There are many airports in the world that make you queue for your flight in great discomfort, but Graham Boynton finds South Africa’s OR Tambo International Airport particularly suffocating
I recently spent so much time in the immigration hall at OR Tambo International Airport that I began to regard it as home. I was travelling around southern Africa, thus coming and going through the region’s hub airport, and on three occasions was subjected to the endless queues that are now regarded as normal there.
The first arrival was the worst because I’d flown in on a Sunday from the UK, on one of at least six Boeing 747s or Airbus A380s to touch down early in the morning. I think we were second or third to land, and by the time the sixth had arrived the immigration hall was full to overflowing and there was a seemingly infinite trail of tired, dishevelled travellers standing in line.
I estimated that at one point there were 1500 people in those queues. Only half of the 14 booths were occupied by immigration officers, but when I finally reached the booth, the official was really friendly and understanding: “I’ve been in this queue for nearly two and a half hours,” I spluttered at him. “You’re lucky. For most people it’s three or four,” he replied. “We are short-staffed. It’s the government’s fault. I’m very sorry.”
He was right. I think the people who were on the fifth and sixth jumbos probably did spend four hours or more in the queue. The two other arrivals were marginally better. Arriving from Walvis Bay, Namibia, the following Sunday I spent an hour and a half in the immigration queue and four days later, returning from Zimbabwe, it was just over two hours.
Now, I am travelled enough to know that there are bottlenecks at airports all over the world, and I’ve recently suffered tedious security queues changing planes at New York’s JFK International Airport, but none are quite as bad as OR Tambo for consistently poor service.
It has been going on throughout the year, everybody knows about it and my friends advise me to avoid it where possible and use the more efficient King Shaka International Airport near Durban and Cape Town International.
David Frost, CEO of SATSA (South African Tourism Services Association), describes the queues as “a blight on tourists’ experience of South Africa”. “They are eminently solvable,” he says. “However, we deal with an intransigent Minister and Department of Home Affairs who are hell bent on wreaking damage on the tourism sector, and refuse to engage with the tourism and aviation sectors.”
This is bad for South Africa’s reputation and if it goes on, year after year, will harm tourism. It’s time for the government to step up to the plate.
Graham Boynton has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire and Condé Nast Traveller, and was the travel editor of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph between 1998 and 2012. A regular visitor to Africa, where he grew up, his current consultancies include work as media director for the African Travel & Tourism Association (Atta). The views expressed in this column are his own.