Last week I penned a blog about Mango Airlines, a low-cost airline that flies to five destinations in South Africa and also to Zanzibar. The service was good and overall the airline was more than adequate. But we at tripchi are about the airports and our how we experience them. I was lucky enough to visit three airports over our week-long trip. One was Cape Town International, previously blog about here, the other two were Lanseria Airport and Africa’s biggest airport OR Tambo International. Both airports serve the Johannesburg/Pretoria region and hopefully soon they will be on the tripchi airport app. So without further a due let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
Laseria Airport – Quaint, Inviting and Small
Lanseria is a privately funded, one runway airport built-in 1974 for only $270K (slightly mind-blowing). It is located in between Joburg and Pretoria, and services low-cost commercial airline Mango and Kulula along with a host of general aviation operators. It can handle aircraft the size of a 757 and construction on a second longer runway is in the works. We flew from CPT-HLA (Lanseria), so we only experienced it from an arrival prospective.
On Approach to HLA
Winter is the dry season in the Gauteng Province, so flying into HLA, we were looking a lot of brown and burnt grass. Burning grass became a regular occurrence while driving through Joburg. Our flight path took us into HLA from the South East and we flew over high plateaus as we stepped down to a smooth landing. We taxied to our gate quickly as there is very light traffic and noticed the only commercial planes were Mango, Kulula and Airlink.
We disembarked via air stairs, which being near the front didn’t matter too much. HLA is a small airport andwe were off the plane and at the baggage claim in 3 minutes. First impressions of the interior was that is was clean, shiny but with an out dated decor. There seemed to be only one baggage claim and it was old. The bags took awhile to come out and then you exited into the check in area. The lobby was very small with a few open check-in windows and guest services across from that. The few shops which included a duty-free, were located just inside the front entrance along with a couple of food stands. We heard there was a viewing deck but had to rush a bit as we needed to rent a car. We were happy to see that the car rental companies were located a minutes walk from the front entrance.
Lanseria is a simple, small but nice airport. I can’t imagine the security line gets very long or there is any traffic getting to the airport. I loved how the car rental agencies were right next to the entrance, no need for a shuttle ride. Disembarking the flight was easy and it was nice not to have a long walk to the baggage claim. The downside is HLA is in a remote area, 45 minute drive to downtown Joburg and about a 30 minute drive to Pretoria. There is no public transport to Lanseria so you need to rent a car or take a taxi, which can both get pricey. In context though, Lanseria is perfect for what it aims to be, a small airport that caters to low-cost airlines and for that I give it a strong 3.8 out of 5.
Returning to Joburg
A nice perk of car rental agencies at OR Tambo and Lanseria, you can rent a car from one airport and return it to the other for no extra fee. We utilized this and returned the rental car to Tambo, where we would then catch a bus to Botswana. Also, unlike the US you can return the car without a full tank. The agencies will fill it with gas at a price designated by the government, not the rental car company. Driving in South Africa is on the left and I have become fairly proficient at this duty. I was not ready for F1 race that surrounded Tambo. Tambo at 11am, on a Thursday is busy and signage is poor. The access roads are narrow and segregated by medians with sharp turns into dark garages with very low ceilings. After mild hear failure, we did get the car back to Avis without a scratch but a few more gray hairs. Not my favorite part of the trip.
OR Tambo – A Grandiose Structure
Tambo is the biggest airport in Africa handling over 18 million passengers annually. It was built in 1952 and got its current name in 1994 to recognize Oliver Reginald Tambo an anti-apartheid lawyer. It is a massive structure, with a grand arrival hall and separate international and domestic terminals. The arrival hall is a three level rotunda that lets tons of sunlight in and is always bustling. The hall in a way is a metaphor for the city itself; large, overcrowded and overwhelming at first. It is a statement piece that let’s you know the mighty Joburg is the heart of African capitalism.
Early Flight Little Crowds
We were shuttled from out hotel at 5am through a maze of ugly industrial parks that surround the airport. Once you enter the airport grounds you are greeted with lush plant life and plenty of adverts. Unlike the car rental return, the departure drop off is easily navigated by a three lane road and ample parking at the entrance. We entered B Terminal which is for domestic flights only and found it quite and empty. Each airline has check-in counters that are well spaced and by no means seems stuffy even when it gets crowded. A nice feature is that all the self check-in kiosks serve every airline. If you aren’t checking a bag, you can check intoto your flight without getting near the airlines service desk. We made use of self check-in then dropped our bag all in a five-minute span. There was nobody at security and we breezed through. I usually rail on the agencies like the TSA for being such sticklers, but I walked through the metal detector at Tambo wearing my belt, shoes, fleece and with tons of change in my pocket and no alarm sounded. The South African lack of security was a little worrying, but hey, on adventures you take certain risks.
Our flight was at 6:30am; the first domestic departure of the day so most gates were vacant. Many of the gates have ample seating, but our gate was down a dreary hallway with seating for only twenty people, so we decided to explore food options. Not surprisingly there was only one restaurant open. We entered the restaurant with the crazy notion of having a Bloody Mary at 5:45am. When we asked the bartender for two, he replied with a great TIA (This Is Africa) response. He stated he could not serve alcohol before 7am but if we wanted he could make us an Irish Coffee with Jameson in it. We both looked at him dumbfounded and declined his offer but thank him for his help. Luckily a small cafe opened 5 minutes before boarding and we grabbed some muffins. A note, many of the food options and shops in the domestic terminal open at 6am. We made our way back to the hallway gate and board the flight on time to Cape Town.
If you are aviation enthusiast like myself you can find a viewing deck like a hound sniffs out a fox. Tambo has a great viewing deck that doubles as their aviation museum. It can be found by walking to the end of the International Terminal A and taking the escalators up to the second floor and passing the airport offices. There is ample signage to help you find you way. Once there, you are given a great vantage point to snap some photos of incoming and outgoing aircraft. The museum is small but gives you a full history of the airport and it transformation during the fall of Apartheid. It’s a must see for any aviation fan.
Tambo is a large airport that provides very little in the way of personalazation. If you enjoy grand airports and being caught up in the hustle that is commercial airline travel in our era, than you will enjoy Tambo. Check-in was easy, security was a breeze and there are plenty of restaurants to fill your belly before your journey. Is has the all the essentials of a large airport but besides the viewing deck and museum you don’t get a sense of vibrant cultural that exists in South Africa. Its is a great structure that functions well for its purpose but in an Airport2.0 era it’s missing a little bit of wonderment and for that it gets a 3.5 out 5 stars.