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Great, new fully flat seat with direct aisle access, friendly and courteous service, good food
Lackluster entertainment selection, no Wi-Fi
South African Airways has gotten a fair amount of attention here at TPG. Through our involvement in PeaceJam, we’ve attended the annual PeaceJam conferences in both South Africa and Ghana, among others. A few years ago, TPG flew SAA’s A340-600 on its daily nonstop flight between New York-JFK and Johannesburg in order to get to the conference in Cape Town, South Africa.
The carrier only flies to one other US city — Washington, DC — where it operates flights between Washington Dulles and Johannesburg via Accra, Ghana and Dakar, Senegal, depending on the day of the week. But SAA sells tickets on both fifth-freedom routes between IAD and ACC and DSS, making for a convenient option for travelers headed to West Africa.
For this year’s conference in Accra I had the opportunity to fly one of these fifth-freedom routes on board the A330-300, which was equipped with an entirely new hard product up front. Based on our first look at these new seats, I was prepared for an experience unlike any of TPG‘s past experiences. And reflecting back on the flight, my expectations were happily exceeded.
Points people rejoice! South African makes a good number of business-class award seats available on the route I flew. Even if Accra isn’t your final destination, SAA does a pretty good job of releasing award seats across its network.
When redeeming transferable credit-card points for flights operated by Star Alliance carriers, you’ve got plenty of programs to choose from — United MileagePlus, Air Canada Aeroplan, Singapore KrisFlyer or Avianca LifeMiles. For my routing, United charges 80,000 miles, Aeroplan charges 75,000 miles, Singapore charges 96,500 and LifeMiles charges 78,000.
However, thanks to South African’s partnership with Virgin Atlantic, you can book a one-way flight between DC and Accra for just 55,000 miles each way, which is a pretty great deal for a transatlantic flight like this. Plus, Virgin is a 1:1 transfer partner of all three major points currencies (American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou), so getting points is easy. In fact, if you went this route for booking, you could earn the points you’d need just by signing up for a card like The Platinum Card® from American Express, which is currently offering a welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $5,000 within the first three months; or the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which is offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 within the first three months. And, Virgin often features transfer bonuses with its partners, meaning you could get an even better deal on a redemption.
Related: The 7 Best Starter Credit Cards
Regardless of how you book, make sure to choose the new SAA A330 (1-2-1 configuration in business) instead of the older jets like the A340s.
Although I was connecting in Washington, DC, I decided to exit the terminal to experience the full check-in process.
South African’s check-in counters are all the way to the west of the main terminal. There were three staffed counters for the flight to Accra.
While there wasn’t a line for the business- or economy-class check-in, I found the process to be incredibly slow, especially as a passenger who had already been checked in for the flight.
Before long, I was issued a South African boarding pass and sent on my way through security. South African doesn’t participate in TSA PreCheck, so I was stuck going through the regular lines at Dulles.
South African Airways flights depart from Terminal B at Dulles, which required a short walk or underground train ride from the main terminal.
During check-in, I was advised to use the Turkish Airlines lounge in Terminal B near Gate B43. I made my way to the lounge and found a small sitting area and buffet connected by a long corridor to another small sitting area and bar.
The lounge had a single, depressing-looking shower and both men’s and women’s restrooms.
The buffet featured a range of mostly Middle Eastern foods.
Wi-Fi was fast and easy to access throughout the lounge.
The best feature of the lounge, however, was that you could access it with a Priority Pass card. With so many credit cards offering free Priority Pass memberships, you don’t have an excuse to skip this lounge before your next flight from Dulles. (All terminals are connected airside with an underground train, so you can use this lounge even when flying domestically in economy class).
If you’re accessing this lounge on a domestic ticket, you should be thrilled. It’s leagues better than your traditional Admirals Club or United Club. But as an international business-class lounge, it pales in comparison to Flagship or Polaris lounges.
Even though I didn’t love the Turkish Airlines Lounge, I had choices!
Terminal B at Dulles has a second Star Alliance lounge that you can access with a same-day, international business-class ticket on any Star Alliance carrier. It pays to know the rules, because no one at South African advised me to use the Lufthansa lounge instead of the Turkish lounge.
The Lufthansa lounge is just a few steps down the terminal near Gate B51. The lounge is split into two levels: The upper level is the Senator Lounge, and the lower level is the Business Lounge. As a Star Alliance Gold member, I was invited into the Senator Lounge.
Without Star Alliance Gold status, I would only have been admitted to the Business Lounge downstairs.
Although the Lufthansa Lounge was definitely smaller than the Turkish lounge, I found the higher ceilings and cleaner furniture to be more inviting.
The food skewed more American and Western European and on par in terms of quality with the Turkish lounge.
There was a reserved section if you were flying in Lufthansa First or a HON Circle member.
The Wi-Fi was unusably slow, making it hard to really get any work done.
For those flying Lufthansa, the lounge offered direct boarding to Lufthansa gates, allowing you to bypass the gate lice in the terminal.
The bathrooms were clean and spacious.
I’d recommend trying the Lufthansa lounge before heading to the Turkish one.
Overall, the Star Alliance lounge situation at IAD was definitely quantity over quality. When the new United Polaris lounge opens, that will definitely be the place to relax before your SAA flight.
About 75 minutes before departure, I decided to head to the gate to check on our plane. The gate area was calm and had separate boarding doors for priority and economy class.
Boarding began 10 minutes after I arrived at the gate, with business-class passengers invited to board first.
Cabin and Seat
The business-class cabin was split in two sections: a forward cabin consisting of eight rows to the left of Door L2 and a small cabin to the right consisting of four rows.
I had chosen Seat 11K, a window seat flush with the starboard side of the plane. I really liked the red accents, which gave the cabin a bit of a race-car vibe.
In this staggered 1-2-1 configuration, there were definitely seats that were better than others. To start, I had selected a seat in Row 11, which had a missing window. So if you’re looking for that perfect “Wing-View Wednesday” picture, sit elsewhere.
Single seats alternated between being flush with the aisle or the window. The window seats that were flush with the — you guessed it — window were best, since they offered much more privacy. Select A or K seats in rows 2, 4, 6, 8, 9 or 11.
Aside from selecting a seat flush with the window, the best seats in the house belonged to the bulkhead, rows 1 and 9. The bulkhead seats were the exact same as any of the others except for a much larger footwell.
After switching from Row 11 to Row 9 (it was a light load), I noticed a marked difference in the size of the footwell, allowing me to spread my feet out when sleeping (see the pictures comparing the bulkhead versus the nonbulkhead footwells).
If you’re traveling with someone, the middle seats should do the job. Note, however, that there’s a large privacy divider between the middle seats that can’t be moved, so it may make sense to choose the single seats, depending on your personal level of separation anxiety.
The seats had a decent amount of storage area with a large table and a shelf for loose items. There was a headphone holder located next to the AC outlet and USB charging port.
There were two places to adjust the seat settings. One was next to the individual reading light, while the other was closer to the bed adjacent to the armrest. Both were intuitive and easy to use.
The fully flat bed was incredibly long at 7 feet, 2 inches. Even TPG himself could comfortably fit!
Although the bulkhead had a larger footwell than the other seats, it wasn’t high enough to fit my feet vertically. I had to sleep on my side to comfortably fit.
When it came time to eating and working, the tray table easily unlocked from the side storage compartment. The table swiveled and measured 19.5 inches by 11 inches, plenty big to fit my 13-inch MacBook Pro.
I sleep best in a freezer but was out of luck on this flight, since there weren’t any individual air nozzles on SAA’s A330s.
Finally, the business-class cabin featured three similarly sized bathrooms featuring Aigner hand-and-body lotion and cloth towels.
Oh, and here’s me pretending I’m Nicky Kelvin.
Amenities and IFE
If there’s one area where SAA could improve, it’s here.
Let’s start with the good. There was a crisp, high-definition, 15-inch personal touchscreen television at each business-class seat. There was also an easy-to-use remote stored under the left armrest.
The unbranded amenity kit came in a soft tote bag and had all the basics, like socks, brush, earplugs, toothbrush, eye mask and Aigner amenities.
The bedding was also unbranded but really comfortable. Each seat received one pillow, a blanket and a mattress pad. Given the light load, I was able to triple up on pillows, making my bed even more comfortable.
And now the bad. The noise-canceling headphones they distributed were basic and definitely more noise-isolating than noise-canceling.
Rather annoyingly, you couldn’t use the IFE until you passed through 10,000 feet.
I was also a disappointed in the IFE selection: There were 86 movies, including 22 new releases like “Free Solo,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Head Full of Honey.” However, outside of the new releases, there wasn’t much of a library of movies.
The 106 TV shows were mostly random episodes of single seasons — definitely not enough content to binge a new season.
The airshow was detailed enough, but didn’t allow for any customized views, as I’ve seen on other airlines.
There also wasn’t a tailcam or live TV.
Although there was Wi-Fi signal for the OnAir network, I couldn’t get my devices to load the landing page. I was told that SAA doesn’t yet have Wi-Fi, but if they’ve chosen OnAir as their provider, it wouldn’t make much of a difference even if the landing page worked. After all, OnAir is the slowest and most expensive of inflight internet providers.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
I was quite impressed with the food-and-beverage service on the nine-and-a-half-hour flight across the pond.
Service began on the ground with the predeparture beverage. I selected a sparkling wine and toasted to Star Alliance.
Menus were distributed after we took off, and meal orders were solicited shortly thereafter.
I had preordered an Asian vegetarian meal, but the menu options certainly sounded good.
About 45 minutes into the flight, I received my appetizer and first round of drinks. I enjoyed the healthy tomato lentil salad with a selection from the bread basket.
I ordered another glass of sparkling wine, Lord’s MCC Brut, and a can of Appletizer, a South African sparkling apple juice.
The entire meal was served from carts on preplated trays, which definitely sped up the meal but made me feel a bit like I was on an assembly line.
Thirty minutes later, the carts rolled down with my main — a trio of Indian curries with rice. I really enjoyed the flavor and thought I hit a home run with my special meal request.
I had two colleagues on the flight who ordered off the regular menu. Both enjoyed the cream of mushroom soup to start. One really loved the pecan-crusted snapper as her main, and the other hated his cranberry-stuffed chicken breast.
I skipped the cheese course, tiramisu and cheesecake (#summerbody) but heard rave reviews from across the aisle.
Two hours after takeoff, it was finally time for some shut-eye.
There were two breakfast options: a full breakfast was served a full two hours before landing, and a shorter express service 45 minutes before landing.
I value my sleep, so opted for the express service. It was definitely the continental option, as it featured fruits, a pastry, granola and yogurt.
Overall, I was impressed with the quantity of food served at both dinner and breakfast. You could’ve eaten even more if you’d chosen the full breakfast.
It’s almost a miracle when two out of three people really enjoy an airplane meal, so it’s clear that the food quality on this flight was commendable.
I’d heard horror stories from family and friends who’d flown SAA in the past, so I was curious to see if I would be dealt the same cards. TL;DR: I wasn’t.
As standard for international business class, newspapers and predeparture beverages were served during boarding. The senior purser, Sam, then greeted each passenger and thanked him or her for flying with SAA (she did this again during descent).
Once airborne, I appreciated the alacrity with which the crew sprang into action. With the seatbelts turned off once we hit 10,000 feet (why can’t US airlines do this too?), the FAs quickly brought around hot towels and distributed menus. The crew continued to work quickly, which I really appreciated on the red-eye.
The crew was also incredibly friendly and engaging throughout the flight. Some were shocked at how many pictures I was taking, and instead of accusing me of doing something wrong, they engaged me in banter about my thoughts on the new product.
FA call buttons were answered within minutes, and requests to change seats, get an extra pillow and try a new wine were accommodated quickly and with a smile.
My one complaint, however, was how loudly the crew was talking at night. I was much closer to the galley once I’d switched to the bulkhead seat, and I was disappointed that the crew didn’t keep it down or close the curtain between the cabin and the galley.
Other than the loudness, I was pleasantly surprised with the crew on this flight.
In the past, SAA may have had a bad rep for their outdated seats and apathetic cabin crew. That reputation has been shattered for me after this flight aboard the new Airbus A330-300.
With fully flat seats with direct aisle access, South African definitely has one of the best hard products in Africa. The soft product, like the quick and tasty meal service and friendly cabin crew, has definitely improved too.
The only things left to fix are the IFE and amenities. Add more relevant new releases and install functional (and cheap) Wi-Fi, and SAA would be a contender for most-improved business-class product.
After this flight, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend flying with SAA on their newest jets. So move over, Kenya Airways, South African’s new business class is the new pride of Africa.
All photos by the author.
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