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.