There were four sections on my British Airways flight to Johannesburg from London: first, business, coach, and sombrero. The flight was filled with Mexican fans on their way to the World Cup to root for their cherished El Tri, the Three Colors. Our flight was delayed for about an hour because BA was having a hard time getting our 747 fully staffed thanks to a strike against the airline by UNITE, the union that represents BA’s cabin crews. The Mexicans passed the hour singing “canta, no llores” (sing, don’t cry) and generally having fun, and you’ve got to love their enthusiasm, even though they’re ferocious rivals of the U.S. team. BA spent the hour figuring out its service game plan as it was undermanned—there were 12 crew members as opposed to the normal complement of 14. The flight went smoothly enough, although it appeared to me, judging by some of the food, that the caterer was on strike, not the crew.
Airline strikes and the World Cup are a sort of predictable pair—there’s no better time to get your message across to management. In France in 1998, it was Air France pilots who taught me the French word for strike (grève), leaving thousands of tourists sputtering some new French words of their own as the pilots struck at the very moment France was trying to be on its best behavior. France, of course, won the Cup in 1998 behind the legendary Zinedine Zidane. Not sure whether this walkout is a good omen for England or not.
We landed in Joburg on a brilliantly sunny early winter day. Although the airport was absolutely clogged with arriving passengers, the border control lines moved smoothly, as did our baggage retrieval. The only long lines were at the cell phone rental places, and one again the Mexicans were there to keep it light. Billboards throughout the city proclaimed Johannesburg as a world- class town ready to take its place on the big stage, and from what I’ve seen that seems to be truth in advertising. There are always some last-minute snafus at big events like this—in Italy in 1990 I remember having to walk the last mile to a stadium because the road to it was never completed. In Joburg, along many roads work crews were still trying to create decorations, raise signs, mow the grass. But at least the roads are finished. South Africans are clearly thrilled with what they’ve accomplished just to get to World Cup opening day, and they ought to be. Let’s hope the games are as good as the preparations.