South African Airways is the national airline of South Africa and has been a member of Star Alliance since 2006. From its hub at Johannesburg – OR Tambo International Airport, South African Airways is the largest airline to service the continent of Africa and flies to over 38 destinations worldwide. South African Airways operates a two class cabin configuration (business and economy) on both their short haul and long haul flights.
On a recent trip to South Africa for a tour of Kruger National Park, we got to experience both economy and business class on South African Airways. We flew international economy class from Munich to Johannesburg, domestic business class from Johannesburg to Cape Town and international business class from Johannesburg to DC (via Dakar).
South African Airways only serves two airports in the United States, JFK New York and IAD Washington Dulles. Because we are Los Angeles based, we had to connect through to the east coast or any of the other international hubs that South African Airways serves. Not wanting to waste a free stopover on an awards flight, we decided to do a stopover in Germany instead and tool around Munich for a couple days before connecting through to Cape Town.
The coach flight from Munich (SA343) was on an ancient Airbus A340 and was pretty standard for any long haul international economy flight. The seats offer 17” of width and 32” of pitch. You get your own seatback AVOD entertainment screen with a mediocre selection of movies, games and tv shows. The IFE selection of movies had about three current movies and a collection of old, or as they called it, “classic” movies. The seat and food were nothing special but you do get a small amenities kit (eye shades, socks and ear plugs) in economy class. I use the term, “amenities kit” very loosely because it’s not a reusable bag. The contents are provided in a plastic ziplock bag and none of the items provided are worth reusing. But nonetheless, it’s still a nice touch considering many airlines are not providing anything at all for the back of the plane. On this flight, we were served two meals and snacks were available in the galley in between meals. There were no USB or power ports to connect or power your electronic devices.
The international business class flight from Johannesburg to DC (SA207) was slightly better. Also on an aging Airbus A340, seats were full 180 degree lie flats with the same entertainment system as in economy class but with a slightly larger screen. The IFE monitors are located in the armrests and must be stowed for takeoffs and landings. Two weeks later, the IFE selection was the same as on our coach flight. The FA’s were extremely pleasant and attentive. Once seated, the Purser came around to all the business class passengers to introduce herself and offer pre-departure drinks. The food was slightly better than in economy class and you do get a better amenities kit (not in a plastic zip lock bag). Business class passengers are also provided with headphones, a decent sized pillow and super thick duvet.
Johannesburg to Cape Town is a heavily traveled route and is serviced similarly to our Los Angeles to San Francisco route. The short 2 hours and 10 minute flight is mainly serviced on narrow body jets but some flights are operated on the wide body A340 and A330’s. Our domestic business class flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town was on another aging Airbus A330 with the same business class lie flat seats and configuration as the international flights. However, there was NO in flight entertainment on this flight. The screens were there but we got a choice of watching the flight map or static. The flight attendants were all pleasant and attentive but nothing spectacular. The arrivals, business and first class lounges in Johannesburg and Cape Town were spacious and beautiful. Offerings included hot food, a fully stocked bar, wifi, and showers.
After experiencing their range of services, I found myself a bit underwhelmed from the whole experience. As the pride of Africa and a major player to the continent, I just expected a bit more from South African Airways. The service and lounges were all fantastic but everything else just fell short with their aging fleet (average age of 9 years) and lack of technology connectivity.
Here’s a tip. If you can route your trip from JFK to JNB, then do it! Do not do the IAD to JNB route. All IAD/JNB routes connect through Dakar and it’s a pain in the rear end. It totally disrupts your trip and is extremely inconvenient. Let me explain. Prior to landing in Dakar, you have to prep for your landing. That means waking up, putting your seat in the upright position, cleaning up everything off the floor and stowing everything away including your blanket and pillow. Once on land, they drop off passengers and then conduct a security inspection where they sanitize the air and go through all the seats. You do not get to get up and move around or leave the plane. You just sit there. The whole process takes about 45 minutes. They then take on additional passengers and you’re back on your way to America.