooked than frozen ones—though no one I know has ever declined any fried softshell crab, frozen or fresh.  Turned out my phone order for two dozen wiped out the local seafood store’s entire softshell inventory of the day.  I was lucky.

Doubly lucky, as it turned out.  I placed the order sight-unseen, and I was happily surprised that the crabs were enormous when I picked them up.  I have not seen giant softshell crabs like those in three decades.  In the parlance of softshell aficionados, softshells that big are called “whales” for good reason.  No wonder the price was $6.50 per crab (and worth every penny).

Back in the kitchen, the first step in preparation was to remove the gills just under the shell (called the “dead man’s fingers” because crab gills can concentrate toxins removed from filtered seawater—not recommended to eat).  Then I snipped off the mandibles and eye stalks.  After which I left the crabs to dry out a bit and come to room temperature.  That helps the crabs cook all the way through quickly when thrown into the fryer. 

The softshells got drenched in an egg batter, then dredged in corn flour (to which I added liberal amounts of salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper, plus a little sugar), and then flash-fried in 100% peanut oil at 450° F.

If the oil is hot enough and the crabs are at room temp and not overly moist when thrown into the pot, then they are done in two or three minutes.  Short cooking time at highest possible oil temp ensures the least possible oil is absorbed, which preserves and heightens the delicious crabby flavors. In case you are not aware, every bit of the crab is eaten, including shell, legs, swim flippers, and claws.

Four homemade sauces accompanied the crabs, along with roasted potatoes and green beans. However, the meaty and delicious crabs were literally devoured until everyone was sated, and the veggies sat untouched.  Friday night we ate like kings!  And drank Champagne like royalty, too.

Beautiful surf Saturday morning was generated from the offshore hurricane (Henri), though with a dangerous rip current. Didn’t thwart the surfers from swimming out to meet the waves.  They know how to make the breakers work for their purpose.

I’m comfortable and competent in the ocean, but I gave Saturday’s surf a miss.  The red flags were up warning of rips, and I have tremendous respect for the sea’s moods.  An undertow generated by storms can drown even a strong and experienced swimmer.

Instead of a morning swim, I boiled four pounds of fresh-caught North Carolina jumbo shrimp for breakfast to peel and eat, accompanied by two dipping sauces. I used an entire bottle of fresh, super-hot horseradish in the red sauce: wicked good.  Reasonable, I thought, at $11.95/lb.

Some eat shrimp in the morning with scrambled eggs; some prefer shrimp on a buttered hot bagel. Both deelish.  Me, I just peel the shrimp one at a time and plunge them into the dipping sauces.  Accompanied by ripe cantaloupe and blueberries.

The view from our deck on Sunday morning.

By Sunday Hurricane Henri was plaguing Rhode Island, and the sea at Emerald Isle had calmed.  I relished body-surfing in the waves, followed by washing off in the outside shower, reading my book, reminiscing with friends, walking on the beach with my wife in the late afternoon, and sitting on the deck with an icy sundowner in hand.  I love travel like I have done the last month—even when frenetic—but last weekend on the ocean was the perfect calm I needed to destress.

Covid: The universal excuse for travel troubles

The elusive and existential nature of the itty-bitty microscopic coronavirus has become the catch-all excuse that covers all ills, inefficiencies, and incompetence of travel providers nowadays. “Covid!” is sometimes exclaimed defensively in anger. Or expressed in a low voice, plaintively, as in: “Hey, man, it’s Covid.” Usually accompanied by a primal shrug. Either way—and every way in-between—it has become the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card for airlines, rental car companies, hotels, and service providers in the travel supply chain. No matter how dastardly the travel outrage or foolishly bumbling the circumstances, Covid is now the reason.

Witness what United Airlines told me when I bitterly complained that they canceled my flight to Newark at 1:30 AM the morning of travel with no alternate booking to get me to Newark for my connecting flight to Johannesburg. Their cover-up? Essentially, the United Club agent’s message to me was “Covid made us do it” and how dare I question that. Then looked over my shoulder, and announced: “Next in line, please.”

When I queried the flight attendants in business class (Polaris) on my United flight to Johannesburg that night why the IFE movies on the 15+ hour flight seemed so dated, “Covid” was the answer, and they pointed to cheap plastic cups used for wine and Champagne as if to reinforce the obvious and justifiable austerity. Never mind that Emirates and Qatar are serving in crystal flutes on their flights up front.

Last weekend while traveling through the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, I questioned a 27-cent “Hospitality” charge on the receipt for a single bagel and was told it was due to Covid, with a smile. Then why isn’t it labeled “Due to the pandemic”? I asked. The clerk’s eyes rolled and turned to the next customer.

On an Endeavor Airlines (Delta Connection) CRJ900 flight out of MSP just before noon, the air conditioning system was not turned on as we boarded, and the interior was sweltering.

“The captain is aware of the situation,” came the flight attendant PA, “But due to Covid, the plane will not be cool until we reach 10,000 feet. Please close your window shades to keep the heat out.”

Too late! It was boiling, and lowering the shades wasn’t going to help. No explanation why the A/C was out. Inoperable? No APU functionality? No airport power?

When we reached and exceeded 10,000’ altitude, the cabin remained an oven, and it never cooled off en route to Fargo—luckily, a short hop. Nor was anyone in coach or in Comfort+ where I was seated offered even a small bottle of water to counter the heat. The captain never made any announcement, but as we deplaned, I asked the lead FA to simply be honest if the A/C was broken. She shrugged and murmured, “Covid.” The universal vindication for anything wrong.

At Lilliputian Fargo Airport I picked up a Budget rental car for the weekend for $81/day. When I asked why weekend rates were so high, naturally the reason given was Covid. Of course rental car companies have been struggling to meet demand due to fleet depletions, which has pushed up rates, but no shortage of cars at Fargo was apparent. The rental car lot was full at Hertz, Avis, Budget, and every other brand.

Checking into the Microtel by Wyndham hotel in Moorhead, Minnesota for two nights—a modest property I’d visited four years ago, leaving good memories—I spied a crumpled notice crookedly taped to the front entrance announcing no breakfasts—not even a small takeaway bag—would be served “due to Covid.” Four years previous the hot breakfast had been a stand-out feature.

I questioned the front desk clerk, clad in a tee shirt and watching Netflix on a laptop, why not even a takeaway brown bag. Again the big shrug, and the single utterance, “Covid!”

I retorted that we’ve all been vaccinated and not a soul was wearing masks, including the hotel staff. This time came a sustained, tired shrug before his eyes returned to the screen. Why couldn’t I see that Covid covered all things wrong?

“Then how about a discount to cover the loss of breakfast?” I asked.

“Already built into the rate,” came the quick, well-practiced reply, his focus never leaving the laptop screen. I couldn’t tell one way or another whether the rate was discounted, of course.

Nor did housekeeping clean and make up the room or replace the towels for two nights. (“Covid!”)

En route home on Monday morning I called Delta between flights to find an alternate itinerary for Halloween to New York after a schedule change, one of many schedule changes this summer. When I complained that the extra cost to modify my flight was exorbitant, especially considering it was over two months out, the agent blamed Covid. When I asked her to be more specific, she just said, conspiratorially, “Well, you know. Covid has changed everything!”

And right she is.

Remote Covid test worked in the African wilderness

For months I’ve sweated and obsessed planning the Covid test requirements for another trip to South Africa. That is, what types of tests would I need and how would I get them. I just got home from that successful trip last weekend. Naturally, before leaving the USA, I researched ways and means to get Covid-tested in both directions.

South Africa required a PCR test, which was fast and easy to get, thanks to Wake County Health Services here in central North Carolina offering free, on-demand tests. I uploaded my negative test results to the United Airlines website before flying over there, a requirement to be allowed to board, and had to show the printed results on arrival to South African health officials to be allowed to enter the country.

The U.S. CDC requires Americans returning from other countries to produce a negative Covid test, too, but it can be either a PCR or a quick antigen test. Thanks to the United.com website, I discovered that Abbott Labs offers a CDC-approved, at-home antigen test in partnership with emed labs that is monitored remotely by video to assure the test subject’s identity. Sounded good, but it was dependent upon a good cell signal to work via smartphone, and who knew if I could get tested remotely using my phone from the African wilderness?

The United website made the process sound easy, but I wasn’t sure:

HOW IT WORKS (For roundtrip flights originating in the U.S.)

  1. Book your roundtrip flight.
  2. Order COVID-19 Antigen rapid tests on eMed.com.
  3. Tests are shipped to your U.S. address (or local pick-up location).
  4. Create a digital health pass account, download the app, and pack two (2) tests per person in your carry-on bag before leaving the U.S.
  5. Three (3) days before returning to the U.S., start your test session.
  6. Receive an eMed Labs Report with your test result. (optional test result available in the NAVICA™ app.)
  7. If negative, share your eMed Labs Report test result to board the return flight.
  8. Return to U.S.

I decided to give it a try. Looking deeper, I found two options for ordering the test kits. The emed site offered six kits for $150, or just $25 each. Since I only needed two tests, I chose instead to buy the same kits in a 2-pack from Optum Labs for $70, or $35 per test. Ordering from Optum was quick and efficient, and the test kits were delivered in less than two days.

I carefully packed the small kits in my carryon and flew off to South Africa where I visited the Kruger National Park for about a week. The Kruger, which I’ve written about often, is huge—about the size of Belgium—and of course a wilderness area. However, improved cell service throughout South Africa means that I can usually get a halfway decent signal most, but not, all places in the Kruger. I wasn’t sure I could at Satara Camp in the Kruger where I calculated I’d be three days prior to my flight, and the test results had to be dated not more than 72 hours before the date of departure. Therefore, I planned to try to administer the remote antigen test the morning of the third day before my flight date.

My backup if that failed was to make a 6-hour round trip drive from Satara to the Skukuza Camp Doctors Office for a PCR test that’s sent to a lab outside the Kruger National Park. That process requires 24-72 hours to get results and costs about $120 altogether (compared to the Abbott antigen test kit price of $35 delivered). But I wouldn’t know if the long detour to Skukuza and back was necessary until I tried the Abbott/emed remote test, and so I was time-crunched to do it Tuesday for my Friday flight. Consequently, I was in a hurry that morning to get to Satara Camp to launch the remote Abbott/emed test.

Thus, after two nights at the Kruger’s Olifants Camp, at 600am I departed to make my way south to Satara Camp for the next two nights. A ground mist and overcast sky dimmed the sunrise. The main road was rich with wildlife, which I often stopped to watch and photograph, but I was still able to reach Satara by 800am and start the remote Covid test procedure.

Because I couldn’t check into my Satara accommodations until 200pm, I didn’t have a private place to conduct the test. I wandered over to the electrified perimeter fence near the Satara Camp restaurant where no one would mind if I removed my mask (unlike in America, everybody in South Africa wears a mask when around others), and I used my phone, which had a middling signal of two to three bars, to sign into the emed website.

I was soon connected to a representative by video who was able to remotely manipulate my phone’s front and rear cameras to verify my identity (closeup of my passport) and to scan the unique code on my sealed test box. She and another rep took me through the entire test process in about 40 minutes.

My test result was negative (Whew!), and I was able to access the PDF of the official test result certificate within two minutes. I uploaded that negative test result to the United website as required for me to board my flight home on Friday evening. United Airlines approved it, as promised, within 24 hours, evidenced through a text message. I was therefore able to check in and board my flight Friday without any hassle. On arrival in Newark from Johannesburg, no U.S. official asked to see my test result (unlike my arrival in Johannesburg where I had to show a negative test results to South African officials before being allowed through to SA Immigration).

It was way cool that I was able to do all that standing within a few feet of the fence separating me from the African wilderness. The internet and smartphone technology are amazing tools. Thanks to the remote test kit, I was able to avoid the long trek to Skukuza and back for the PCR test. Not to mention save money on both the test itself and gasoline for the long trip south and back. I plan to buy and use more of these tests when I fly United again to South Africa in October. I understand other airlines, including Delta, also recognize and accept the Abbott/emed test results, though I haven’t verified that. I hope the Abbott/emed test will soon be accepted by all airlines for all Americans returning from international travel.

United Airlines: Misery and madness

Months ago when I booked Raleigh-Newark-Johannesburg (South Africa) on United Airlines for me and a friend, I purchased first class tickets for the domestic connection RDU/Newark and in swanky international business class on the 16-hour Newark/Johannesburg leg on July 29. I checked in for both flights Wednesday night, July 28 and went to bed certain that Thusday, July 29 was going to run smoothly, my first overseas trip since Covid began.

Then United sent me a text at 130am canceling the Raleigh-Newark flight with no alternate flight booked. Reason given was bad weather approaching New York + Newark runway construction.

I later confirmed bad storms were forecast in the NY area for late on July.29 and that Newark has just a single operating runway while rebuilding other(s). However, that doesn’t explain why United didn’t rebook our paid first class seats and sent only a middle-of-the-night notice.

United also canceled my friend and colleague’s RDU/EWR (Newark) flight, Newark/Johannesburg (JNB), plus 3 intra-Africa flights, his Johannesburg/Newark leg, and his Newark/RDU flight.

United eventually, after many long and confusing phone calls, rebooked my colleague on the EWR/JNB nonstop with me, but not on his intra-Africa flights–which they had no business canceling to begin with because they’d been booked and paid for directly with the South African carrier (SA Airlink).

Originally, United had rebooked him on the following day’s Newark/Johannesburg flight without asking him and without considering whether his Covid PCR test results would be accepted by the South African government since they’d be a day late by then, nor whether his onward travel plans, including hotel, air and car rental, were impacted. Totally stupid and non-integrated.

At 704am July 29 when I learned this, I booked a Hertz car one way Raleigh to Newark (an 8 hour drive) as insurance. If we left by 9am, we could make it by 5pm for our 845p united flight to Johannesburg (Avis & Budget reported no cars).

Meanwhile, I notified my long-suffering travel agent who had booked the rez. He was able to quickly book us on a Delta RDU/New York LaGuardia nonstop at 105p for $218 each one way. So I canceled the Hertz rez and dashed to RDU without breakfast. Good thing I was already packed and ready to go. Our agent said I can get United to refund for the outbound portion of the ticket when I get home. I kept hoping the return EWR/RDU wasn’t canceled. (I got an email from UA the next day saying it was indeed canceled.)

Arriving RDU, I was surprised to find the Skycaps are working the curb again, first time since Covid. I tipped one $5 to get our bags inside because I knew I might be able to get us on an earlier flight to LGA than 105p. The sooner we got to New York, the better, I thought. I didn’t want the Skycap to check our bags on the confirmed 105p flight if we stood a prayer of getting on the 1051am flight.

Sure enough, the Delta Air Lines Priority counter agents were extremely helpful and sympathetic when I explained our plight. They put us on standby for the 1051am nonstop to LGA and checked our bags on that earlier flight.

We rushed through TSA PRE-check and to the standby flight gate D5. The agent had already cleared us and handed us Comfort+ boarding passes. Mine was 6D, a window. My traveling companion was in 5A. Lucky us. No thanks to United.

The 1051am Delta flight left the gate on time. Now we just had to figure out how to get from LaGuardia to Newark.

Off the ground at 1059am.

All but three window shades were closed throughout the flight. What’s wrong with people? No one looks out at the world from above any more. Are we all really so jaded that the magic of flying doesn’t penetrate our sensibilities?

Routine but adequate service on the little E175 airplane. If it’s on time, I kept thinking, I’ll be thankful. It arrived early.

Thick cumulus clouds mostly obscured the New York area on descent.

Landed 1208pm.

Left LGA 1242p via Uber in a Suburban to EWR for $139. Our Nepalese driver has been in the USA for 5 years. Spoke understandable English despite having arrived from Kathmandu not speaking a word. Impressive, I thought.

Our driver navigated from LaGuardia (in Queens) via the Williamsburg Bridge to traverse lower Manhattan to the Holland Tunnel, creeping across town, as usual. A stifling 102° in Holland Tunnel.

Arrived New Jersey 125p. Arrived EWR Airport 143p.

Checked in, with great help from United agent Michael Lewana [sp?] (from Brazil), and were through security at 207p.

Found the single open Newark UA club at gate C75 to wait. Our flight was due to leave from gate C121 at 845p, a long wait. But we were there! And that morning we didn’t think we would be. No thanks to United.

Nobody at United could confirm if my return flight EWR/RDU on Aug 7 is valid after United canceled today’s RDU/EWR flight. The agents in the UA club (only two people, and of course swamped) were poorly trained, with no authority, and had to phone for help. The people they phoned were utterly incompetent. So, NOTHING was straightened out. But by then I’d had two Hendricks gin and tonics, so I was more sanguine about my chances than earlier.

It was a literal Dr. Seuss-in-the-third-world situation. I’m pretty sure we could have sold sold our dinky two-person table for $50/seat. The United Club was horrible, a canker on the entire American scene.

Making things worse, I discovered that there are just just two sit-down toilets and two urinals for guys in the entire United Club with 500+ people there. Just added to the chaos with men standing in line.

The Club was packed out: SRO. Covid must love that place.

With boarding 90 minutes away, I hoped the flight in business class to Johannesburg would be the highlight of that hectic day.
Our misery wasn’t over, though. The Johannesburg flight left an hour late and arrived an hour late in South Africa, but I’ll save that story for next week.

For the record, there was no reason for United Airlines to cancel domesic flight ls in South Africa that were spaced out over two weeks and booked and paid for independently of the UA itinerary.
And of course United had no reason to cancel anything that was not tied to the RDU/EWR separate reservation.

Thank goodness our travel agent responded to email from home before he even left for work that morning.

And that our agent looked into the Newark/Johannesburg record and noticed United had canceled the SA space, otherwise, we would have had a rude surprise when showing up for the flight once overseas.

Thank goodness our agent got two of the last three seats RDU to LGA, while other United passengers were on hold forerver to get protection or standing in a long line.


Thank goodness our agent was able to rebook SA Airlink and hold it without selling a new ticket so we could talk to their agents on arrival in South Africa and get the reservations fixed. All no thanks to United Airlines.

Altogether, a vivid picture of why I haven’t flown on United since 1994 or 95. If I didn’t already hold two more paid business class tickets on the same UA flights for Oct-Nov and Feb-Mar travel back to South Africa, I wouldn’t risk such misery and madness again.