11 hours with no power: Review of South African Airways' A330 between Washington and Accra
[tpg_rating ticket-class="economy" tpg-rating-score="70" ground-experience="3" cabin-seat="26" amens-ife="20" food-bev="13" service="8" pros="A comfortable seat for economy class, good meals, useful amenities, generally great service from flight attendants, free-flowing spirits and wine." cons="No power or Wi-Fi, and limited entertainment options." /]
Last October, I traveled with other TPG staffers to Monrovia, Liberia, to take part in a PeaceJam conference. PeaceJam, a non-profit organization TPG supports, helps inspire youth through the teachings and guidance of Nobel Peace Prize laureates. To get there, we divvied up airlines, and I pulled a round-trip between Washington and Accra, Ghana, on South African Airways.
As the date of the flight approached, South African was grounded by a crew strike. And before my return flight, multiple troubling reports about its finances emerged. The day after I arrived back in the U.S., South African Airways entered bankruptcy protection. But thankfully, none of that affected my flights.
To get from Austin, Texas (AUS) to Monrovia, Liberia (ROB) and back, I ended up booking four different tickets. Flying around Thanksgiving, there was understandably no award availability on either South African Airways flight, from Washington Dulles (IAD) to Accra, Ghana (ACC) and back. So we were going to need to book with cash. We found it was much cheaper to book the flights separately; we purchased a round trip from Washington to Accra on South African for $1,100, and a round trip from Accra to Monrovia on Kenya Airways for $420.
We booked flights giving a substantial amount of time in Accra both ways, to account for the risk of delays making me miss my connection, since the tickets were bought separately. I wouldn't have any checked luggage, making this plan simpler.
If you're able to find award availability, your best options to book South African are through Virgin Atlantic Flying Club for 35,000 miles each way in economy or 55,000 miles one-way in business class. Or, you can use ANA Mileage Club miles to book the round-trip for 65,000 miles round-trip in economy or 104,000 round-trip in business class.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="3" tpg-rating-max="5" tail="ZS-SXY" age="8.5" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
When I tried to check in using my phone, I received an error message for both the outbound and return flights.
However, when I used my laptop, I checked in without any trouble.
With the seat map showing the flight was only about half-full, I selected an empty two-seat window pair near the back hoping nobody would sit next to me.
I arrived at Washington Dulles on my United positioning flight more than six hours before the departure time to Accra. Thanks to my Priority Pass membership from the Chase Sapphire Reserve® card, I got a solid meal at Chef Geoff's in Terminal C for just a $5 tip out of pocket; airport restaurants that participate in Priority Pass offer a $28 credit.
Riding the "IAD mobile lounge" around the airport, I noticed that a South African Airways aircraft was already at the gate, several hours before departure. I was surprised to find a gate agent already in position. I approached, explained that I had just flown in on a separate ticket, and found out that she could print my boarding pass and do a document check so that I didn't need to exit and re-enter through security.
The agent struggled to code into the system that I didn't have a Ghana visa despite my South African Airways ticket ending in Accra. After referencing a guide, she confirmed my onward flight on Kenya Airways and that I had a visa to enter Liberia.
I also asked the gate agent to switch the frequent flyer account on the ticket. I originally was crediting the flight to Singapore KrisFlyer, as it would earn 100% of miles flown. However, I figured that early boarding would be better for photos, so I switched to my Asiana frequent flyer number, since I have Star Alliance Gold status through the Asiana Club program — so I would board early thanks to that status, since South African is a member of Star Alliance.
Although the frequent-flyer number changed on the boarding pass, my KrisFlyer account ended up getting the flight credits.
I burned the hours between this check-in and boarding at two Priority Pass lounges: the British Airways Galleries Lounge until it closed to Priority Pass guests at 2 p.m., and then the busy but excellent Turkish Airlines lounge, which I could enter thanks to that Star Alliance Gold status.
Boarding was scheduled for one hour and 10 minutes before departure, and began on time with pre-boarding passengers. Business-class passengers were welcome to board seven minutes after scheduled boarding time.
Waiting at the gate, I checked the seat map and found that the aircraft had filled up and the seat next to me was taken. So I approached the gate agents to see if I could get reassigned to the empty three-seat row in the second-to-last row of the aircraft. In just a few seconds, they dutifully processed my request and handed me a new boarding pass.
Both as I waited in line to board and at the boarding podium, gate agents started to turn me away from boarding with business class before they saw my Star Alliance Gold designation, which allowed me to.
Despite boarding with plenty of time, we blew past the 5:40 p.m. scheduled departure time and didn't push back until 6:04 p.m. Takeoff occurred at 6:27 p.m. local time. We weren't able to make up the delay in the air and arrived a few minutes late.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="25" tpg-rating-max="30" configuration="2" configuration-2="4" configuration-3="2" width="18" pitch="31" tray="17" tray-2="10.5" lavs="5" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
South African Airways uses an Airbus A330 for the flight from Johannesburg to Washington, which stops in Accra each way. I'm a fan of the A330's 2-4-2 seating arrangement, as the two-seat window pairs are perfect for couples and the four-seat middle section can be great for families.
SAA rotates between using an A330-200 and a larger A330-300 on this route. Not only did I get the -200 both ways, but I ended up on the same eight-year-old aircraft (registration ZS-SXY) for both flights. SAA's A330-200s have 186 economy seats across two large cabins. There are four bathrooms in the middle of the two cabins with one bathroom in the rear galley, for a ratio of about one bathroom for 37 passengers.
As the fuselage narrows toward the back of the plane, the 2-4-2 seating arrangement turns into 2-3-2 at row 65.
On SAA's A330s, rows are arranged with 31 inches of pitch.
Seats have a generous six-inch recline. The seat bottom shifts forward with the recline, helping make it more comfortable to sleep in than many other economy seats.
The downside with any large amount of recline: it's tough for those who need to work on a laptop inflight. The good news is that the tray table extends just enough that you still might be able to work, if barely, with the seat in front of you fully reclined.
The headrest has firm adjustable wings which you can use to cradle your head while you sleep. While my headrest initially seemed not to be adjustable up/down, I was able to free it from being stuck in one position and adjust it to make it more comfortable.
Seats measure 18 inches between armrests, which is more than you'll find in economy on most other types of aircraft.
The fabric seats provide enough support and comfort for the 10-plus hours you'll spend in it on this route.
The bi-fold tray table measures 17 by 10.5 inches and extends outward about 2.5 inches.
In addition to having a divot for holding drinks when extended, there's also a drink holder that can pop out of the tray table when it's stored.
There's a solid amount of under-seat storage due to there only being one small in-flight entertainment box per row. Each seat has its own reasonably-sized under-seat storage area, divided by the seat supports. (Except for the middle seats in the middle section, which have no suports.)
Seats feature no footrests or leg rests.
Overhead bins seemed reasonably-sized, but they were filled up completely for both flights despite there being empty seats.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="40" screen="10.5" movies="32" tv-shows="101" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" wifi="0" wifi-2="0" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
At boarding, each seat was stocked with a small pillow, a plastic-wrapped blanket and a small amenity kit. In addition, a plastic-wrapped pair of headphones was in each seatback pocket.
While small, I found the pillow to be the perfect size for lumbar support while sitting or sleeping. And the blanket was quite comfortable.
The clear-plastic amenity kit contained an eye mask, socks and a dental kit with a toothbrush and toothpaste. Not all airlines provide amenity kits in coach.
The two-pronged on-ear headphones provided decent-quality sound, but I ended up switching to using my personal headphones after a few minutes. Just make sure that you have a one-to-two-prong adapter if you plan to use your own.
Each seatback has a 10.5-inch diagonal in-flight entertainment screen, which can be tilted so you can see the screen while the seatback is reclined.
The "Airscape" in-flight entertainment system is simple, laggy and didn't have tons of content loaded. There were just 32 movies in the "Film Collection," but 21 of them had been released in 2019 so I didn't have trouble finding new material to watch.
TV shows were split into several categories with some potential overlap — Kids, Sports, Wildlife, Comedy, Lifestyle & Travel, Business, Arts and Culture, and Series. The latter included Station 19, Speechless, Big Bang Theory, Castle Rock, Roswell New Mexico, Pretty Little Liar, Modern Family and Killing Eve.
However, that's where the positives end. There were a lot of aspects missing on this South African Airways A330. The most important for most passengers: no power. There were no power outlets or even USB plugs available.
The IFE system didn't offer features found on newer aircraft like a tail camera, live TV or streaming entertainment to your personal device. And this aircraft didn't have a Wi-Fi system installed.
On both of my flights, the IFE system was shut down early during initial descent, leaving just a splash screen for passengers to stare at for around a half-hour before landing.
Many passengers ended up shutting off their screens.
Headphones weren't collected before landing, but they weren't any use with the IFE system shut down.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="13" tpg-rating-max="15" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="2" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Full drink service began after takeoff with one cart starting at front of the front economy cabin and another at the back of the rear cabin.
The drink menu listed in the in-flight entertainment system detailed the extensive options. In addition to standard soda and juice options, passengers could order from at least two red (2017 Balance cabernet sauvignon and 2017 Anura pinotage shiraz) and two white wine options (2018 Glen Carlou chardonnay and 2018 Stellenrust Chenin blanc/sauvignon blanc blend), three beer options, Amarula cream and six different mid-range spirit options.
And the crew was generous with these drinks. Without having to request it, the flight attendant handed me a second whiskey mini-bottle for my whiskey & Coke.
No menu was provided, but dinner options were announced as a choice of chicken with roast potatoes or beef with mashed potatoes. Both meals were served with mixed grilled vegetables. The flight attendant noted that a vegetarian option was available but didn't elaborate.
I ordered the chicken and found the dish to be pleasant. The chicken was a grilled white and dark meat served with mixed veggies. Dinner rolls were served cold and in plastic packaging, so I passed on trying them. On the side, there were cheese and crackers and a fruity cheesecake for dessert.
Another full drink service was offered along with dinner. Between the multiple drink services and a slow tray collection, it took almost two hours from takeoff until the end of the meal service.
For the sake of this review, I inquired if there were any snacks available mid-flight. Flight attendants seemed perplexed by the request but offered a cheese and crackers plate cobbled together from leftover dinner trays.
Breakfast service started about an hour and a half before landing in Accra. Before beginning food service, flight attendants passed through the cabin to hand out individually-wrapped wet wipes, which was a nice touch.
Breakfast was a choice between frittata with sausage and hash browns or a pancake. I opted for the frittata. While it was delicious, the accompanying potatoes were very poorly reheated and I didn't have more than a couple of bites. Coffee, tea, water and juice were served separately after breakfast, meaning passengers were mostly left without a drink while eating breakfast.
As a comparison, on the return flight, things went quicker, in less than an hour and a half. A full drink service was offered starting just 20 minutes after takeoff. The choice for dinner was braised beef with mashed potatoes or chicken with tomato, rice and spinach. I've found that ordering the red meat is always a good way to test catering, so I ordered the beef and was pleased to find it perfectly cooked while still juicy. The sides were a pretty standard mashed potatoes, green beans and carrots, with bread fresh and tasty enough to enjoy. And breakfast, also preceded by wet wipes, was either a frittata with sausage and beans or a "sweet choice" -- which ended up being pancake.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="10" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="Most flight attendants were pleasant during meal and drink services, although one really wasn't." /]
Flight attendants working this trip have an especially grueling schedule. Starting in Johannesburg, the crew flies to Accra then Washington, then back to Accra and Johannesburg, with one-night rest stops at each destination. While this is legally within the parameters for crew rest, the flight attendants working both the flights from IAD to Accra and the reverse will be serving drinks and dinner when it's quite late South African time.
Yet, flight attendants were generally great. Despite the airine's financial situation, there was no indication of cost-cutting during either of my flights. Food and drink options weren't in short supply, and flight attendants were generally happy and efficient.
For example, when visiting the bathroom during the middle of the night on my return flight, the flight attendant working the back galley proactively offered water or orange juice when I exited the lavatory. I found out later that this flight attendant was about to celebrate his 30th year of service with South African Airways. He was a gem. The same could not be said of another, who was rude and aloof with some passengers.
A decade ago, I would have considered these flight experiences on South African nearly perfect for long-haul coach class. Indeed, the seats were large for economy and comfortable enough to sleep. Plus, plentiful beer, wine and spirits made the long journey between the U.S. and Africa more pleasant.
However, some elements are missing that really detract from the experience of flying today. Chief among these is the lack of any power source. Unless passengers bring their own, they are going to be left with depleted batteries. As for Wi-Fi connectivity, it's becoming essential these days.
South African Airways has been able to survive financial crises over the past few years, and it's about to become the latest airline to fly the Airbus A350 to the U.S. when it puts the new airplane on its New York flights on January 21. With the newest Airbus plane, you can expect a very different passenger experience in economy — and at the very least, power outlets.
All photos by the author.
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