I have recently demonstrated to myself that the likes of Zoom are not king in the communications world. Nothing beats traveling for an in-person meeting where required for business.

Mike Gough

THINGS STARTED OUT a little gloomy. Boarding the Airbus A350 in Johannesburg, bound for Doha, it appeared that the prophets of doom about international airline travel may have a point – business class was essentially empty, and economy around a third full.

As a very recent retiree from what used to be my career position of airline pilot, due to the truly bizarre (and universally unique) process of creating eight con-current seniority lists based on skin colour and the dangly bits (or lack thereof) between one’s legs, I had to stump up for this trip as ID (Industry Discount) tickets are a thing of the past.

After playing the Covid regulation game of pretending to social distance before cramming into an aircraft, I created space after take-off by claiming my own row in economy.

After eight hours of a somewhat bumpy trip up at Flight Level 430, the contrast of entering Doha’s Hamad International Airport could not have been more marked in comparison to the gloomy, abandoned and closed-up atmosphere of Johannesburg’s ORT. There is a reason as to why this modern wonder has taken first place in Skytrax’s World Airport Awards.

Once ‘processed’ through to the bustling transit departures area, my lack of recent overseas travelling showed, as I walked around like a stunned mullet staring at the hospitality and shopping on offer.

Everything from Lamborghinis to exotic food and drink were readily available, and just for fun I engaged with the vehicle salesman, bantering about a car that my entire pension fund would only suffice as a deposit.

          ‘I headed meekly toward the rear of the aircraft’

My fears of my checked through luggage going astray (it always seems to happen to me) were somewhat allayed when the virtues of the systems in service were repeatedly displayed in several languages, while I waited for my connecting flight.

Right on time, another A350 was waiting for us at the designated gate, and this time there was a crowd of people descending with me through the airbridge. Knowing my new-found place in life, I headed meekly toward the rear of the aircraft and took up my seat in the 5th row from the back.

Somehow, I ended up with a row to myself again, much to my surprise, as it was pretty full in all classes. One gent took up a seat next to me momentarily and then went elsewhere. I checked if I needed to re-apply deodorant, but all seemed well in that department.

This sector was only two-and-a-half hours, but not having anyone in my immediate space was welcome.

A noticeable change of pace and condition of the airport building was immediately apparent as I stepped out into Cairo’s International Airport. I was back in Africa, that was no doubt. After the somewhat chaotic health ‘screening’, I rapidly passed through immigration, and thankfully retrieved my baggage from the carousel.

The operation that represents my flight school in the Middle East sent a delegation of three to fetch and escort me past the throng of taxi offers with appropriate Arab brusqueness. Luckily, being dark, my companion in the back seat could not see me holding on with white knuckles as we entered eleven PM traffic madness to the hotel. Our driving etiquette and the behaviour of our taxis in Johannesburg are positively saintly by comparison. Lane markings on the highways are merely a suggestion, and the deft use of hooters – reminiscent of Mumbai – ensured our safe passage.

I was to be entertained the next day with all things tourist, which, through the local knowledge of my hosts proved fascinating although somewhat exhausting, which was to be expected while cramming the entire Ancient Egyptian history into a single day.

There is already a huge demand in the Middle East and Asia for new pilots.

The following day saw me enroute by car to the city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. This was conducted at high speed on a surprisingly smooth six-lane (each way) highway. I had resigned myself to possible death at this point and relaxed to observe the relatively uninteresting desert landscape pass by.

Alexandria reminded me instantly of Durban, but on steroids. Chaotic traffic aside on the beach front roads, the mix of old and modern hotels and apartment blocks that towered massively next to the coastline was a stark reminder of how we have absolutely missed the boat in terms of developing our tourist infrastructure over the last three decades of decay in South Africa.

                        ‘There is more business in the Middle East and India’

The enormous Tolip Hotel was to be my home for the next two days. The vast conferencing facilities made very little attempt to comply with the much vaunted Covid regulations, published around the hotel. Our area was lavishly set up for around 140 delegates, and I set about preparing to expound upon the virtues of becoming an airline pilot.

Somewhat rich coming from a relatively youthful forced retiree of the same industry, but I was to give it my best shot.

The attendance and enthusiasm absolutely blew me away. My pretty lady translator was kept busy with whispering the various presentations in my ear, and then doing a live translation of my speech as I elaborated on the virtues of the South African aviation training industry, specifically with reference to my operation, Skyhawk at Lanseria.

Finishing close to midnight, I am still somewhat overwhelmed at the energy and inertia in the ab initio training market as I sit and write this in my hotel room. There is more business in the Middle East and India than the entire training industry globally will be able to cope with.

There is a distinct shift in the market. Most traditional airline cadet schemes are on hold or cancelled indefinitely. This has, without doubt, shifted emphasis to the privately funded market, which is huge.

As I have always concentrated on this particular area, the realisation that a significant expansion and establishment of an additional base of operations in the Johannesburg area, is now a certainty.

As South Africans, we decisively placed ourselves on the travel Red List, through sheer government ineptitude. Now as the vaccination programme falters, we need solid communication to get the ball rolling again and get ourselves back into the real world.

It’s booming out there, people.

And I get to do it all again tonight. Nice.

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