In the past week I’ve taken four flights in South African Airways business class, from Frankfurt to Johannesburg to Cape Town to Johannesburg to London.
Having just gotten off the last sector, the flights are still fresh in my mind. While I’ll have a much more detailed report, I figured I’d share my “big picture” takeaway from having flown with SAA. In no particular order:
Aircraft swaps galore
Thai Airways is notorious for equipment swaps (to the point that many of us use the term “getting TGed” to describe an aircraft swap). Well, I think SAA gives them a run for their money.
My London to Johannesburg flight was canceled, and the second daily flight had an aircraft swap.
On the return, the flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg was swapped from an A330-200 to an A340-600.
Meanwhile the Johannesburg to London flight before mine was swapped from an A340-600 to an A330-200.
A340-600s on 90 minute flights are awesome
SAA’s aircraft utilization is terrible, as most of their flights to Europe are redeyes, then the planes sit on the ground in Europe all day, then they operate a redeye back to Johannesburg, and then they don’t start their next longhaul flight till that night (at least for the most part).
As a result, South African pretty consistently operates A330s and A340s between Johannesburg and Cape Town. There’s nothing quite like an A340-600 on a 90 minute flight! In my opinion it’s one of the sexiest planes in the sky.
South African’s shorthaul catering is disappointing
I didn’t have many expectations of SAA coming in, though I found their catering on flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town to be disappointing. It seemed more like economy food than business class food — it didn’t taste good, and the portion was tiny (which was probably a blessing, since it didn’t taste good). 😉
Professional pilots and safety oriented flight attendants
When I booked SAA, I had several readers tell me they were unsafe and that they have horrible maintenance. I’m not sure what that’s based on (I don’t pay too much attention to airline safety as such), as they haven’t had a fatal accident in almost 30 years.
Not that it’s necessarily reflective of safety, but I found the flight attendants to be among the most thorough I’ve had in terms of safety checks. And the pilots all put me at ease as well — I felt like I was on British Airways in terms of the professionalism of the pilot announcements, whether it be from Captain Hugh or Captain Nigel, who were piloting my last two flights.
A unique narrowbody business class configuration
Different regions have different standards for regional premium cabin comfort. In the US, business class (or domestic first class) is typically in a 2-2 configuration, with more pitch and width in economy.
Meanwhile in Europe, business class is generally just economy with a blocked middle seat and better service.
In the Middle East you’ll find some of the world’s best business class products, often offering fully flat beds and incredible service.
SAA’s A319s, on the other hand, are in a 2-3 configuration in business class. I’d say pitch is slightly less than you’ll find in domestic first class in the US. It just seems sort of half assed to have a separate cabin, but give 20% of your passengers middle seats.
I’ve never before seen an A319 with five seats per row.
The quality of SAA’s longhaul business class catering is excellent
The food I did have on my longhaul flights was exceptional across the board. However, I’d note that it’s not the most involved service. You get an appetizer or a salad or a soup, a main course, and then a dessert or cheese course. I suppose you could ask for more, but it’s quite specifically designed so that it’s “or” rather than “and.”
So SAA scores points for quality, but not so much quantity.
Instant coffee, really?!
As a coffee addict, there’s little I appreciate more than an airline with good coffee. If they can make espresso based drinks as well, all the better.
I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that SAA had cappuccinos on their menu… until I had one.
Both the coffee and cappuccino are the “instant” variety, so it’s just hot water with powder poured in.
Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk!
Not all longhaul business class is created equal
As I mentioned in my post earlier, my Frankfurt to Johannesburg flight was operated by an A340-600, while my Johannesburg to London flight was operated by an A330-200.
I slept extremely well on the A340-600, though I find the cabin design to be rather ugly, the entertainment to be outdated, and the fact that there was a single huge cabin made the experience feel less personalized.
The A330-200, on the other hand, has a slightly nicer design and a better entertainment system (not in terms of selection, but in terms of responsiveness and picture quality), though the seat doesn’t go fully flat. It wasn’t some horrible sloping seat, but rather the footrest just didn’t go up all the way, and the angle was annoying enough so that it prevented me from sleeping well. The A330-200 also doesn’t have privacy partitions between seats.
Do I recommend SAA?
The airline has potential. Unfortunately the hard product is outdated, so if you’re traveling solo, I don’t think these are good seats. If you’re traveling with someone, however, you may appreciate being able to sit next to your travel companion.
The soft product on SAA was fine. The food was excellent, though the menu wasn’t the most involved out there.
The service was almost consistently friendly in a non over the top way, and ranged from reasonably attentive to disorganized.
If SAA is the airline flying a route you need to fly nonstop, or if they have award space, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly with them. But they probably also wouldn’t be my first choice.