Oct 242012

Recently, I was asked to head to Dakar, Senegal for the better part of two months for work.  Due to prior commitments, I arranged to do it in two blocks, with two weeks off in between.  I won’t bore you with the flights in between (standard DCA-YOW runs on Air Canada) but thought I’d fill in some of the details on Dakar, Senegal including the hotels, restaurants, a few sights, and the flights to get there.  I’ll go be going back again shortly, and taking pretty much the same route.

There’s actually a non-stop flight on South African between DC and Dakar, which is a bit odd to most people.  Even stranger, is that all but the highest business fares are often sold out months in advance, requiring a full J fare if you want to take it.  Forget D/I/Z/etc.  Just couldn’t justify that, plus, I actually wanted to rack up some extra miles, so settled on this route.  I was going to fly United to Brussels, then Brussels Airlines to Dakar, but wanted to go out of Washington National if possible.  United doesn’t allow this – transatlantic fares almost always require nonstops out of Dulles, however, Lufthansa is cool with it.  However, they only codeshare on the Newark to Brussels flight, thus I ended up going Washington National (DCA) to Chicago (ORD) to Newark (EWR) to Brussels (BRU) on United, connecting to Dakar on Brussels Airlines.  The flight back would be much simpler – nonstop on South African.  I’ll explain why I chose this below in the detailed flight sections.

Later, I’ll make a couple posts about hotels, sights, and restaurants, before I head back for the next trip where I’m hoping to hop around to a couple more countries in the region on weekends if possible.  Fair warning, this post will be very very full of flight geekery.

Got to the airport about 90 minutes before the first flight to check bags, and encountered the typical surly DCA United agents.  I don’t know why, but the United staff here (with the exception of those working the lounge) are always surly.  Dulles can be marginally better, but every time at DCA I have a pretty negative experience.  Once again denied pre-check by TSA (which I understand doesn’t work with international itineraries anyways) and had a little time to kill in the “United Club” aka former Presidents Club.  The agent was very chatty, sharing every thought she had on the merger, how staff were integrating, and basically how senior management wasn’t thinking.  Basic stuff like shuffling flight attendants between DCA and IAD in taxis to fill gaps causing long delays, etc.  It was an interesting chat, and time to board soon!

United Airlines Flight 833
Washington, DC National (DCA) to Chicago (ORD)
Depart 10:23, Arrive 11:20, Flight Time 1:57
Airbus A319, Registration N822UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1E

Nothing exciting to say about this flight.  Snack mix, diet coke, and on-time landing.  The fun started in Chicago, with the United International First lounge.  Always good to get filled up on shrimp cocktail and champagne before continuing on.  Pretty standard day, and didn’t have too far to walk to the flight to Newark.

United Airlines Flight 1720
Chicago (ORD) to Newark (EWR)
Depart 13:00, Arrive 16:17, Flight Time 2:17
Boeing 737-800, Registration N77530, Manufactured 2011, Seat 3F

Small snack on this flight, and started off right with a margarita on-board, definitely one of the things from the Continental side of the house that I’m really glad came over to the new United.  Small lunch which is no longer memorable, but was some sort of a deli plate with a few decent things on it.  I wasn’t hungry after the shrimp so just picked at it, and soon we landed.  Boring domestic flights, I know…let’s move onto the prime attraction.  Some slightly less common international segments.

United Airlines Flight 960
Newark (EWR) to Brussels, Belgium (BRU)
Depart 18:12, Arrive 7:45 next day , Flight Time 8:33
Boeing 777-200, Registration N775UA, Manufactured 1996, Seat 1A

Lounge…ug.  Really, you make international first passengers use the dump that is the “United Club” at Newark.  Completely packed with the cattle, it’s hard to get a drink or find somewhere to plug in your computer.  Boarding was at least relatively efficient, and the former Continental gate crew at least seem to know there are three classes finally.  Then, we boarded, and things got a bit exciting.  Earlier in the day, there were only 3 of us in first, with five empty seats.  Of course, all eight ended up being taken.  The crew (ex-United) seemed to know the party of five (all together) who boarded (surprising since they were boarding in EWR, but who knows), and they rather loudly complained that there were six of them, but one “got stuck in the back because SOMEONE took their seat at the last minute.”  Honey, that would be me….on a full business fare upgraded with a global upgrade.  If you want your company to stay in business, please don’t complain when full revenue passengers “stick” #6 in your party in business.  Very unprofessional.  The purser must have seen me make a bit of a pained face, as she actually came over and apologized, and was wonderful the whole flight.

Standard new 777 united first suites, with the standard broken buttons on a couple of the storage compartments.  Nothing a makeshift lever wouldn’t take care of.  People always seem to ask the latest of the meals, so I’ll post with a few pics here.  Started of course with the mixed warm nuts.  Nothing special, but way too many almonds for my liking.

To Begin:  Warm Appetizer – Vegetable and mushroom-filled pastry and beef empanada with Amazon sauce.

I’ll admit, I have no idea what “Amazon sauce” is supposed to be, and even after eating it I wasn’t sure.  Tasty enough, but certainly not what I’d expect in international first.   You’ll also notice some coconut-breaded chicken thing.  Guess the veggie and shroom pastry was a tease as well.  At least there was wine!

Soup:  Shrimp and Roasted Corn Chowder.

Actually, this was pretty tasty.  I like how they’ve gone to smaller bowls more appropriate for a 5-6 course meal.  One of the better soups I’ve had on United.  I even asked if there was more, which of course there wasn’t.

Fresh Seasonal Greens:  Tomatoes, Kalamata olives, Parmesan cheese and croutons with your choice of Parmesan-pepper dressing or roasted garlic red wine vinaigrette.

I have a rule of no vinaigrettes on planes, because I always splash them on my shirts and end up ruining them.  Plus, I never allow myself creamy dressings on the ground, so planes are the one place I’ll do it.  Pretty average salad for United first, so no complaints.

Main Course:

There were four choices, and somehow, I forgot to take a picture.  Maybe the wine was getting to me.  I had the beef, which true to Continental ex-EWR catering was cooked nearly perfectly unlike United extra-well-done hockey pucks out of Dulles.

  1. Tenderloin of Beef – Delmonico’s steak sauce, rösti potatoes, fine green beans and roasted tomatoes
  2. Cajun-style Breast of Chicken – Cajun cream sauce, white beans with chicken sausage, collard greens and grilled onions
  3. Newburg-style Seafood – Fillet of turbot and shrimp with a creamy lobster sauce, green lentils and mixed vegetables
  4. Vegetable-filled Mezzaluna Pasta – Pomodoro sauce and zucchini with Parmesan cheese

I was pretty happy with my beef choice, and assuming the menu hasn’t changed will be having the same again unless someone can recommend one of the others.

To Finish:

International Cheese Selection – Grapes and crackers with Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage Port.  It was ok, but seriously, why can’t they shell out the extra $100 to get some real interesting cheeses for these flights?

Dessert – Ice cream with your choice of toppings and assorted petite sweets.  This is what it’s all about!  The sundae, along with some Baileys on top.

Managed a solid five hours sleep after passing out in a wine coma, and woke just in time for a Diet Coke before landing.  There was a breakfast option:

Chilled Deli Selection – Brie and Swiss cheeses, Black Forest ham, Genoa salami and turkey.

Not sure how anyone ever eats breakfast on transatlantics, unless they skip dinner upon boarding.  We landed over 30 minutes early, and I was through immigration in just a few minutes.  Major United fail once again, however.  Before departure, the international concierge came on, and I asked about arrivals services at Brussels.  Yes, he said, there’s a hotel they use, just ask the agent when you get off and they’ll be expecting you.  Nope, agent could have cared less, said there was no such thing, and tough luck.  Go to the lounge.

Finally went to the United ticket counter outside security, and they knew exactly what to do.  Five minutes later I had a voucher for the airport hotel – the Sheraton – and 10 minutes later was up in a room dozing for a couple hours.  I’m not sure if business gets this service or just first, but it was a great way to kill a few hours since it was still 1am to my body clock.

Back through immigration around noon, and killed a little time in the Brussels Airlines international/non-Schengen lounge, before it was time to Board.

Brussels Airlines Flight 201
Brussels, Belgium (BRU) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 14:35, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time 6:15
Airbus A330-300, Registration OO-SFW, Manufactured 1994, Seat 1A

This was the new lie-flat configuration for Brussels Airlines’ A330s, and had an odd 1-2-1 2-1-2 type configuration.  1A was an amazing seat with nobody next to you, and I’d highly recommend.  The in-flight cam during takeoff:

It was a lunch flight, and despite being business class the food was probably better overall than United First.  Even the nuts starter was more interesting, and came with a small amuse bouche.

Starter / Entrée

Shrimp served over leeks with white wine or Curry-marinated chicken with mango salsa.  I went with the chicken, and it was interesting, and pretty tasty.

Main Courses:

  1. Beef roulade with dried fruit, crisp sunshine vegetables and wheat semolina
  2. Sole roulade served with suprême sauce, courgette, carrots and steamed potatoes
  3. Lasagne with leek

I don’t know why, since I never get pasta on planes, but I can’t turn down lasagna!  Glad I didn’t because it was pretty darn tasty.  Esp after a few glasses of wine!


Yes, unlike United it’s cheese and desert.  Brugge Apéro, Carré de Liège and Brugge Oud.  Also like United, they’re not so ashamed of the cheeses they serve that they actually tell you what they are!


Triple chocolate dessert.  Yum, enough said.

A couple hours later, some ice cream treats were served, and that was pretty much it.  An excellent business class product, especially for a daytime/lunch flight.  It was annoying the crew insisted on shutting on the windows and keeping it dark since there were only 5 of 30 seats taken.  Oh well, landing was still about 20 minutes early, and overall it was a great flight.

After a few weeks of work in Dakar, it was time to head back.  I figured I’d take my chances, and got to the airport around midnight – 90 minutes in advance, for my flight back to DC.  Check-in was pretty efficient, as there were only 30-40 people joining the flight in Dakar.  The rest would come from Johannesburg.  The check-in agent gave me a voucher for a drink at some bar, which I found out about 30 minutes later was actually a proper self-serve business class lounge that was quite well-hidden upstairs.

Security was pretty painless, but there was a full manual bag-check again at the gate.  Annoying.  Especially when asked for “cadeaux.”  Sorry, don’t have any, let me through!

South African Airlines Flight 207
Dakar, Senegal (DKR) to Washington, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 1:25, Arrive 6:25, Flight Time 9:00
Airbus A340-300, Registration ZS-SXC, Manufactured 2004, Seat 4A

Of the 34 seats, 32 were full….except for 4A and 4B!  I managed to move over and have both to myself, which made a very comfortable flight.  Shortly after takeoff, lights went off, and around 29-30 of the people went straight back to sleep.  I suppose this stopover would be really annoying if you were coming from Johannesburg.  I asked for wine, and she brought both types along with two glasses for me to taste both.  Once I’d decided, she said “this will make it easier” and just left the bottle.  LOL!

A small snack was also served, and a few glasses of wine and an hour later it was off to a very fitful sleep.

I’m pretty sure a full breakfast was served on top of this snack, but I slept straight through until about 20 minutes before landing, a solid 6 hours.  I didn’t find the seats all that comfortable, despite the rave reviews they seem to get online.  The metal supports just seemed to hit me wrong, and I never really got all that comfortable.  That said, 6 hours of sleep doesn’t lie – they were comfortable enough!  Crew was wonderful, and we landed a full 30 minutes early.  I have to say, I loved this flight.  2am local time makes it easy to pass out, and when you wake up around 5am DC-time it’s already 9 in Senegal and you’re ready to go assuming you slept.  I had zero jet-lag at all – and it’s totally worth giving up the miles to take the nonstop option in this direction.

Food, hotels, and sights will follow and then I’m back to west africa for more!

  2 Responses to “West Africa 2012 and first flights”

  1. Great reviews, Jason! Only thing to note: it wasn’t a former Continental crew on the EWR-BRU flight–it’s a pre-merger United plane, so it’s still a pre-merger United crew.

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