Anatomy of a 1935 railroad timetable

The author Rex Stout, creator of the peerless private detective duo of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, wrote his masterpiece “The League of Frightened Men” in 1935.  In the tale his character Nero Wolfe, a denizen of Manhattan, admonishes a client that “You had better run, or you’ll miss your train.”  Stout then has Wolfe add this stern observation on the subject of possibly missing one’s train:

“It occurs to me that no publication either before or since the invention of printing, no theological treatise and no political or scientific creed, has ever been as narrowly dogmatic or as offensively arbitrary in its prejudices as a railway timetable.”

It’s no wonder that even the brilliant and successful Rex Stout harbored such a cold, unsympathetic feeling for railroad timetables in the first half of the twentieth century. The option for on-demand, inter-city mobility by private automobile didn’t yet widely exist. Everyone perforce traveled by train, and thus all rail passengers were in thrall to the services defined in timetables. Travelers marched inexorably to the beat of the timetable. Another character in the same Rex Stout novel alludes to this 1935 reality when he quips that an article should be written on the subject called “The Tyranny of the Wheel.”

The need for predictable, reliable railroad scheduling and safe, dependable operation, after all, was the impetus for the establishment of standard timekeeping and time zones across the country in the post-Civil War 19th century.  Too, the rhythm of departures was driven by the need to optimize the carrying capacity of the rail corridors on which trains moved; the station-by-station schedules published in timetables were the formal documentation of that carefully analyzed operational pulse.  Every public timetable was correlated to the internal company timetable over the same route.

The same capacity optimization need exists today in a mostly freight train era. Every railroad operates according to its TSP, or Transportation Service Plan, which is just as carefully planned to match the capacity of the rail networks with the timing of freight trains—and the occasional Amtrak train—on the corridors.

Thus, in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century when passenger trains defined the way people moved, timetables were a necessity for efficient railroad operation in addition to being a convenient marketing and informational tool for the traveling public to know what trains went where and when.

Over time, the public railroad timetable became much more than mere schedules. The ubiquitous timetable evolved into a uniquely American art form, chockablock full of fares, accommodation descriptions, each train’s consist of cars, travel advertisements, diner menus and prices, and various admonishments, with fine print, footnoted arcana detailing station stop rules and conditions.  It’s a cornucopia of information specifying how we traveled.

Beginning right after World War I and through the Roaring Twenties and 1930s Depression Era, timetable covers were often printed in two or more colors, the better to attract the public’s attention by differentiating each rail company’s identity more sharply.  This trend included the establishment and marketing of distinctive railroad logos and slogans which became familiar to the traveling public, such as the Great Northern Railroad mountain goat, the Pennsylvania Railroad keystone, and the New York Central’s “Water Level Route.”

It was a marvelous time in American and rail history, and the public timetables documented that era for eternity equally as much as Egyptian pyramid hieroglyphs did that ancient period of human history.  I will explore and highlight some of the stories embedded in public railroad timetables in words and pictures through intermittent posts like this one to allenontravel.

I’ve chosen to start with a cursory look at the Great Northern system timetable for the summer of 1935 because it was in use contemporaneously with the publication in August of that year of the Rex Stout novel I quoted from above, “The League of Frightened Men.”  The term “system timetable” means the thick booklet lists every passenger train operated throughout the entire GN network, which in 1935 covered many routes and trains between the Pacific Northwest and Chicago (reached via close-tied Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad).

The cover grabs one’s attention right away in its bold red and black, GN goat logo, and a reminder that Great Northern is the “Route of the EMPIRE BUILDER” which is “Completely Air-Conditioned” to guarantee hot weather comfort aboard.  At the bottom of the front page in drop-out white lettering against a black background is the simple statement “GLACIER NATIONAL PARK” to emphasize the spectacular natural beauty of the American West through which its trains passed.

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Inside the fold a full page, two-color advertisement was devoted to describing the luxe and excitement of traveling on the Empire Builder, the GN’s premier train between Chicago, the Twin Cities, and the Pacific Northwest, taking note of piercing the Glacier Park, and including a God’s eye photo looking down on happy, well-dressed families with kids reveling in the comfort of the Builder’s “Luxury Coaches.”

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Note the careful itemization of decision points important to discriminating would-be summer, 1935 travelers: low rail (coach) and sleeping car (Pullman) fares—lower than before (it was the middle of the Depression, after all); lower dining car prices; the comfort of A/C (a luxury in the 1930s); the importance of a clean and quiet environment (read: no coal soot or cinders penetrating the sealed, air-conditioned cars); the many places reached (Glacier Park twice mentioned, along with several Pacific Northwest cities, Alaska, and California).   Clearly, Great Northern’s marketing and art departments were as fully engaged with timetable design and content as was the transportation (operating) department with basic schedules.

All this interesting data, and we haven’t even opened the timetable to the first inside page yet!

Rex Stout’s grievance against timetable tyranny was widely felt at the time and nothing new.  American humorist Will Rogers, who died on August 15, 1935, the day after Stout’s “The League of Frightened Men” was published, took a dig not at the rigidity of schedules, but at the inherent complexity of the timetables themselves, with this quote:

“There are two things I don’t care how smart you are, you will never understand. One is a psychiatrist’s court testimony, and the other is a railroad timetable.”

From time to time allenontravel will unravel the mysteries and wonders of public rail timetables up to about 1970, covering elements such as:

  • Schedules and footnotes, including mainline varnish (the nickname for a railroad’s best trains) and branch line mixed trains (meaning mixed freight and passenger service—usually just a coach or two)
  • System maps, including elevations, and a list of cities served indexed to timetable pages
  • Fare types and tables by class, such as Pullman sleeping care rates
  • Train consists, including accommodation choices (the term “consists” was used as a noun by railroads to mean a car-by-car description of each train’s accommodation type and services, such as Pullman sleepers, diners, lounges, and coaches)
  • Travel highlights: what’s along the line worth seeing and stopping for, including side trips
  • Dining car sample menus and prices
  • Railroad general office list of manager names, titles, and locations
  • Offline connecting schedules with other railroads
  • Advertisements for land, for freight shipments, for sending rail tickets by telegraph, etc.
  • And much more…

Indeed, so much and so varied information packed into a single system timetable leaves no doubt that Will Rogers and Rex Stout were accurately describing the general public sentiment of the time.  If all you wanted to know was what trains went from A to B, then timetables could be daunting.

But not to us, as we will see in my occasional posts on the subject of railroad timetables.

 

Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) is my home airport and has been my flying base for more than a half century.  I have literally circled the globe many times beginning and ending at RDU.

RDU airport

I’ve watched my airport grow from a big town/small city aerodrome for central North Carolina in the 1950s to the remarkably robust regional airfield it is today. RDU now has about 400 daily flights (that’s just over 200 in and 200 out per day) operated by nine airlines: Delta, American, Southwest, United, Alaska, Allegiant, Air Canada, Frontier, and JetBlue.

The many choices now offered, including partnerships like JetBlue’s with Emirates (which I used and enjoyed earlier this year), is good for me in this new era where I am detaching from loyalty to one or two carriers.  My five-plus million miles on Delta and over a million on American don’t count for much anymore. The big three airlines have severely devalued award travel and important perks like upgrades. I feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of flying these days: I get no respect!

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Rodney Dangerfield could mine a bottomless pit of “No Respect!” jokes from the agony of flying in 2016.

So what’s a dyed-in-the-wool frequent flyer to do?  I’ve been addicted to acquiring miles since American launched the AAdvantage program in 1981.  I joined immediately and still have the flimsy plastic card AA sent me 35 years ago.  My AAdvantage number is one of the original with all digits and no alphabetic characters.

It’s hard to kick the frequent flying habit, but RDU’s many services are making it a lot easier.

It wasn’t always so at RDU. Growing up, my parents would often take me to Raleigh/Durham Airport because airplanes and the prospect of flying excited me.  There, I’d watch for hours as the curvy, sleek Eastern Airlines Lockheed Constellations (called Connies) with their distinctive three vertical stabilizer tails floated down onto the runway and pulled up close to the short fence that then separated the tarmac from the parking lot.

Eastern Airlines Connie

The square windows on this Connie indicate it’s a “Super G” model

RDU did not offer a lot of choices then in airlines or destinations.  Today, RDU is a big place, and it feels like it.  Raleigh/Durham is expected to break through the ten million passenger mark in 2016, and it is planning for a lot more growth in the future (see the airport’s 2040 plan: http://vision2040.rdu.com/).

In fact, May 2016 saw record numbers for Raleigh-Durham International Airport: 514,217 total passengers, a whopping 15.3 percent increase over May 2015. Of those, 12,976 were international, up from 9,198 last year, in part attributable to Delta’s new 757 nonstop service to Paris CDG, which debuted May 12.

According to RDU figures, the top RDU carriers in May 2016 (enplaned passengers) were:

Delta: 150,113

American: 138,095

Southwest: 105,942

United: 60,400

While it’s true that those four airlines account for the majority of RDU seats, the other five carriers are growing their services, giving me more choices.

RDU boasts 40 nonstops, including nonstop flights to London (AA to LHR), Paris (DL to CDG), Cancun, and Toronto.  Nonstop flight destinations to the West include SFO, LAX, SLC, LAS, PHX, SEA, and DEN (three airlines serve Denver nonstop: United, Southwest, and Frontier).

Delta Airlines is aggressively expanding its non-hub destinations from RDU, too.  DL has announced three daily flights to Newark (starting in November) which will compete with UA, nonstop flights to DCA (which will be welcome competition to AA, currently the sole carrier RDU/DCA), and nonstop service to Fort Myers, Florida over Christmas.

When I groused about that Florida Gulf Coast service being on a stinking RJ, Joe Brancatelli pointed out brightly that it’s still better than flying on two RJ flights to get there, AND it avoids a hub connection!  Such is the beauty of a nonstop flight.

According to the Centre for Aviation (CAPA), “securing long-haul routes is a lengthy and challenging process” and the “competition to gain additional service is fierce.”  RDU is doing well by that measure with its aforementioned nonstop DL 757 service to Paris, its longtime AA nonstop to Heathrow (a 777 before the Big Recession, but still a widebody 767, usually full every day), and nonstop flights to every major western city except San Diego.

All of which is great for me.  I can still fly on Delta or American when I choose—and I will, especially on the nonstop flights that bypass hubs—while United, Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier, Alaska, Air Canada, and Allegiant flights give me other options.  Altogether, the large number of daily flights, the wide variety of nonstop destinations, and the diversity of carriers free me from the shackles of loyalty that have kept me bound to one or two carriers for over three decades.  Thanks to the many choices available at RDU, I am finally liberated.

 

 

 

Not that I think American Airlines is perfect these days; far from it!  But I thought the chaotic aftermath of the US/AA merger was mostly over, at least until this week.

On a same day Raleigh-Washington-Raleigh AA itinerary (Tuesday of this week), I experienced multiple glitches that harken back to the bleakest of the bad old days flying: a cascading series of screw-ups that felt too much like flying on United at their worst—and that’s not a compliment.

I signed up for a one day transit “Leadership Visit & Field Trip” to Alexandria, Arlington, and Crystal City to hear from transit planners and elected officials there how Northern Virginia’s smorgasbord of transit modes (commuter rail, metro, bus rapid transit, and ordinary bus) has worked out to give folks choices in mobility and for economic development (Transit-Oriented Development, or TOD).  I wanted to take the train, but that would have required an overnight stay, and other commitments in Raleigh forced my hand, making me choose to fly.

American had the best options for nonstop RDU/DCA services, and the cheapest, so I selected flights leaving at 6:00 AM going up and departing Washington Reagan at 7:30 PM for home.  The fare was about $270 round trip, but AA offered me a YUP fare on the return flight to first class for $20 more, so I took it.  Both legs were on RJs with small first class cabins.

A week before my flights I checked the online itinerary because I needed to email a copy to colleagues to coordinate our trip.  I was surprised to find my seats had been changed, as had the flight numbers and times in both directions.  I also noticed that I was in coach on the return leg.  I selected the best seats I could get on both legs. Puzzled as to what had happened and why I had not received an email notification, I called my AA elite line.

After a few minutes rummaging through the record, the agent said that American had changed both flight numbers, changed the times of both the RDU/DCA and the DCA/RDU flights, and had replaced the two-class RJ on the return to a single class RJ, hence pushing me back to coach.

Okay, I said, then kindly refund the premium I had paid (about $20) for the YUP fare.  I was told the YUP fare doesn’t work that way.  Once purchased, it is not refundable even if American Airlines yanks the plane and replaces it with a coach-only aircraft, as they did with me.

“Oh, then it’s always a gamble when you choose a YUP fare?” I asked, trying hard to be polite.  I was told that yes, that’s correct.  Once AA has my money, they are not obligated to provide me with the service I paid for or to refund the difference between first class and coach if the airline changes its aircraft.

“That’s because YUP is a special type of fare,” she said.

“Yes, it certainly is,” I replied. “It’s a bait-and-switch fare that always favors the airline.”

The agent demurred in silence.

To the other issue, that is, why I wasn’t informed of the changes to flights numbers, times, seats, and class of service, the agent said that AA’s system “tried to send you an email, but it was rejected. Check your spam folder, and allow AA emails to get through.”

I told her that I had faithfully received hundreds of similar emails from American, including recent ones related to different itineraries, but that I would certainly check my server settings.

And I did.  I looked at my spam filters and junk mail folders at Network Solutions and found nothing related to American Airlines.  That left me wondering why I had not received the emails.

On the day before my flights, I tried to check in online, but AA.com would not let me complete the process, each time returning a message that said online check-in was not possible and to check in at the airport.  I wasn’t looking forward to getting up at 3:30 AM to be there at 4:00 AM so I could get my boarding passes printed at the airport, so once again called American’s elite line.

This time the agent who answered had an “Aha!” moment, telling me that the reason I had not received any email notifications and wasn’t able to check in online was because AA had not fully reissued my ticket when they changed the flight numbers, the times, the aircraft, and my seats.  She spent 10 minutes working to confirm that the ticket was, finally, reissued, and said that I would now be able to check in online, no problem.

When I asked her why I was told by the first agent that it was my email’s spam filter, she was baffled.  “No, definitely our fault,” she graciously admitted, “Not your email’s fault.”

I was driving when I learned all this, so could not immediately go to online check-in.  Later, when I did, AA.com returned the same error message and refused to let me check in.  So I called a third time.

The agent I then spoke to had no idea why I couldn’t check in online and said I’d just have to be there extra early and have an airport agent do it.

The following morning, therefore, I arose at the ungodly hour of 3:30 AM and was parked and standing at the AA ticket counter at 4:00 AM.  That agent had no trouble issuing my boarding pass and laughed when I told her I couldn’t do it online.  “I don’t see anything in the system that would prevent it,” she said.

I told her that I had paid for a YUP fare on the return leg that was now no good and asked to use it on the RDU/DCA leg instead.  That flight was still using a two-class airplane.  No, I couldn’t, she said, because I was number 12 on the upgrade list behind a slew of people who had paid more.

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The RJ first class compartment I couldn’t sit in

Oh, well, I thought, no big deal.  Guess I’ll sit in coach and wonder why I was so stupid as to pay for first class.  What else could go wrong?

I was going to find out that evening on the way home.

When the transit leadership tour ended, I was just one Metro stop away from DCA, so managed to get there by 4:15 PM and to stand by for a 5:12 PM AA departure to Raleigh.  My YUP fare basis bumped me up to number 4 on the standby list, but the flight was so overbooked that American had to accommodate a number of confirmed passengers on later flights, and not a single standby made the flight.

I was left with no choice except to slouch in the dungeon-like sub-level of DCA Gate 35X, a place with a grim, Third World feel to it, insufficient A/C, excruciatingly loud announcements too garbled to understand, and far too few seats for the waiting hordes.  The Gate 35X sub-level, with its five doors leading to buses that transport passengers out to the aircraft parked on remote ramps, reminded me of 1950s Greyhound and Trailways bus stations in eastern North Carolina.  The close proximity of so many bodies in such a small space, reeking with sweat in the unremitting heat and near-100% humidity, broadcast a palpable collective loss of dignity.  I didn’t know if I could make it another 90 minutes until my 7:35 PM flight boarded.

By seven o’clock I was pacing in anticipation of escaping this inhumane environment when I noticed the monitor suddenly show that my flight was delayed 20 minutes.  No explanation (of course).  Ten minutes later, the monitor showed my flight to RDU was delayed 35 minutes.

Having been through countless creeping delays, I called the AA elite line to get the facts.  Would the flight be canceled?  If not, what time was it really leaving, and why the delay?  I didn’t think I could hold off much longer in the sublevel of Gate 35X, the waiting room of hell.

The agent on the phone clicked and clicked away on her keyboard before sighing and telling me that she had no idea why the plane was late or when it would leave.  I asked where it was coming from, and she clicked some more, to no avail.  Her system would not tell her the inbound aircraft or flight number.

I then tried both the Flight Aware and Flightstats apps on my smartphone, but the sites reported conflicting information, and neither one seemed logical.  I surmised that the AA system was providing bad data: garbage in, garbage out.

In desperation to get accurate information, I asked for and got the American Airlines ground staff manager of the sublevel at Gate 35X.  She was visibly addled but at least able to tell me that the inbound aircraft was a flight from BDL (Hartford).  That enabled me to watch the monitor and again query Flightstats and Flight Aware.  Things looked to be getting worse.  Both apps indicated that I was in for at least a 90 minute delay.

No explanation was given for the creeping delays by the polite but utterly clueless sublevel Gate 35X staff, nor did they know when the flight would actually leave.  I felt sorry for them (and me).  The manager actually said, “I don’t know, but this happens all the time.  I never know why.”

I called the AA elite line again, armed with the BDL information, but received no better idea why the delay was occurring or when we might leave. The telephone agent said she did not have the information from her system.  By now it was almost 8:30 PM, an hour past scheduled departure time.

Suddenly, without explanation or apology, our flight was called on the garbled PA system.  We boarded a bus at 8:30 PM, and when it was chockablock full of humanity, we trundled off into the darkness.  The bus approached one RJ and stopped, but then we sat on the tarmac with no explanation until almost 9:00 PM.  Suddenly, the bus started moving again: Guess that wasn’t our plane, I remember thinking.  It was pitch dark.  Soon we slowed and stopped by a different RJ, the door opened, and we finally boarded at 9:05 PM.

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The bus that sat on the tarmac in the dark for 20 minutes with no explanation

Our plane then sat on the runway until 9:45 PM before taking off.  While sitting there, our captain announced that he didn’t know why we were being held since they would not tell him the reason for the delay.  He was perplexed, he said.

We arrived RDU at 10:26 PM, nearly two hours late.  My flight had been scheduled to depart DCA at 7:35 PM and to arrive RDU at 8:45 PM.

Waiting for the Jetway to arrive at RDU, I chatted up the cockpit crew and flight attendant to understand what really happened.  Turns out it was indeed the aircraft and crew that had come in to DCA from BDL  They told me that:

  1. The plane had a mechanical problem in Hartford and took a one hour delay there.
  1. By the time the airplane reached DCA airspace the field itself was closed because of lightning close by, and they circled for 40 minutes before being allowed to land.
  1. They were ready to have us board and were baffled as to why our bus sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes.
  1. The flight deck crew was also in the dark about the reason for the delay taking off at DCA.

It certainly appears that no timely and accurate information about AA flight delays is transmitted to anyone in the real world of flying: not to gate agents, not even to gate managers, not to elite line agents, not to passengers, and not even to flight crews!  I couldn’t piece together what was happening from the best apps available, either (Flightstats and Flight Aware).

These things happen, I know, but they are a lot easier to grit out when I know why things are happening and what to expect.  AA failed completely to provide even simple facts to anyone in service delivery.

The total absence of basic information related to the long delay was the crescendo of an experience already marred by the earlier errors, defects, and problems in the itinerary mentioned above, Overall, so many things went wrong that I wonder whether AA is improving or degrading. After this mess, I will try to book away from AA until they clean up their basic operation.

Flying to Montana recently in a breezy mood, I found myself thinking about Joe Brancatelli’s occasional “Nobody asked me, but…” reflections on air travel and the airline business (which Joe in turn took from the famous 1940s-1960s sports writer Jimmy Cannon–see https://www.amazon.com/Nobody-asked-but-world-Cannon/dp/0030153816). Suddenly a number of ironies having to do with flying dawned on me. With apologies to Joe and Jimmy Cannon for cribbing their shtick, I offer these questions:

Why are airplanes so cold in the summer, but airlines have removed all blankets except in first class? I see people boarding clad in nothing but shorts, thin tees, and going sockless in sandals, and then clutching themselves and shivering at altitude. On both flights going to Billings I had to ask the flight attendants to ask the captain to add heat to the cabin.

Why can’t I discern any real difference between Delta’s “main cabin” back-of-the-bus cheapest economy seats and their much-vaunted “Comfort +” seats just behind first class? Delta says they are much better and charges a lot more for them, yet I just don’t feel more comfortable. After all, they are just as narrow and cramped as the ones in the back.

Why are there only two lavatories for 120+ coach passengers on narrow body aircraft–a ratio of more than 60 to 1–but the ratio is 16 to 1 in first class? That seems to be a huge imbalance to me. Do airlines think coach passengers’ bodily functions are different from those of folks seated in first class?

And why can’t coach passengers near the front of the plane use the forward lav? Are they not as trustworthy as first class passengers?

And why is one of the two aft lavs always occupied by someone for half the flight? Are they primping or praying in there? Have they no sensitivity to their economy colleagues clutching their groins and hopping up and down outside the door?

Certainly I understand why airlines ask people not to open or to eat peanut products when someone with a peanut allergy has announced his or her presence on board. But why, then, do airlines still serve milk products, wheat products, and meat products in the presence of passengers who are lactose-intolerant, gluten-intolerant, or are vegetarians?

For that matter, why do airlines serve alcohol around alcoholics or caffeine products around Mormons or products with pork when Jews or Muslims are on board?

Why is flight attendant luggage always stored in the compartment over my seat no matter which row on board I am assigned?

Why is my hub connecting gate always close to my arrival gate when my inbound flight is on time or early and when I have two hours to connect, but always as far away as possible when my flight is late and with just 30 minutes of connection time?

Why, too, are many hub airport moving sidewalks broken between the distant connecting gates as I frantically run to my second flight? This happened twice to me recently, once at London’s Terminal 3, where over half the moving sidewalks were inoperable, and again recently at MSP trying to get from gate G21 to gate F15, about as long a distance as one can expect at that airport, where two-thirds of the moving sidewalks were not working.

Why am I always on a plane with a defective pressurization system when I am suffering from congested sinuses or a bad head cold?

Why is it that I can pay $1130 for a round trip on Emirates Air halfway around the globe to Sri Lanka, with free stopovers in Dubai and The Maldives, but American Airlines charges $960 round trip Raleigh to Washington, a distance of just 300 miles?

Why is it that my 14 hour flight on Emirates in coach, an airline where I hold zero Elite status, is a far better experience than flying on American Airlines, where I am a million miler and Lifetime Gold, in the Main Cabin Extra section for 7 hours to London?

Why is it that Delta and American have so devalued their frequent flyer programs but still clog my mailbox with their branded credit card enticements lauding the benefits of those same FF programs? They have no shame.

Why is it that Delta takes pride in “upgrading” me from “Main Cabin” to “Comfort +”? Oh yeah, I forgot: No shame.

Why is it that when I really, really need to recharge my smartphone that I’m on a plane with no charging receptables?

While I find that the E170/E175 airplanes are more comfortable than the first gen CRJs, why is that the overhead compartments are no bigger than on the original CRJs, but the airlines won’t pink-tag luggage on these newer aircraft?  This makes it impossible to find enough O/H space for everybody’s carryon.

Why is it that when I read this list of questions to my wife that she thought I was just bitching and moaning when I thought I was being funny and ironic?

Airline food.  Just the two words strung together used to conjure up an angst of uncertainty if I was flying in coach.  Was I hungry enough to risk the intestinal challenge of another cardboard meal? These days I don’t have to ward off any such troubling feeling since very little is served in domestic economy.

Not that the prospect of a meal or snack in domestic first class made my mouth water.  I tasted enough mediocre or just plain bad food riding in sharp end to be wary of what would be plunked down on my tray table at 33,000 feet up.

Fifty-six years of flying has yielded some memorable consumption of airline comestibles and libations—good and horrible—and I thought it might be fun to reminisce about just a few of my favorite memories.

Who can forget Eastern’s peanuts aboard an L-1011?

At the modest end of the snack scale, every airline used to serve peanuts, and some still do, but I never had any better than on my first Comair flight (now South African Airlink) between Johannesburg and Skukuza in 1991.  The nuts were perfectly roasted with just the right amount of oil and salt, and they were fresh, with a mouthfeel crunch of perfection.  Free ice-cold Castle beer (brewed in South Africa) was the ideal complement in flavor, too, and that was in coach.  Comair was and remains a single class carrier.

Makes my mouth water just seeing an open tin of caviar, this one from a Thai flight.

At the top end of the snack and appetizer scale, Singapore Airline’s caviar in first class on board its SFO/HKG/SIN 747 in the late 1980s was the most scrumptious I’ve ever tasted anywhere.  Good Russian and Iranian Beluga and Sevruga caviars used to be the pinnacle of fare in international first class cabins, and I was fortunate enough to sample quite a lot over the years.  Singapore’s was my favorite, and I learned to ask for seconds and thirds and to eschew the other pre-entrée food features so I could concentrate on the fish eggs.  Singapore served the proper accompaniment beverage, too: Champagne, the finest luxury cuvees from Dom Perignon and Krug.  One can never have too much Krug.

The only Champagne that can compete with Krug for my palate is Bollinger R.D.

The most gauche meal moment in an international first class cabin occurred on a TWA 747 from JFK to London in the early 1980s.  I was in my then-favorite seat, 1A, in the nose of the plane.  For an appetizer the Teeny-Weenie (the old TWA nickname) cabin crew brought me a bag of Combos, the cheese-filled pretzel snack.  The rest of the meal was downhill from there, and they claimed no Champagne had been catered.  Budweiser was served in cans.  I’ve had tastier food and drink at the Durham Bulls ballpark.

TWA thought it was was fine to serve these bags in first class on 747s to London.

I’ve been very lucky these many decades to have flown in the first class compartments of most of the world’s airlines: Pan American, TWA, Delta, American, United, South African, Cathay Pacific, QANTAS, Singapore, Malaysian, Varig, Swissair, KLM, Air France, Luthansa, British, Sabena, Emirates, Qatar, Asiana, Korean, Hainan, Thai, Air Tahiti Nui, Eastern, Braniff, Continental, British Caledonian, and on and on.  I cannot recall them all, nor can I remember every meal in first class on their flights.  But my memory is of very few bad experiences in first class.

Seeing this image makes me long for another sip of this magnificent Bordeaux, the ’82 Latour.

A special highlight of cuisine and wine was on the BA Concorde in both directions JFK/LHR in 1989.  I expected the Dom Perignon, of course, but I was happy to find excellent vintages of Chateau Latour, one of my favorite Bordeaux.  The wine steward was pleased to let me rummage through the many bottles in his cabinet to find my second choice vintage, 1982.  He apologized for being out of the 1970.

The BA Concorde interior was 2-2 and not wide by today’s premium cabin standards, but the on-board wines and meals on offer will never be surpassed.

What I ate on the Concorde is a fuzzy memory because I wouldn’t waste a drop of the precious ’82 Latour, and, after all, the time to London was so short.  I focused on making the bottle contents disappear rather more than dining.

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Virgin Altantic chefs in their Johannesburg lounge served this perfect ostrich steak!

Recently some of the best victuals served up by airlines has been on the ground in their toff lounges before or after a flight.  For instance, I was astonished at the perfectly prepared ostrich steak and accompaniments in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class lounge in Johannesburg just a few weeks ago.  The sweet memory of that delicious meal will stay with me, made all the more remarkable because it was plated up by their chef in a remote corner of the world a long way from Virgin’s London base of operations.  The South African pinotage I selected from the Virgin lounge menu proved to be the impeccable complement to the ostrich, too.

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The Virgin Atlantic Upper Class lounge in Johannesburg.

Virgin isn’t the only carrier that’s upped its groundside game, nor is it new.  Qatar’s enormous business class lounge at its home airport offers top-rated cooked-to-order food in a number of cuisines, and all are good.  I especially enjoyed the South Asian curries there.

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Cathay Pacific’s elegant first/business lounge in Bangkok always has delicious foods on offer.

Cathay Pacific’s first/business class lounge in Bangkok presents an eye-popping array of mouthwatering cold and hot foods appropriate to the time of day, each as elegant as the gorgeous décor of the lounge itself.  Yet I am told the bill of fare in the Bangkok lounge is nothing compared to Cathay’s lounges at its home airport, Hong Kong.  I can only imagine!

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Delta’s SFO SkyClub offers an extensive breakfast buffet.

Delta Airlines is aggressively improving the foodstuffs on offer in its many SkyClub lounges, which double as business class lounges for Delta international flights.  The new SkyClub in SFO had an impressive and excellent breakfast buffet on offer when I was through there one Saturday morning recently.

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“Morning Meal” aboard my 1989 BA Concorde flight JFK to London.

Truth is, airline lounge breakfast buffets and on-board breakfasts are hard to get wrong. I seem always to enjoy the morning meals best, regardless of airlines.  Even American, which hasn’t inspired me recently on lunch or dinner flights, always presents a nice spread for breakfast.  Overseas airlines provide more variety of breakfast cuisines, too, which keeps my palate interested.  I especially like Asian noodles and hot soups for breakfast.

The current trend to feed us on the ground in lounges is one I hope all airlines continue to tinker with. There’s no reason that five-star meals aren’t routinely possible, like the one I so eagerly devoured in Virgin’s Johannesburg lounge.  Recent experiences like that one and the tasty coach class meals I enjoyed on an Emirates A380 make me hopeful that my gut reaction to the term “airline food” will turn from sour to sweet as time goes by.

Delta, KLM, Virgin Atlantic: old line carriers I flew in business class on a recent trip to South Africa.  The over-the-moon kudos for business class service often go to Cathay and Singapore or to Qatar and Emirates.  Who sings the praises of premium cabins on the likes of Delta, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic?  Well, I guess I will laud them here because, to my surprise, the business class services on all three (mostly) met or exceeded my needs and expectations.

My itinerary was curiously convoluted because I traveled on a Delta award ticket:

Delta in domestic first class – RDU/DTW – CRJ900

Delta in Delta One class – DTW/AMS  – A330

KLM in World Business Class – AMS/JNB – 777-300

South African Airlink – JNB/SZK/JNB – ERJ135

Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class – JNB/LHR – 787

Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class – LHR/JFK – A340

Delta in domestic first class – JFK/RDU – CRJ900

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The Detroit gate for DL132 to Amsterdam; the Delta 747 at the adjacent gate is impressive but not our airplane

Odd though this routing appears, the connecting schedules worked out for me with minimal layovers at every airport, and—bonus—I was able to sample the carriers’ respective lounges at RDU, Detroit, Amsterdam, Johannesburg, London Heathrow, and JFK, about which I will separately report in a future post.

Though I am a TSA Pre and Global Entry member, my habit is to arrive at every airport two hours early, and that was more than sufficient at RDU to get to Detroit.  I made it through security in time to stand by on an earlier flight to DTW, which in turn allowed me to see if an earlier Delta flight DTW/AMS was available.  Delta has three daily Detroit-Amsterdam A330s at two hour intervals (4:00 PM, 6:00 PM, and 8:00 PM).  The Delta gate personnel were able to move me to the four o’clock departure (Delta 132) and even grabbed seat 2J for me (at my request), the most forward right hand side seat in the Delta One cabin in the Airbus A330.

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Seat 2J on DL132 DTW/AMS

Delta One customers boarded first, about the same time as passengers in need of assistance.  I was greeted with friendly enthusiasm by the crew and was immediately offered a nicely-chilled glass of Champagne.  I polished off a second flute before pushback.

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The comfortable Delta One cabin on DL132 affords lots of privacy

I was immediately struck by the similarity between the new Delta One cabin and the one I had recently experienced on a brand spanking new Qatar A350 in business class.  The Delta business seats angle in towards the windows, providing privacy (since you are not looking at your neighbor—a big deal for me), and the space is ample and quite comfortable.

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Big screens in the Delta One A330 cabin

Fiddling around with the IFE (in-flight entertainment) system, I liked the variety of movies offered and clarity of the screen.  Though the Delta flatscreen didn’t appear to be as big as the one on Qatar, it was perfectly adequate.

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Delta One headphones are comfortable but not noise-canceling like my Bose

Delta provided a comfortable set of headphones, but the phones were not noise-canceling.  I had brought my Bose phones, as usual, which I used throughout the flight.

Ditto for the KLM and Virgin flights—none of the three carriers on this trip had real noise-canceling headphones, which I thought was odd.  Bose or something like Bose headphones are now an expected standard in any premium cabins around the globe.

All three airlines offered power outlets at each business class seat for recharging smartphones and other electronics.

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The Delta One cabin on DL132 DTW/AMS

The meal service was not memorable, but it was filling and all I needed.  After watching a movie, I dozed off, and we landed early at AMS at 11:35 PM eastern, 5:35 AM local. It was a very easy and extremely comfortable flight with efficient, friendly service. These days that’s all I need or expect, and it opened my eyes to Delta’s commitment to a high quality premium international service with consistent follow-through.  It was a happy revelation to see Delta catching up to its competitors in premium services, finally, and Delta One is now on my radar screen for future trips.

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Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport map indicating my departure gate

Because I am compulsive about taking earlier flights whenever possible (why wait for a later flight to be delayed or canceled?), I had arrived two hours ahead of my original schedule and faced a four hour wait at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. However, it’s a great place for a long layover, and the time flew, especially while enjoying the KLM lounge.  Before I knew it, my KLM 777-300 flight to Johannesburg was ready to board.

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KLM World Business Class cabin on my 777-300 flight AMS/JNB

KLM’s “World Business Class” is not spectacular, but it met my every need.  Seats are 2-2-2 in business on their 777s, and I enjoyed the left side bulkhead aisle position (again, my preference).  The fellow in the adjacent window seat had plenty of room to get around or over my extended leg-rest without disturbing me, and the privacy panel between us was adequate.

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My World Business Class seat on KLM flight AMS/JNB

It was a fine and enjoyable flight on KLM to Johannesburg. The service went smoothly, with clockwork efficiency, as I expect from the Dutch.  The Champagne was ice cold and delicious, and the business class cabin crew was gracious and always trying to help.  It was a senior group of flight attendants (all appeared to be 50 or older).  The food service, as on the previous Delta flight, would not inspire a letter of praise to the EVP-Marketing, but it was plenty good.

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KLM 777-300 World Business Class cabin AMS/JNB; the flight was full in business.

This long eleven hour flight allowed me to sample two movies before falling asleep, after which I enjoyed a snack from the galley.  Every airline seems to leave out a goodly supply of nibbles on overseas legs, a great practice, in my opinion.  I chatted with the crew in the galleys fore and aft between naps and got a warm reception.  KLM FAs on my flight were comfortable in their own skins and expert in carrying out the duties of their profession, which made for a wonderfully relaxing experience. The human element is as important as spiffy cabins and fancy service in making or breaking a travel experience aboard an airplane.

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KLM’s headphones proclaim to be noise-canceling, but if so, the effect wasn’t much.  My Bose phones were far superior.

The KLM IFE was not as modern as the system in the Delta One cabin, nor was the selection of movies as broad or deep, but I was never bored.  Once again I had to use my own Bose noise-canceling headphones rather than the comfortable but technology-challenged pair provided by the airline, but I didn’t care.  I usually find my Bose are preferable no matter what carrier I am flying.  The flight attendants were dead honest in advising to use my own phones, saying the KLM product needed upgrading.

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KLM snack in World Business Class was delicious.

Seated near the 1L door, I was first off in Johannesburg, then through immigration and customs and checking in at the airport hotel within 30 minutes of gate arrival.  Overall, the KLM experience was exemplary, and I’d use it again.

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KLM World Business Class AMS/JNB looking forward during the flight.

Two weeks later I was back at Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo Airport for my Virgin Atlantic flights to London Heathrow with an onward connection to JFK.  Check-in for Upper Class, Virgin’s business class product, was swift and efficient.  Tambo has no equivalent to a TSA Pre or London FastTrack lane, so business class customers are all thrown into the same long queues for immigration as everyone else.

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The immigration screen at Johannesburg where all passengers are equal in the queue.

The gate for VS602 JNB/LHR was at the far end of one wing of the airport.  Seats were spread along a narrow hallway harshly lit by florescent lights.  There were no windows.  The effect was claustrophobic and prison-like.

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The strange, claustrophobic gate used by Virgin at Johannesburg.

The Jetway boasted only a single arm to enter the 787 aircraft.  It was positioned at the 2L (second left) boarding door, which is the dividing line between Upper Class and Economy.  Gate staff could easily have boarded Upper Class first without disruption to early boarders.  Instead, Virgin’s boarding procedure ignored Upper Class customers in favor of people who needed extra boarding time.  It proved to be a nightmare of babies and cripples, and Upper Class passengers were not called for another 25 minutes. When I finally approached the boarding door, I was halted by families with young children and their strollers clogging up the area.

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Virgin’s method of pre-boarding families with children congested the Jetway, making it impossible for Upper Class passengers to  reach the doorway.

I understand that every airline has its own policies about boarding, but I was unhappy with the long delay, which could easily have been avoided by allowing Upper Class passengers to go first.

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Upper Class cabin on Virgin Atlantic 787 JNB/LHR configured with seats facing the aisle, not the windows.

Once on board, things started looking up.  I was cheerfully escorted to my bulkhead seat on the left side (again, my choice), and a glass of Champagne was whisked to me.  Taking a sip, I was repulsed to discover that the Champagne was warm, not even a little bit cooled.  The flight attendants admitted none of the bottles had been chilled because the plane had been sitting all day unattended.

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My Upper Class seat on the forward port side of the Virgin 787 JNB/LHR

When I suggested that they shouldn’t have served it at all, the FAs apologized and took the glass away.  Just before the doors closed for pushback, the senior flight attendant presented me with a mostly chilled glass of Champagne which they had taken from a bottle doused in ice water just for me.  I was pleased, and I enjoyed the bubbly all the way into the air.

At first I was not so impressed with the Virgin Upper Class seats.  To maximize capacity, Upper Class seats face the aisle, not the window. I bemoaned my lack of a sense of spatial privacy.  The seat arrangement seemed too close to other passengers.

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Virgin Upper Class seat configuration angles away from the windows and faces the aisle, reducing the sense of personal privacy.

The seats also seemed narrower than the Delta One and KLM World Business Class chairs.  Nonetheless, I began to relax and enjoy the cabin’s openness and the extremely nice flight attendants.

Testing out Virgin’s IFE on the brand new 787. I found technical problems with the screens which locked up the system.  Flight attendants rebooted the IFE for my seat, and the problem was corrected. Once again no noise-canceling headphones were provided, and I used my own Bose phones.  The selection of movies to pass the time was comparable to that on KLM.

The in-flight services, including the meals, were fine, and the personal touches by the many Upper Class FAs never ended.  I once again fell asleep after watching a movie, and later in the flight wandered the new aircraft to get a feel for it, m first on a 787.  I found the cabin crew everywhere to be upbeat and anxious to help, even back in coach, all of which made the experience pleasant and stress-free.  My complaints about the size and position of the seats dissipated as I ignored the surrounding passengers and slept well.

Heathrow’s Terminal 3 is undergoing massive renovation, and our inbound gate was unluckily as distant from my connecting (outbound) gate as could be.  After an interminable walk through the maze of construction, though, and after suffering through a long queue at the mid-terminal security screen, I found my gate and boarded another Virgin flight, an A340 to JFK.

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The Upper Class compartment of Virgin Atlantic A340 London to JFK was configured exactly the same way as the 787 Johannesburg to London, that is, with passengers facing each other towards the aisle, which minimized privacy.

There’s little to say about the LHR/JFK flight, as it was almost a carbon copy of the JNB/LHR experience: different airplane, but same seat (by choice); very helpful, cheerful, attentive FAs; great in-flight service of meals and beverages, punctuated by intermittent napping and chatting with the crew.

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Delta One cabin was the most comfortable and private of the three carriers, but all were quite good.

Thinking back on the Virgin experience, KLM’s business class was better in many ways: more space, more privacy, roomier seat, less claustrophobic. Delta One’s was superior in the same categories, especially seat comfort. Nonetheless, the in-flight services and general comfort level were about equal on all three carriers, and the cabin crews were universally excellent—the latter a measure of greater personal importance to me.

I opted for this tortuous itinerary because it was a cost-effective use of my Delta frequent flyer mileage to get to South Africa.  My expectations of business class on the three carriers was, well, low.  I wanted a comfortable ride in a prone position when I felt like sleeping for such a long journey.  Otherwise, the bar for good service was not high in my mind because my past experiences on Delta, KLM, and Virgin Atlantic in their premium cabins left bad memories.  I fled their services years ago to alternative airlines and never looked back.

This trip generated positive feelings and changed my thinking.  Delta, KLM, and Virgin business classes are not in the same grand category as Cathay Pacific, but they all succeeded in achieving more than a modicum of satisfaction and—importantly—relief from the stress and pain of flying.  I plan to fly them all again in business.

I’ve noted before that I lived and worked in South Africa in 1991.  It didn’t take me long to come to love the land and its people. I’ve returned every year for twenty-five years since, sometimes several times a year.

It was there, a quarter century ago, that I first discovered the magnificent Kruger National Park, where self-drive safaris are the rule (see previous post here).  The internationally-renowned park is a treasure store of African flora and fauna, one of the planet’s most important conservation areas.  I just returned from another visit to Kruger, 12 days and nights.

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The lovely small airport at Skukuza, gateway to the Kruger Park, with regular air service to Johannesburg and other South African cities.

South Africa is going through tough times, with many observers worried about the degradation of infrastructure and services in the country.  I have wondered if the problems might spill into South Africa National Parks, which runs all the country’s parks, including the Kruger. Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe ruined the once-lovely Hwange National Park in that country, and I hoped that wouldn’t be repeated in South Africa.  My impression, based on the nearly two weeks I just spent in Kruger, is that so far that is not the case.

In 1991 Nelson Mandela had not been out of jail a year yet. The white minority government, which was struggling with massive unemployment, turned over power in 1994 to the moderate ANC (African National Congress) majority and the newly elected President Mandela. In May, 1996 the nation adopted a new constitution, just now being celebrated for 20 years in place.

The ANC’s once-brilliant leadership has aged and become staid and inflexible. Smart young political leaders have fewer opportunities for advancement than they once did. South Africa’s economy has stagnated, with endemic problems as deep as those that plagued the old pre-1994 regime.

On my recent visit to the Kruger Park I read South African newspapers every day (I bought them at the Skukuza Camp shop), and I listened to SAFM radio at 105.6 (the news and information arm of the SABC). It feels like things are unraveling in South Africa, thanks in part to the erosion of confidence in the current president, Jacob Zuma. He refuses to abide by the Constitutional Court (like our Supreme Court) ruling that he misused millions in state funds for personal projects and should repay the money.

There are other, more concrete, indicators.

South Africa’s sovereign credit rating is teetering on junk status, and the Rand-US dollar rate recently pierced the psychological 15:1 barrier.

Food prices are rising fast due to both a shattering long drought (SA agricultural production has plummeted) and the higher cost of importing food when paying in a weak currency.

Government has not made sufficient progress on the critical basics of job creation, housing, water, sanitation, electricity, and food.

I heard these facts from a respected SA financial analyst one recent morning on SAFM radio:

  • South Africa’s official reported unemployment rate just announced is 26.7%, more than a two percent rise over the last reported unemployment rate.
  • That’s the official rate reported. The financial analyst reckons that her data indicates that the real rate is well over 50% unemployment, a chilling figure.
  • She further stated that two out of every three young South Africans are unemployed because there are no jobs. She stated the obvious, that this is a devastating indicator.
  • Eskom, the power company, has forecast very little load shedding (power cuts, blackouts) this winter, unlike in recent years, meaning South Africans won’t wake up in the cold and the dark as they have previous winters. But the financial analyst warned that this seemingly good news is only because the important mining sector of the South African economy is so far down that Eskom has lost the mining companies’ normal gigantic power consumption. She said Eskom is just as poorly managed as ever.

On a personal note, I had my rental car washed at the Kruger Park’s Skukuza Camp gas station, and the 25 year old South African man who did the job begged me to adopt him and take him to the USA “so I can get a real job and make some money.” He was very serious, telling me that if I adopted him his father wouldn’t care as long as he sends back money because his dad has been out of work for more than ten years.

It was a distressing moment, and I could only offer advice on where to get a better job. I pointed him to the over-the-top luxury lodges like Londolozi and Mala Mala, which are just a stone’s throw away, because I know they pay well, not to mention the generous tips there.

Speaking of which, I tipped the man who washed my car 150 Rand, which is $10. He did a spectacular job. The man was stunned to receive such an amount.

Seems like a seismic shift may be imminent or already in motion in South Africa. National elections are coming soon, and Zuma may be replaced.

But 12 million voters out of 85 or so million registered voters may be disenfranchised because the voter registration law requires every voter to list his/her address. Twelve million people on the rolls have no address. They live in makeshift homes made from old cardboard boxes and scraps of wood and metal beside roads, under bridges, and so on, places that have no address. Informal settlements in South Africa on vacant land are as common as formal ones. They spring up overnight and last for years. People are born, live, and die there. Not one such settlement has an address. The courts and government are currently struggling with that issue, and people are angry.

In 1991 when I first came to South Africa, it wasn’t clear which black political party would win the support of the people. Extremist groups like the Pan Africanist Congress had worrisome slogans (the PAC’s was “One settler, one bullet”). The moderate ANC has ruled since, but without making discernible progress towards satisfying basic needs.

Since nobody’s lot has improved much, radical views are being heard again.  How, then, are these unsettling dynamics impacting the Kruger National Park?  So far, anyway, not much at all.

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The Kruger’s Rhino Protection Unit at work near Pretoriuskop Camp.

In twelve days I drove 1,823 miles in the Kruger—about 150 miles a day, all at 20-30 MPH—and visited more than a dozen public areas (camps, staffed picnic spots, etc.). Naturally many small, and some big, changes have occurred since 1991, such as the privatization of the Kruger’s quaint but antiquated food services 3 years ago. By and large, however, the park infrastructure remains in good shape.

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One of my Kruger accommodations, this one at Satara Camp; all were in excellent condition.

Camp housing continues to be well-maintained to the 1991 standard of excellence that is my mental benchmark. Kitchen utensils, dishes, and fridges have been kept up well, as have linens and towels. Rondavels are cleaned and scrubbed daily by the large camp housekeeping staffs, just like always.

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My accommodation’s kitchen/dining area at Satara Camp.

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Entrance to Kruger’s Lower Sabie camp showing good condition of roads and infrastructure.

Tarred and unpaved roads were looking bad a few years ago after record floods. Ditto for the major bridges over the Sabie, Olifants, Letaba, and Shingwedzi Rivers. The causeways over the Olifants and Shingwedzi Rivers, washed out by the floods, had never been replaced. Now repairs have been made, and even the most distant dirt roads are in great shape. All are easily passable by ordinary two-wheel drive cars, including through deep cuts in the many ravines that collect water after rains. There, massive new concrete fords are in place.

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The well-stocked Skukuza Camp store, the biggest in the Kruger Park.

The grocery stores are well-stocked, though inventory varies wildly by camp, just as it has always been so. One never knows what brand of beer may be available, but always at least some are. Same with all other foodstuffs. Only Coca-Cola products are ubiquitous in every camp store. Maybe Coke should take over the stocking of everything.

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The biltong (jerky) rack in the Pretoriuskop  Camp store evidences an dizzying array of product.

Filling stations at every camp always have gas and diesel, and they are staffed well, so there is no wait (no self-pumping of fuel in South Africa). Women generally run the stations, and they gladly clean front and rear windshields while the tank is filling. (I always tip them 10% over the fuel charge.)

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Satara Camp restaurant.

I’ve already mentioned the changes to Kruger restaurants and snack bars. They may lack the traditional food choices that I prefer over the pizza and Mexican entrees now found on camp restaurant menus, but there’s always plenty to eat on hand and lots of staff even for the busiest dining hour.

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Warthog skull mounts, complete with fearsome tusks, for sale at the Skukuza Camp store.

The swimming pools are being kept up well and appear to be clean. Certainly the water is clear and loaded with Chlorine. It’s fun to sit by the camp pool sipping a cold beverage and watch a herd of Impala graze just outside the fence a few feet away.

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I bought this Zulu-made basket at a Kruger camp store.

Best of all, the SANParks website works well and is easy to use. I used to have to call South Africa National Parks head office in Pretoria to book the Kruger. Later, SANParks farmed out some of that to private firms, and I developed a relationship with one based at Skukuza that was owned by a former Kruger Ranger’s family.

But now the SANParks website is so good that I can do everything I want and need myself without help, including the annual renewal of my Wild Card (covers daily conservation fees and entry fees to every South Africa National Park).

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Kudu bull near Kruger’s Skukuza Camp with magnificent spiral horns. The Kudu is the symbol of SANParks (South Africa National Parks).

Lastly, the rolling blackouts, which have become routine throughout the country, rarely impact the Kruger National Park. Even when the power went down at the Skukuza Airport on the day I arrived, for instance, the park itself, just 5 kilometers away, was not affected. I am told the government knows how important the Kruger is as an international symbol of South Africa and doesn’t want bad press from unhappy foreign tourists.

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African Wild Dogs cavort near Tshokwane in the Kruger.

For the moment, then, it seems as if the Kruger is safe from the general decline in the rest of the country’s quality of life. Which is good for the park and us tourists, but given the big problems facing South Africa, it means visitors increasingly live in a bubble when inside the park.

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The east end of a westbound Elephant in the Kruger National Park.

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