Air Travel in East Africa or Hot, Messy and Crowded redux

The easiest way to have your stereotypes of Africa affirmed is probably to watch a patronising video from an aid organisation trying to solicit donations. But a very close second is to fly into one of East Africa’s international airports.

Some of you may be wondering if perhaps I’ve just had a bad experience at a particular airport that prompted this post. In fact, I’ve had several comical, and probably preventable experiences at different airports across the region, and I can’t help but feel that these airports, which are the first thing in Africa that most travelers see, give a very bad first impression.

Experience, the first

My own first entree into Africa was at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. The airport was, unfortunately, just what you might expect from Africa: ill-maintained, swelteringly hot, and disorganised.  Since we’d just arrived from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, which is not much of a looker itself, I was less bothered by the Nairobi airport’s aesthetic deficiencies than by its pervasive disorder, although the combination of church basement and factory break room that served as the departure lounge won no points from me.

Experience, the second

This past Christmas, Faith and I traveled to Oman. Luckily, by the time we arrived at Entebbe Airport for our 3:20 am flight to Bahrain, we had been living in Uganda for several months and had flown in and out of Entebbe several times. But if that had been our first glimpse of  Uganda, wow…

First of all, the airport was absolutely swarming with lake flies (Entebbe is on the shores of Lake Victoria). While we waited to check in, I initially tried to swat flies away from me, but there were just too many for me to sustain the effort for long. When we finally stepped up to the counter, it was covered in dead flies. Gross!

But that was only the beginning: the ticketing agent proceeded to issue our boarding passes, which meant hand-writing a select few pieces of information on paper.

As you can see, these high-tech boarding passes did not include seat numbers. Some of you might be thinking to yourselves that the no-class American carrier Southwest Airlines also doesn’t assign seats on flights, so what could be the problem here? Well, Southwest boards passengers in several different stages, allowing the first group to pick the best seats and get settled in before the next group boards the plane to claim the next-best seats.

Not so, on this flight!

Everyone was instructed to board at the same time, creating a madhouse as everyone crowded on to the plane and scrambled for seats near the front. One gentleman who was traveling with his daughter and had the misfortune of being near the end of the rush, was unable to find two seats together in coach, and, wanting to sit with his daughter, asked if they might sit in first class, as there were zero passengers seated there.  They were told ‘no.’ Even though there appeared to be no order on the plane, apparently there were rules.

Experience, the third

Faith and I returned this past week from an Easter holiday in Zanzibar. Our flight to Zanzibar featured two stops but only one plane change. Our itinerary looked like this:

1. Entebbe to Dar es Salaam (with a stop in Kilimanjaro)

2. Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar

That flight pattern seemed long, but not too complicated. Au contraire!

When we landed at Kilimanjaro, all passengers were asked to exit the aircraft while it was being refueled. So, we all got off, and then got back on, along with a few new passengers starting out from Kilimanjaro. After we re-boarded, the airline staff told us (Faith and me), that we needed to get back off the plane because our final destination was Kilimanjaro.

We were rather surprised to hear this news, and protested more than a little bit. Nevertheless, we stepped off the plane and waited on the tarmac, while a woman shouted into a radio (the propellers on the plane had already started spinning), someone checked our baggage tags to confirm that we were indeed supposed to be going to Zanzibar, and then we were told to get back on the plane.

Now, our original itinerary had only allowed 50 minutes to make our connection in Dar es Salaam, and the whole debacle regarding our tickets delayed us by about 25 minutes. There were also several other passengers on our flight who were continuing on to Zanzibar, so when we landed in Dar, we were all in a bit of a frenzy. Since our next flight was a domestic flight, we also had to clear immigration and customs in the now shortened time.

The dilapidated halls of Dar es Salaam

One would imagine that this situation happens every day in Dar es Salaam: passengers arriving on an international flight and then connecting to a domestic flight. But it seemed as if that day was the first time the airport had ever encountered that scenario. One immigration officer told us that we needed to collect our bags, clear customs and then re-check them. A different immigration officer told another set of passengers that they could just proceed to their next flight and that the bags would automatically be checked through. Since we were very short on time, and there was no sign of baggage anywhere, we decided to follow the latter advice.

Some staffperson indicated where we were to proceed next by pointing, and we didn’t have time to ask questions, so we followed the direction they seemed to be pointing. But that led us down a corridor so narrow and dim, that we assumed we must be in the wrong place. Amazingly, that dingy hallway was the right place.

As Faith has written previously, it’s important not to generalise frustrations when you are in a foreign country, and it would be particularly unfair to judge a country by its airports. After all, a visitor to the US who had to connect through O’Hare would probably form a rather unfavourable perception of America if they judged it based solely on that experience.

So, having said some uncomplimentary things about the flying experience in East Africa, let me finish with a few beautiful sights you might see if you find yourself on a plane in this part of the world:

Over Lake Victoria, shortly after takeoff from Entebbe

You know what this is, right?

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3 responses to “Air Travel in East Africa or Hot, Messy and Crowded redux

  1. Wow, our flights were silky-smooth by comparison!

    We saw the Lake Victoria flies but were not mobbed by them, and our boarding passes were printed – twice. Of course, that may have been because the power went out whilst we waited for them.

    There is nothing like the total darkness of an African night to make you appreciate reliable infrastructure.

  2. Did you get to see much of Kilimanjaro airport? It was by far the nicer airport between Dar (a dump) and it. Anyway I am happy to hear you made it to Zanzibar.

    • Only for a few minutes in both directions. It seemed like a pretty classy and polished airport, though. I especially liked the lounge built around a tree inside the terminal.

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