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A 'seat guru' flies Emirates

3 Jan 2013

There are many things that make an airline good. The safety rating; the destinations it serves; its user friendly website for online booking; the excellent customer service when you call to sort out problems; the great fares offered and amazing specials. Of course the spread on the menu- even when you are travelling cattle class adds the cherry on the top. But when an airline has all this and has staff that makes you smile and go the extra mile then you know you could only have flown Emirates.

I was quite nervous about this flight. The anticipation stemmed not from a fear for soaring about the clouds but because my travel companion had a reputation that few could live up to. Last time I flew with Gerrit there were not enough blankets to pull over my head to hide the shame as he argued with the air stewards. Gerrit is your typical nightmare passenger; he sits for days on the internet trawling through Seat Guru to find the best seat in the plane. He then sits for hours on the internet watching the seats fill up as he painstakingly strategises about which seat will be best. I've travelled with him before and have learnt to just let go- I pay for my seat and he books. Frankly I couldn't care less where I was going to sit because I am of the opinion there are no good seats in economy class. We are all packed equally tight into the flying tin can. And besides I wait for the meal to be served; for the lights to dim and I slip into dreamland as I soar on cloud nine. My gift for being able to sleep anywhere anytime has often been envied. So the promise of 2,7 cm extra leg room is nothing to get me excited about. All I ask is a window seat.

The day started off with me waking and getting a call from Gerrit asking if I was up and ready! I mumbled something about needing to actually surface from Dreamland and engage with the necessary morning activities that give me strength to face the day. Is it too much to ask to attend to the necessities like brushing teeth and sipping strong sweet aromatic black coffee to revive the soul; without having a friend with obsessive compulsive traits prelude the day?

We were at O.R. Tambo International Airport 4 hours before the scheduled departure. I had accepted my fate that Gerrit's compulsive nature would always mean us arriving extra early at the airport. The check-in counters were not open and the drone of activity at OR Tambo was like music to my ears. I love airports. It gives me great pleasure seeing the joy on loved ones faces as they first catch sight of that special someone passing through the arrival hall's gates. And the anticipated thrill of a journey about to be embarked on ignites my soul as I watch people check in. Places to go; people to meet; adventures to be lived! I sat watching people pass by as Gerrit scurried about. I sipped the coffee at
a crowded franchised coffee shop hoping my Emirates Johannesburg flight would serve a slightly better brew. (I am happy to say they do!)

The sky gods must have been slumbering at that pivotal moment in time because Emirates was about to have their reputation as a world class airline tested. And I was about to embark on a sojourn that would forever seal my relationship with my favourite airline.The formidable Gerrit, must-be-difficult-with airliners-guru-seat-booker, probably forgot to take his be-nice-to-people medication that morning in his haste to get us to the airport and the fireworks were about to explode. As long as I am at a window seat I'm happy. Gerrit's meticulous planning for the perfect seat in cattle class (which does not exist) was sabotaged because the airline had to change planes and an aircraft with a completely different seating plan was going to be used. The unsuspected ground crew member with her angelic smile greeted us and asked where we would like to sit.

"We have pre-booked seats," Gerrit glibly retorted "and we checked in online!" "The aircraft had to be changed," the angel informed us, "and the seating plan is different to the original aircraft sir. So where can I seat you? Window? Aisle?"

I saw the life force drain out of Gerrit. Hours, days, weeks of Seat Guru surfing just went out the window. He starred at her blankly for a second which lasted a very long moment. I responded that I would like a window seat and was duly assisted. Gerrit wanted to see the seating planning. The angel responded that that was not possible but would we like to sit in the back middle or front of the plane. Window. Aisle. Centre.

"I insist on seeing the seating plan. I am not getting a crap seat because you changed aircraft," the seating guru bellowed. I wanted to die. It is moments like these that you start believing in God and hope that the second coming would happen right about now and that you could be ruptured into eternity. I half peered over my shoulder at the queue that had grown. The look of irritation in the yet to check in passengers was very evident. I knew there was no offering that could appease the seat guru so I just turned my head in shame and listened.

Explaining that company policy did not allow her to show him the screen was not cutting it for the guru. A light bulb flickered in the angel and she whipped out a sheet of crisp clean paper and drew a rough sketch of the seating plan and roughly indicated where the open seats were. Some measure of calm returned and the guru's chakra's seemed to realign. I stood praying to my God to wake up the sky gods and re-establish equilibrium in the Flying Universe.

Eventually the angel and the guru reached consensus and a seat was decided upon. The ever increasing queue of people behind us looked somewhat relieved that the matter was sorted. I could however see the look in their eyes as they realised the guru would be sharing the plane with them. "I will have any seat as long as it's not next to the mad man," I imagined the response to the angel's question about where they would like to sit!

"There will be an hour delay," the Emirates announcement came as we stood waiting at our gate. The guru's chakra's contorted. What were the sky gods doing? I saw the adrenaline racing through the guru's brain, neurons firing and excitement levels taking off, reaching for the skies. (Something we would not be doing in a hurry.) In response to a prayer not yet uttered the angel suddenly appeared.

"Sir," she sang as she spoke, "I apologise for the delay. I am sure that we will be boarding soon." The song calmed the guru's anxiety and he smiled as he thanked her for making the effort to find him in the crowd and convey the message personally. I stood there thinking what crowd? We are first in the queue.

We eventually boarded, the doors were cross checked and locked. The head steward communicated this to the captain, and the air control signalled that we had clearance for take-off. Surely the sky gods were back on duty, equilibrium was about to be balanced again. The guru was happy with his seat. What else could possible go wrong?

Of course the meals got all mixed up with the change in aircrafts and the guru had failed to mention to the angel that special meals had been requested. Nothing rattles a guru more than the pangs of hunger. And nothing upsets a vegetarian guru more than having to choose between chicken or beef! On and on the guru ranted about us having placed a special meal. The beautiful air stewardess smiled and melted my heart. "I will see what I can do," she replied and drifted off as if floating on air. She returned with two vegan meals and asked if that was acceptable. The guru was happy. I was happy. The meal was scrumptious.

Word must have got out that the guru was on board and like a child in transit he needed just a little bit of extra care. In the hours that followed as we drifted over the clouds the guru revelled in the amazing on board entertainment. I would occasionally emerge from my slumber to his laughter or him accepting the snacks and drinks the air stewards kept coming to offer him. Maybe this is how business and first class people get treated all the time?

Eventually we touched down in Dubai and headed for the mega duty free paradise. There were three hours to reach our credit card targets before we connected to our final destination. The guru was refreshed and ready to take on the duty free salespersons.

I'm still not sure whose fault it was. I blamed the guru for arguing with the salesman, the guru blamed the salesman for not processing the sale fast enough. The airline didn't care whose fault it was that caused the delay in us getting to the gate. The gate was close. The flight boarded. Several announcements had been made. We would have to catch another flight.

The exotic looking lady at the service desk looked like an Arabian princess from a tale of a thousand nights. She flashed her designer smile at us and pieced our souls with her charcoal black eyes. I decided to protect the princess from the wrath of the guru and started explaining the dilemma. She took our boarding passes that were issued in Johannesburg for the second leg of the journey and punched away at the computer. The next flight was in 24 hours! My mood sank and the guru started demanding to see the manger. The princess smiled and punched at the computer some more.

"There is a flight to your final destination in about 4 hours," she said, "but I will have to put you on a standby flight at no extra cost!" "Perfect!" I smiled and we both ignored the guru who still demanded to see the manager.

We sat waiting. I cast my eyes hopelessly to the skies. What were the sky gods doing? And why hadn't my God woken them up yet. Maybe it was fate, maybe coincidence or maybe the sky gods finally caught a wakeup call. There were two no shows. And the seats were identical to the ones we had arrived on in Dubai. Vegetarian meals were available. The flight was smooth. The entertainment kept the guru happy and the snacks and drinks flowed.

It was six months later and I had to travel for work. The travel agent asked if I had any preference for an airline. Without hesitation I asked if Emirates flew there as I handed her my loyalty number. She asked if I enjoyed flying Emirates. "No," I replied dryly "I love flying with them, they are my favourite airline." She smiled knowingly and confirmed the ticket.

By André



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