Blog|May 11, 2013 1:55 pm

South African Airways = FUBAR

SAA(FUBAR = military slang for “F*cked up beyond all reason”)

There’s an old Phil Woods quote that runs like this: “They (the promoters) don’t pay us to play – they pay us to get there”. The idea, of course, is that the travel is the hardest part of many gigs. Recent events, however, have seen us scratch our heads in thinking about how to update the quote to reflect that it’s sometimes even harder to get paid NOT to get there.

On April 3 Dafnis Prieto and I were supposed to travel to Cape Town Jazz Festival for an April 5 performance with Chano Dominguez. Chano Dominguez, Blas Cordoba and Felipe Cabrera were traveling from Europe (Barcelona & Paris) on Emirates Airlines, whereas Dafnis Prieto and I were traveling from NYC on South African Airways.

Our itinerary was to fly out of NYC/JFK on SA204 departing April 3 at 11:15am. Almost immediately upon boarding that flight and sitting down in our seats, we were told to leave the airplane and that it would be cancelled due to an engine problem. Naturally we did not want to fly on a plane that had any kind of issues, and were understanding of the fact that these things can happen, so we left the aircraft and then waited patiently for 3 1/2 hours while SAA were re-booking all passengers to other flights. We actually felt sorry for the staff as these situations are very stressful with tremendous pressure on the airline staff.

When we finally reached the counter to have our re-bookings done it became apparent that the earliest flight we could expect to get on would be Emirates EK772 departing almost exactly 12 hours later than the original flight, and connecting through Dubai instead of Johannesburg. There would be a 8 hour layover in Dubai between the flights. SAA agreed to give us vouchers (after some convincing) for a hotel day-room in the JFK area as we were not happy with the idea of having to sit around the airport for 8 hours (after having spend 4hrs on our feet getting rebooked) prior to flying for 15 and then sit around for another 8 hours before going on the next fight. No chance of any rooms in Dubai.

It was 4pm by the time we got to the dayroom. At 8pm we went back to the airport to check-in for the Emirates flight, opting to show up early and hope to not get middle seats for the long flight.

However, upon attempting to check-in at the Emirates counter in JFK we were told that, even though they had given us a voucher confirming we would be on this Emirates flight, SAA had never actually made the booking for us. We were not officially in the system. We had our voucher and we might be able to get on, but there would be no meals and – worse – there would be no connection out of Dubai to Cape Town, because all those seats were taken. There would be no way for us to get to Cape Town in time for our gig, we would only be able to get there AFTER the gig or perhaps even after the festival itself.

Add to that that no SAA counters were open by this time, and that all phone-lines were closed for the day. There was no way of getting in touch with any SAA staff whatsoever.

A friend of ours, who works with Robert Glasper (who also performed at the festival), instantly purchased a new ticket (on a third airline) through his travel agent that would have him arrive in time for Robert’s gig (but not for ours) and which would have him fly JFK-Dubai-Johannesburg-Cape Town – close to 30 hours of traveling. That ticket cost him an additional $2000. Dafnis and I did not have authorization to do this (and get reimbursed) and we would have arrived after our gig anyway, so we opted to go back to our homes in NYC and see what we could do from there.

We reached out to Cape Town Jazz Festival who has a very experienced travel agent working for them to help coordinate all of the travel logistics. Even though this was in the middle of the night (between 4am & 5am) for them, they stood on their heads to try to get someone from SAA to put us on a flight the next day in order for us to get to the gig. We told SAA at this point they needed to upgrade us to biz class, because we needed to be able to rest to get to gig relatively fresh and be able to perform, and also felt that they owed it to us after the accumulation of screw-ups they had heaped on us.

The people at CTJF could not get a hold of anybody in SAA for a few hours, and by the time we were told we could take an 11am flight out of JFK it was 8:15am and we’d need to be back in JFK within 45 minutes to check-in, which was physically impossible for us. Also there would be no upgrade. Dafnis and I both accepted we’d have to go coach and agreed to do so IF they could get us there. However, eventually as we kept trying to find new ways to get to Cape Town it just became clear there would be no way for us to get there in time. We even investigated moving the gig, but it wasn’t possible for CTJF to do so.

So on April 4 it became clear that Dafnis Prieto and I would not be able to make it to Cape Town. Chano Dominguez played his gig without drums and Dafnis and I missed it entirely.

Subsequently we were, to put it mildly, pretty annoyed with South African Airways. Their multiple & compounded mistakes meant that Dafnis and I missed the event altogether. CTJF compensated us per our agreement with no problem whatsoever, but we were completely bummed out about missing the event as Cape Town and CTJF are WONDERFUL! Plus we also had other business meetings etc planned while we were supposed to be there.

We asked that South African Airways, one, reimbursed the tickets in full and, two, that they provided us with another r/t ticket to Cape Town (coach) that we could use when we wanted to – in part so that we could conduct the biz meetings were supposed to have in the first place. We thought this was pretty fair given what they had put us and Cape Town Jazz Festival through.

South African Airways has offered us 25% off purchasing an entirely new ticket. Nothing else. Nothing more. We have told them this is not fair, but they will not budge.

Cape Town Jazz Festival caught them lying about us being able to have made the original flight, claiming we could have gotten on that flight and there were seats. However, CTJF have access to the booking systems and could tell it was a lie.

And SAA refuses to take responsibility for the mishap that led to us not being able to fly out on Emirates, but instead claim that they “succeeded in getting us rebooked”. To put it in plain English: They are full of shit. And we won’t fly with them ever again if there’s ANY possible – even more expensive – way to avoid doing so.

Generally speaking there’s not much elegance in flying anymore. However, SAA have set a new low-bar for customer treatment. As individual customers we have very little leverage with them, dealing with them is like being in a Franz Kafka novel. They speak their corporate-speak but there’s no give whatsoever. All we can do on our end now is vote with our pocket book and help spread the word via social media.

We hope you will help us give SAA a reminder that it’s not free to treat people like this by spreading this as far as you can. Please post a link to this article on your Facebook, your Twitter (use @flySAA_US to tag SAA over here) and other social networks if you agree that they mishandled this situation and were irresponsible in their actions.

P.S: Freshlyground recently (early May) had to fly out of Cape Town to London. But SAA cancelled their flight and FG had to stay the night over in the airport to get to London much later, making their trip much more stressful and missing some important meetings. Upon investigation it turned out that the flight had been stranded in NYC. We wrote to SAA to find out what happened. They claimed that a lightning had struck their plane, and that was the cause of the plane never leaving NYC. Curious how things always happen to SAA.

Oh and South African Airways has also recently been rated the 9th worst airline in the world when it comes to safety record. Click here for that article.

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