This is the first in a series of posts that will cover various experiences during my most recent trip to take four friends to see the African wildlife in the Kruger National Park of South Africa.  This one is about successfully, even happily, enduring the flight in economy class over the pond from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere, and from one continent to another, just to get to South Africa.

Any way you cut it, it’s a long way to South Africa from the United States.  Delta’s nonstop daily flight (DL200) makes the 8451 mile journey from Atlanta to Johannesburg in just under 16 hours, and the return flight (DL201) is a solid 16 hours or more, depending upon headwinds.  South African Airways also flies between the USA and South Africa with service from New York and from Washington, but with an intermediate refueling stop.  Even longer are the connections through Europe which require two overnight flights, one to get to London or Amsterdam or Frankfurt or wherever, and then another from there to Johannesburg or Cape Town.  And that’s after waiting all day in Europe for the connecting flight.

After 24 years (since 1991) of making countless flights to Johannesburg, I can say with some certainty that the nonstop Delta flights are the best options, made even better with Delta’s offering of Economy Comfort seating in the first four rows of coach.  Up until 2011 I had never flown to South Africa in coach.  It was always in Business or First Class.  Now that international Business and First class fares have skyrocketed, however, I have to settle for Economy or stay home.

And, well, I’m not staying home.  Not now, not ever!

So I made my peace with the gods of sardine class flying, and I have flown in the back of the bus on six of Delta’s 16-hour segments in the last couple of years.  Without using any drugs, I might add.  Some people swear by sleep aids like Ambien, and some like alcohol to dull the senses.  Not me, no, thanks.

Delta’s Economy Comfort on DL200 (ATL/JNB) and DL201 (JNB/ATL) is configured as the first four rows of coach in their long-range 777 aircraft.  EC starts in row 31 on these flights and is right behind the double section of Business Elite seats that take up the front third of the airplane.  Delta seems to be selling all those Business Class seats, or perhaps, I thought, they are upgrading high value customers who have paid close to full fare for coach.  That said, I spoke to two women across the aisle from me on two recent flights whose companies paid full-fare economy, and neither one had been upgraded to Business Elite.  One was a Diamond with Delta, and the other a Platinum.  Yet every Business Elite seat on all six segments I’ve flown on DL200/201 have been full.  If Delta isn’t even upgrading full-fare economy Diamonds, you can draw your own conclusions about Delta’s yield on those flights.

Back to Delta Economy Comfort on DL200/201, its primary advantages are four inches more legroom than standard coach rows between seats (called seat pitch), and four inches more recline.  Doesn’t sound like much, I know, especially since the seat width is the same as all other coach seats (9-across on Delta’s intercontinental 777s), but, trust me, it makes a lot of difference when you have to endure 16 hours in those seats.

The movies and alcohol are also complimentary in EC.  Here’s what Economy Comfort looked like on a recent flight (except that every last seat was filled):

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As I mentioned, some folks rely on pharmaceuticals to get them through ultra-long flights cooped up in an aluminum tube six miles above the ocean.  My proven survival technique for 16-hour flights is more ascetic.  Here are my personal guidelines guaranteed for a minimally stress-free long flight if all are followed:

  • Get yourself into Economy Comfort on Delta, or in the section that your airline calls the more comfortable first few rows of coach, even if you must pay for it.  It’s worth it.
  • Try to get an aisle or window seat.  Aisle seats are great for getting up often, as you will need to do, and window seats are great for providing a resting place for your head and body when sleeping.
  • Drink very little alcohol (two drinks, max). Imbibe right after takeoff, and don’t drink alcohol again during the flight.
  • Don’t use sedatives unless advised to do so by your physician.
  • Avoid soft drinks.
  • Drink lots of water throughout the flight, even though that entails repeated trips to the lav. Make yourself drink often.
  • Bring your own small, comfy pillow to sit on to ease the pain of the damnably hard Economy Comfort seat bottoms.
  • Make sure you have the pillow and blanket provided by Delta or your airline, too.  You’ll need both pillows (yours and the airline’s).  Get an extra blanket if you can.  You can use it to enhance the pillow cushioning beneath you, and the extra blanket is good if the plane is cold, as they often are.
  • Bring several good books on a tablet or in print.
  • Invest in good quality noise-reduction headphones that wrap around your ears rather than sit on top of them.  Using them in-flight will reduce the fatigue of engine and air turbulence noise, and it will also enable you to watch and hear movies (it’s virtually impossible to hear anything without the noise-canceling phones). I used several noise-reduction headphones before finally ponying up for the expensive Bose model.  I like the over-the-ear Bose model that uses a standard AAA battery, and I always carry an extra battery.  You may prefer the rechargeable battery model.  Either way, I recommend Bose as a tried and true and comfortable product.
  • In addition to noise-reduction headphones, bring several pairs of cheap ear plugs.  Your ears will get hot and tired of the headphones and need relief occasionally.  Nothing beats cheap, disposable earplugs.
  • Bring an eye shade for sleeping.  In fact, bring two in case you lose one.  When you get ready to nod off, you’ll be glad you blacked out the cabin and eliminated the distraction of ambient lights.
  • Catch up on movies and TV shows available on your seat-back screen.  A good two-hour movie really helps to pass the time.
  • Bring your own favorite snacks to augment what the airline provides.  Keep them handy with a bottle of water in the seat-back pocket.
  • Bring a small but reliable reading light independent of the annoying and sometimes useless overhead light.  I find the overhead lights often don’t work or won’t move to focus light where you need it, and the light bothers those sitting around you.  A small LCD reading light focuses light where you need it and won’t trouble your neighbor.
  • Get up often during the flight and stand in the mid-plane or rear galley.  Stretch by doing isometric exercises, flexing your joints. Flight attendants leave snacks, fruit, and water there for everyone. Drink some water while you are there.  Wait in line for the lav, and then stand and stretch some more. Do this as often as you wake up from a nap or need to hit the lav.  This will give your bottom relief from the cruelly-hard Delta coach seats (even in Economy Comfort), and it will keep your blood flowing.  You’ll feel almost human by the end of the flight if you do this.
  • Don’t eat too much.  Even if it turns out you like the fare provided, consume only modest portions.  If you get hungry later, you will have both your snacks and he mid-plane galley snacks to tide you over.  When you eat, be sure to drink lots of water with the food.
  • Sleep whenever you feel like it, not worrying about the time or how long you sleep.  Ditto for watching movies, reading, and getting up to stretch.  Don’t concern yourself with what your body wants to do.  If you feel like sleeping, take a nap.  Use the noise-reduction headphones (unplugged from the seat) and the eye shades when you rest. Cover yourself with a blanket to mimic being in bed.  Recline the seat to the point that makes you comfortable, or don’t recline it at all.  Sometimes I sleep better with my tiny little seat sitting straight up.
  • Most importantly, get yourself into a calm frame of mind before boarding.  Be realistic, certainly, in your expectations, that this is going to be a long flight.  But maintain a positive attitude that your have the tools, the knowledge, the seat, the amenities, and the mental advantage to make this flight not just endurable, but enjoyable.  I spent 30 years flying in First Class and Business Class on almost every flight.  I didn’t think I could ever like being in coach, but I figured out how to make it work for me.  You can, too.
  • Prepare your mind for the unexpected.  Weather and mechanical delays happen; it’s the reality of flying.  Deal with it mentally, and stay calm.

That last bullet is particularly important.  On my recent flight to South Africa, a Delta mechanical problem cascaded into a five and half hour delay getting into Johannesburg, about which I’ll write in my next post.  Meanwhile, hope the above advice is useful to some.  I have come to live by those guidelines, and they work beautifully for me.

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