Every year’s journeys have to begin somewhere, and for me, 2019 starts with a quick “comfy mileage run” from Toronto to Johannesburg and back with KLM.
The comfy mileage run, by my definition, is any mileage run taken pretty much exclusively for the purpose of the journey. If normally, getting there is half the fun, here we’re talking probably more like 80 percent. Beyond that, the comfy mileage run aims to earn as many elite-qualifying and redeemable miles as possible, while flying in a premium cabin, all for as few dollars as possible.
This trip was booked on a cheap Delta “V” economy fare, and upgraded at booking with Global Upgrade Certificates. I get in-depth on how all that worked in the Booking section at the beginning of the YYZ-AMS flight-report, linked in the Rundown below.
… he had just arrived at the Premier Hotel O.R. Tambo, crashed hard, overslept checkout time by half an hour, and been granted a couple of extra hours to get himself together.
I check in on my ride back to Amsterdam, and it’s well on its way. Hmm… it’s KLM Asia livery on its way to Johannesburg again today. What does it mean? What does it mean?!
I take advantage of much of the time and get out of my room a little before 2:00 pm. in time to catch the 2:00 airport shuttle back to the airport. I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to do with the nearly ten hours until my departure. I could go into town on the Gautrain. Or I could hang out at the airport and work for much of the North American workday. And that ends up being my plan, as a few important things came in during my flight down to Johannesburg that require my attention, plus there’s a lovely little observation deck at O.R. Tambo.
It’s only about 10 minutes to the airport, and I’m dropped off at the departures level. The open atrium at the centre of the terminal, between international and domestic parts of the terminal, is a very impressive space.
There’s quite a commotion down at arrivals — a bunch of people with banners and balloons, hooting and hollering and blowing vuvuzelas (Remember those?). This draws me to the conclusion that they’re awaiting the return of a sports team of some sort.
Having not eaten since the pre-arrival meal on the flight down to Johannesburg, I’m quite hungry now, 18 hours or so later. So I find the food court and decide that Nando’s seems like a good idea.
WiFi at the airport is decent in speed, certainly better than the hotel, and is available for four hours at a time. In the past, it used to be a pathetic 30 minutes for free. Corporate shot time? If you insist.
With lunch over, it’s off to the observation deck for…
OR Tambo has an excellent spotting deck. It’s about a five-minute walk from the end of the main terminal through a bunch of airline offices. It’s indoor, but the air conditioning seems to be struggling with the heat outside. It’s markedly warmer than the main terminal itself.
There’s not a lot going on as I show up. Just a Rwandair A330 to the left, and an SAA A320 to the right.
An SA Airlink Embraer pushes back in front of us.
In the distance, a bunch of heavy tails sit waiting near the international gaits, including BA, Swiss, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore, Lufthansa, and Air France. The majority are the European airlines that arrived this morning and will head out this evening.
A rarity for me — an Avro RJ is towed to the terminal.
I’m not sure whose livery this bird is in.
Congo Airways off to Kinshasa.
Lots of little Embraers on display at JNB this afternoon, including this one from FastJet, which is much more popular than SlowJet.
Kenya Airways just arriving from Nairobi.
Flightradar24 says this 737-400 is from Comair, but its colours suggest otherwise. Either way, another rarity to see a 737-400 in 2019.
Emirates freshly arrived from Dubai. It would taxi into the gates over to the far left from the observation deck, so this is the best look I could get at it.
A for-real Comair — but this time a 737-800 — off to Durban.
Lots going on in this shot — Qatar pulls in from Doha, while an SA baby Embraer is towed to a gate, while a Mango 737-800 races down the runway.
Qatar pulls in to the gate immediately in front of me. Nice!
Qatar is followed in short order by Delta — 777 little brother (-200LR from Atlanta) following big brother (-300ER from Doha.)
Delta pulls in next to Rwandair, bringing this little afternoon rush to an end for the moment.
Meanwhile, my ride back to Amsterdam is just a bit less than four hours out of JNB. There doesn’t appear to much in the way of exciting heavies coming in for the next while, so it’s time to head back to the airport proper.
With nothing else to do, I might as well head airside, even if it's still nearly six hours prior to departure.
While I've had relatively long waits sometimes travelling through the A Gates security system, things are pretty light at this hour as it's quite a few hours before the longhaul rush. I'm through security in no more than five minutes. The only thing of note is that I have a momentary lapse of where my passport is located, which causes a look of panic on my face. I quickly find it in its place in my wallet, but the security guard catches it. "I wasn't sure where my passport was," I tell him.
"You can lose everything else, but not that," he replies with a smile. That's pretty much my motto as a traveller. I quickly take my passport out of my wallet and into the shirt pocket where it usually resides when I have to take it out frequently. And all is right with the world.
It's another short wait for passport control. I get a bit of a strange look as the agent realizes I was just stamped in yesterday, but I'm quickly stamped out, and airside at JNB.
And now it's time for…
We’ll start at the near end of the international terminal, and work our way out towards the end, starting with a Turkish A330 that will return to IST tonight.
Lots of hometown Airbus widebodies, with a Delta Boeing in between.
Starting up the long side of the international gates, Lufthansa has a 747-8i bound for Frankfurt.
Johannesburg attracts lots of A380s. There are four in a row in this picture, including two from BA. The parade is led by Emirates.
Then Air France.
A look better at the remote stands, which have a hometwoner, Singapore, Etihad, a couple of British Virgins, Swiss, Alitalia, and finally Egyptair. Quite the row.
Our Tour de Whalebus continues with the second BA A380 on the ground here, with the first appearing in the distance over her right wing.
And finally, Qantas with that rarest of all 747 types, the -400ER.
That’s about it for spotting opportunities for now. It’s time to head back to the main terminal, and then upstairs to the SLOW Lounge.
The SLOW Lounge is one of the largest and probably the best non-airline lounge at JNB. In fact, it might be an upgrade from SA’s flagship lounge so it may be the best.
It’s located centrally on the upper “Lounges” level and is ample space. It’s used by some airlines as a contract lounge, including Air France and KLM.
It’s got a dark wood motif, and the seating is comfortable and varies. There are some themed areas, including a library and a media room, with a central buffet area and a long bar. There are also a couple of private rooms for working, and some literature on display.
Access to power outlets seems to be mixed — some areas have plenty, some areas could use a few more. I choose a place with good access to a plug as my phone and laptop would both benefit from a top-up.
The buffet features a number of cold options and just a pair of hot dishes.
I pick some snacks with a decidedly Mediterranean theme, then stop by the bar for a glass of water and a local beer. All pretty good. I wouldn’t hit this lounge exclusively for the food, but what is available is solid.
The bartender, who stressed when I ordered my drinks that tips are allowed, is proactively seeking them out and brings me another beer along with some chips. I don’t have any Rand on me, but he happily accepts the few Hong Kong dollars that happen to be hanging out in my wallet. I haven’t been to Hong Kong in about 10 months at this point. Why am I still carrying their currency? The chips are salt and vinegar. I like the cut of this guy’s jib.
The WiFi is fast and the connection solid. I check in on my plane, which has just crossed into Angolan airspace.
There are limited apron views from this lounge, as it looks out onto the departure gates that in turn look out onto the apron. For reference regarding where this is situated, we’re looking out on the QR 77W that we saw arrive a little earlier from the observation deck.
As I sit and comment on some flight-reports, the bartender proactively offers me another beer. Is he trying to get me drunk? A while later, he offers more chips too. I could get used to this.
My next stop is the showers. The washrooms are all single-occupant, and there are a couple of attendants directing traffic and servicing facilities. So it seems to these women are probably the people to ask about a shower. I'm correct. The shower is ready for me, but the attendant has to get me a towel before I'm let in.
The shower rooms keep with the dark and rich feeling of the overall lounge and are well-appointed with a rain showerhead, some nice African-themed amenities, and perhaps the first on/off button I've ever seen in a shower.
One more shot, this time portrait to capture the whole setup.
I leave feeling refreshed. And as I leave the washrooms, located in the centre of the lounge, I'm reminded that there's another section to the left of the main entrance. Even though I've been here before – and didn't notice it then either – I'm surprised to recall this now.
With Air France having departed, and still almost three hours prior to KLM's departure, the lounge is pretty quiet on both sides at this point.
A little before 11 — about 20 minutes before boarding is slated to start, I make my way out of the lounge, and towards Gate A16. I’m struck by how empty the terminal is at this hour. There are very few people around, and those around are mostly headed towards Gate A16. Even most of the shops are closed up.
When I arrive at the gate, they have a pair of checkpoints set up, with separate “holding areas” for Business class and SkyPriority passengers, and for economy pax.
Once I’m checked into the lounge, I get the first look at my ride back to Amsterdam, looking good in her KLM Asia livery.
Late-night FIDS screen. No wonder the terminal is empty — there’s one flight leaving at the same time as us, and then two more until after 6 am.
Boarding starts about 11:10, with wheelchairs and passengers needing extra time. About five minutes after that, they welcome business class passengers, and I’m on my way.
From: Johannesburg O.R. Tambo (JNB)
To: Amsterdam Schipol (AMS)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200ER
ATD (STD): 12:04+1 (23:55)
ATA (STA): 10:08+1 (10:20+1)
For this flight, I’m back in 2D, same as from YYZ-AMS. The seat is set up the same way too. I’ll skip the details on the seat — check out YYZ-AMS or AMS-JNB from this series for a more thorough description of the features of the seat. Just like my AMS-JNB flight, there’s a power problem at my seat. This time, though, the USB port and the remote handset work just fine. It’s the AC power port that’s nonfunctional.
Service begins with the amenity kit — the same as offered on YYZ-AMS, I guess this is the inbound to AMS version of the bag.
Headphones are the same too — good quality noise-cancelling set, although I’d not use the IFE early in this flight, instead trying to catch up on my podcast lineup.
A tray of pre-departure beverages is offered next, including Heineken, water, orange juice and champagne. I take my regular water and champagne duo.
Again, this flight offers a pre-departure canapé plate, so I guess that’s part of the “new service” I learned about from the flight attendant on AMS-JNB. This time it’s a shrimp and zucchini skewer, and a chicken and red pepper skewer. The shrimp skewer is cold, and not very good. The chicken skewer is heated and is quite tasty.
Next up, menus are distributed. The new meal service concept is in full effect here, and with a midnight departure, they’ve decided to go with a “eat what you want, when you want” for the post-departure meal, with a scheduled breakfast before arrival. This is a great idea, offering passengers ultimate flexibility. And it’s even better in execution, as we’ll see in a few paragraphs. This time, I am offered a wine menu.
We push back a few minutes before our scheduled departure time, with the Delft blue safety video playing. You can tell it’s recently made because it heavily features what to do if the Lithium Ion battery in your device decides to go supernova in-flight.
It’s a short taxi because there’s no one else departing or arriving, so we’re into the air pretty much right on schedule.
Once we cross 10,000 feet, the crew springs into action — it’s evident from the beginning that the name of the game here is getting service completed and getting the lights off. Service starts with water bottles being dropped off at every seat.
Then a hot towel is handed out, and the senior purser, a tall, thin man with a shaved bald head and wireframe glasses, stops by for a brief chat, introducing himself, and inquiring about whether I’m heading home.
Drink carts come out next, and I expect to hear “What would you like to drink,” so I’m thrown when I hear “What would you like to eat.” It turns out that the cart is loaded with the cold dishes, and I request the beef appetizer, the soup, and the beef bobotie. The first of those dishes is offered straight from the cart, while the soup and entrée have to be ordered from the forward galley. She then takes my drink order, and I request my standard order, a glass of champagne and a glass of water.
The artichoke hummus with roast beef isn’t terribly exciting, but it’s a decent cold canapé. I think it would be improved if the beef were warmed up, even if just slightly.
The soup is brought out a minute later, and it’s accompanied by bread, olive oil, and a small salad with a bunch of pickled vegetables on top. The soup is delicious, as soup on a plane usually is, and the salad is nice because there’s only a thin layer of greens on the bottom, beneath a bunch of marinated veggies.
The senior purser tries to bring by the beef bobotie — a kind of South African meatloaf — while I was still eating the appetizers, but ultimately decided to take it back to the galley and bring it back when I’m done because there’s not enough space on the table for everything. When I’m done the two appetizers, my dishes are promptly cleared, and the bobotie is brought back. It’s not bad, but not terribly exciting — it leans more towards sweet than I would have expected.
When I’m done with that, dishes are cleared again, and the flight attendant asks if I’d like anything else to eat. I request the cheese plate, and the chocolate tart, and they’re promptly brought out. Both are quite enjoyable, but I prefer the cheese to the dessert.
Finally, a KLM chocolate house to wrap up the meal.
And with that, dinner is finished one hour to the minute after departure from Johannesburg. Yes, it was a slightly smaller meal than my YYZ-AMS meal in terms of portion size, but it was completed in a third of the time, and I’m feeling pretty full when it’s done. I think this was a super-smart way to handle first meal service on a flight leaving at this hour., and I applaud KLM’s approach here.
Before I turn in for the night, it’s time for a trip to the lav, which is precisely the same as the other two flights, so I shan’t offer much comment.
Back at my seat, one quick check at the moving map and I put the bed down flat, and decide to see if I can get some sleep. I’m only feeling slightly tired at this point, though, so even with my favourite go-to-sleep podcast on, I recognize within a half hour or so that I’m not feeling sleepy to conk out right now. So I putter for somewhere around an hour and a half on my computer and then try again. It still takes a while, but I don’t get through a full 25-minute episode of the podcast before getting to sleep.
I’m in a groggy half-awake state when I start to recognize the house lights are up. I open an eye to see what the situation is, and see a cart in the aisle. I guess it’s about breakfast time. And that’s good because as I become more aware of my situation, I become aware that I’m starting to get hungry. The cart is still at row one, so I begin to put my seat up and get ready to face the day.
When the cart reaches my row, I request the pancakes. Fruit is offered from the cart, a danish from the bread basket on the cart, and the senior purser appears a few moments later, while I’m giving my drink requests, with the pancakes from the forward galley. Orange juice and a coffee complete the breakfast. A hard-boiled egg is offered from the cart but decline. Again, the more orchestrated service of the new system is very nicely executed.
The fruit is a decent selection and seems fresh. The danish is fine and has some raisins inside it. The pancakes — although they look more like crepes to me — are quite lovely, full of fruit and a bit of cinnamon, and accented nicely by the creme anglaise and the almond slivers. Not the most extensive breakfast I’ve had an airline, but a very good one nicely presented.
As he clears my dishes, the senior purser asks if there’s anything else I’d like, and I request one more cup of coffee. It is quickly delivered with its own little tray.
With breakfast complete, I go to retrieve my computer from the storage space over my shoulder. As I do so, I notice that a lot the passengers behind me have green lights on their power outlets, which were not lit earlier when I saw my own power outlet was not working. Sure enough, when I open my computer, it’s showing 100 percent charged, rather than 25 or so percent it was at when I closed it before going to bed. So apparently, the outlets either started working on their own at some point in the night, or someone mentioned it to the crew, and they took action to bring the power system back to life. Either way, it’s a pleasant “good morning” not to have a computer running on fumes to start the day.
At exactly an hour out of Amsterdam, a flight attendant rolls the cart down the aisle with the traditional Delft blue houses. The person across the aisle from me must have a particular request because she spends a couple of minutes going through her stock of little houses in search of something specific. When she gets to me, I select number #94 to join the collection. She then tells me that because I have a connecting flight to Toronto, she’ll have to put it in a plastic bag and seal it for me, as otherwise it will be confiscated in Amsterdam. I didn’t see any opportunity for a check that would lead to such confiscation when connecting in AMS on the way down, but better safe than sorry, so I ask about the two I have from the trip down. She says that if I have them in my hand baggage, I should get them out and she’ll come back and bag them for me. And sure enough she does a few minutes later, but I’m left wondering if she thought I was making a connection to a Schengen destination, where a check would be more likely? Because there was no check of any kind on my non-Schengen to non-Schengen connection on my way down. Oh well. We chat briefly about my layover, and she tells me I can go to the lounge to freshen up or eat if I want. I resist the urge to reply “If I can fit in.”
The senior purser stops by minutes later, inquiring how the baseball game I was playing on my computer was going. Jays 2, Bosox 2, I reply. We’d go on to win it on 9th inning triple followed by a wild pitch, in case anyone’s interested. He wishes me well on my trip home.
Service wraps up with the same raspberry purée and apple juice drink that was offered as the farewell drink on the way down to Johannesburg.
By this time, we’re just about 25 minutes out of Amsterdam, so I decide it’s time to put everything away and get ready for arrival into Schipol.
Yep. Almost there.
If I may offer one small criticism here — KLM offers little write-ups on origin and destination in the moving map. Something about what they have to say about Johannesburg gets under my skin a little bit.
Okay, I get it. There are parts of Joburg that are dangerous. But I’ve been there numerous times, and have always felt safe around where I’ve been. Granted, that’s mostly the area around Tambo and the Sandton core, but still. The summary for Amsterdam, by comparison, talks about a city of contrasts that’s modern but has great old architecture. There’s no reference to any danger or controversy anywhere. It just seems a bit odd to be like “Hey, we sold you this ticket to this great place… but you should be scared!”
We touch down and have a relatively long taxi to the terminal. I’m so looking forward to having a window on my next flight!
As we head off the plane, the flight attendant who offered me the Delft house wishes me goodbye and a pleasant flight to Toronto. Seeing me just in a short-sleeve shirt, she asks, “Don’t you have a coat?” Hey, it was only -30 when I left Toronto. You expect me to put on long sleeves for that? Pshaw. I reply that it’s in my bag. It’s about freezing in Amsterdam, so it’s cold in the jetway, but not uncomfortably so.
A short walk, and sure enough, my flight attendant friend was correct. There is a security check on arrival here. I’m curious what requires a security check on arrival for non-Schengen to non-Schengen connection at Amsterdam? My data points are obviously limited, but so far I know “Toronto to Amsterdam? Go right ahead!” and “Johannesburg to Amsterdam? Let’s take a closer look.”
Security only takes a minute or two as there’s no one in front of me. No laptops out of the bag or anything like that, but it’s a full nude-o-vision scanner instead of X-ray. My rollaboard with the potentially sensitive Delft houses is fine, but my backpack gets flagged for a second look. Or at least, it gets sent to the agent, who takes a quick look at the screen and proclaims me good to go without so much as a look inside. So I’m not sure what the issue was.
Down the escalator I go, and into the concourse in search of the KLM Crown Lounge to see what kind of sea of humanity awaits me a little later in the morning. This is where I’ll leave this one. Wish me luck!
Thanks for joining me for this adventure, and I hope you’ll join me for the exciting finale of this series. A different kind of plane! The Queen of the Skies! A window! Going home to YYZ! Dontchadaremissit!
KLM's new service concept seems well thought-out, with optimized schedules for both AMS-JNB and JNB-AMS. On this midnight departure, the crew did an excellent job of getting as much of a meal as people wanted into passengers who wanted it, and getting it done so those wanting to sleep could get to sleep.
Service was the usual courteous and friendly KLM standard, with good engagement from both flight attendants and senior purser.
The seat remains a bit of a weak point, but was fine for sleeping on this flight.
Another well done flight on KLM's part. I hope this new service approach rolls out throughout their longhaul offering in the near future.