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While South African Airways makes a comfortable option for traveling between the US and West Africa, it’s not the most state-of-the-art product out there. The pros: large, lie-flat seats and friendly service. The cons: late-night departures and an abbreviated meal service.
On a recent mission to discover the most interesting ways to redeem Etihad miles for award flights, several members of Team TPG traveled to Serbia, Morocco and Senegal, with me flying aboard South African Airways’ A340-300 in business class between Washington, D.C. (IAD) and Dakar (DKR).
South African Airways (SAA) operates flights between Washington, D.C. (IAD) and Accra, Ghana (ACC) on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and to Dakar (DKR) on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, with both of these flights then continuing to Johannesburg (JNB). I looked up my flight online ahead of time and was excited to see it would be my first time flying aboard a four-engine plane, SAA’s Airbus A340-300, one of the most beautiful aircraft in the world — to an #AvGeek like me, anyway.
I booked this flight using 84,444 miles transferred from the Etihad Guest program. For the round-trip itinerary — with one leg in economy and one in business. I used the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card to pay for the additional $592 in taxes and fees, which earned me 3x Membership Rewards points (1,776 in total) for the purchase. If the Amex Platinum card’s 5x bonus category on airfare purchases had been in place at the time of booking, I certainly would have used that card instead.
Another thing to note about booking this specific flight: since SAA is a Star Alliance partner, award seats are available to book through United, so if you were to book your flight that way, each leg would cost 80,000 United MileagePlus miles, plus about $18 in taxes and fees on the outbound flight and about $100 for the return flight — still much less than the taxes and fees Etihad charged for my ticket.
Airport and Lounge
This flight proved to be one of the most… interesting… I’ve ever had. The peculiarities started at the airport in Dakar (DKR), which was, quite frankly, a disaster. It was very hot, poorly lit and appeared as if it was going to fall apart at any moment. Luckily, an entirely new airport is under construction at a different site.
My flight was scheduled to leave at 1:55am local time, so I was only expecting to see a deserted terminal with just a few other passengers waiting — I couldn’t have been more wrong. I quickly learned that flights arrive at and depart from West Africa at all hours of the day, so even though it was late, there were still crowds of people waiting to check in for their flights.
I made my way over to the South African Airways Premium check-in line and waited for at least 30 minutes in line behind a family of six before I was able to check in. The process was pretty smooth once I made it to the desk though. The agent spoke perfect English, quickly found my reservation and printed my boarding pass. I was a little concerned, however, when I saw my bag being taken off the conveyor belt, thrown onto a cart and wheeled away, but when I arrived in Washington, D.C., it was there waiting for me. I think there might have just been a mechanical issue with the belt at DKR.
Along with my boarding pass, I was given a hand-written entrance ticket to the Business Lounge at DKR.
Upon entering the lounge, I was overjoyed to feel the air conditioning, given the oppressive humidity in the rest of the terminal. The lounge itself was fairly large, with plenty of red leather sofas and chairs. While the lounge overall was pretty outdated, I found the seats to be very comfortable for my hour-long visit.
I was repeatedly told, even in the lounge, that photography was forbidden within the airport, so I wasn’t able to take a ton of photos. I did manage to get one of the refreshing Senegalese beer I enjoyed before boarding my flight.
Boarding was scheduled to begin around 1:00am, so I headed to my gate by 12:55am, expecting to have just a few minutes to wait. As I arrived at the gate, I realized we wouldn’t be boarding on time, since the only employees there were actually security personnel — who patted down each and every passenger and inspected each carry-on bag one-by-one. It took me about 20 minutes to get through all of this.
Next, I discovered there was no advanced boarding for business-class passengers. While I don’t have much experience flying in business class, I figured I’d at least get to board before the passengers traveling in the economy cabin, but there was just one simple call, after which everyone in the gate area rushed forward, becoming part of a massive crowd.
After my boarding pass was scanned by the gate agent, I walked out onto the tarmac and got on the bus that would shuttle us to the aircraft. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for every single passenger to get on the one, very crowded bus, we finally headed to the massive A340-300 around 2:15am.
Not only was I very excited to get off the bus because it was very hot, but I was also very excited to be right there on the tarmac in front of such a huge plane — the largest I’ve been on to date. SAA’s livery looks beautiful on this very long plane — it’s a shame I wasn’t able to get this close to it when it was light out. Economy passengers boarded through the rear door, while business-class passengers entered through a door toward the front of the plane.
Cabin and Seat
After being greeted by the friendly flight attendants, I made my way to my seat and was once again surprised by what I saw — a half-full business-class cabin with passengers still sleeping and others clearly just waking up after a nap. This was perfectly normal, given that this flight had just come in on its first leg from Johannesburg (JNB). I’ve just never been on a flight that was already in progress by the time I boarded.
The business-class cabin on South African Airways’ A340-300 consists of two separate cabins full of 38 lie-flat business-class seats arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration. The majority of the seats are in the front section, while just 12 are located in the rear section.
Each seat is 23.7 inches wide and offers 73 inches of pitch. And all of them turn into fully lie-flat beds.
A large pillow and bottle of water were waiting for me at my seat, 3K. Oddly enough, I was never given an amenity kit — I think because the flight attendants didn’t seem to know who the new passengers were and so many of the people who had already been on the flight were moving around the cabin.
The seat was noticeably old, but I found it to be comfortable. I also had tons of legroom and couldn’t even reach the seat in front of me without getting up entirely. There was a small cubby at the bottom of the seat in front of me that I could fit my shoes in, which was very convenient.
One of the things I liked about the seat was a pre-set ‘relax’ setting, which was perfect for eating and watching movies on the in-flight entertainment system. The seat controls were loud and the seat itself moved slowly, but I had no trouble getting comfortable.
When fully flat, the seat made a nice, comfortable place to sleep for a few hours. One minor annoyance was the built-in headrest at the top of the seat, which put me in a slightly awkward sleeping position, but since I was so exhausted it didn’t seem to matter. These seats also aren’t the most private in the sky, with only a small divider between them (there was no one sitting next to me on this flight). The bedding kept me very warm throughout the flight.
Food and Beverage
Because of the odd timing of this flight, passengers who joined it in Dakar weren’t given a full meal service, just a snack that was likely served as an appetizer with the dinner the other passengers had received shortly after departing Johannesburg. I was very hungry and tired at the time, and frankly didn’t pay much attention to what I was eating. It all tasted fine, but the warm parts of the snack did have a sort of rubbery texture. I really enjoyed the glass of South African red wine I was served, and how it helped put me right to sleep.
While the snack wasn’t memorable, the omelette I had for breakfast was. This meal was served about 1.5 hours before we landed in DC, and came with a delicious piece of sausage — just what I needed after an exhausting night of traveling. I ordered a glass of orange juice and a strawberry danish, which was also excellent. This was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had on an airplane.
In-Flight Entertainment and Amenities
I have to concur with TPG’s thoughts on the in-flight entertainment on South African’s A340 aircraft: it’s slow, outdated and the screen itself is very small. I would have preferred to have it mounted somewhere in front of me instead of having to pull it out from the side, as it’s hard to have both the tray and the IFE screen out at the same time and can lead to accidental spills.
The IFE screen looked like it belonged on a jet in the 1990s, not something you’d see today.
Even though the screen itself was very outdated, the IFE system was loaded with a decent amount of content and I was able to find a movie to watch before I dozed off.
The headphones provided were nothing to write home about, but they did the trick for the one movie I watched on the flight. They also have the dreaded (in my opinion) three-prong connection, which made it difficult to plug in without being able to see the jack.
Like I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t given an amenity kit when I boarded, but I’d received one on my flight to Dakar in business-class aboard the airline’s A330, and it’s the same kit that’s found across the entire fleet. The list of products wasn’t extensive, but I liked the toiletries from Crabtree & Evelyn of London.
My experience aboard a South African Airways A340-300 was certainly different than TPG’s when he flew nonstop from New York (JFK) to Cape Town (CPT) via Johannesburg (JNB). Despite it being one of the most unconventional flights I’ve ever experienced, I was able to sleep comfortably in the lie-flat seat. The flight crew were extremely friendly and accommodating, always eager to help out if I needed anything. If you’re traveling between the US and West Africa, SAA provides a perfectly comfortable option as long as you’re aware of the peculiarities that come along with joining a flight that’s already begun in another city.
Have you ever flown in South African Airways’ business class aboard the A340-300? Tell us about your experience, below.
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