16 hours in poor man’s biz class: Review of South African Airways economy on the A350, Johannesburg-JFK
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South African Airways began serving its route from Johannesburg to New York-JFK with the Airbus A350 in January, greatly improving the passenger experience over the A340 that previously flew the nonstop service. The A350 is much quieter and features a lower cabin altitude and more humid air, meaning you’ll feel more rested at the end of the whopping 16-hour flight.
The JFK flight is also the only year-round nonstop between New York and South Africa. United Airlines flies from Newark to Cape Town, but that seasonal service ends on March 27. Another South African Airways flight connects Washington-Dulles to Johannesburg, which stops in Accra, Ghana, in both directions.
There’s just one catch: SAA is technically bankrupt, surviving thanks to government funds and cutting routes. The company’s woes have not affected its U.S. services, though, which is why we booked with confidence a round trip from JFK to Johannesburg (JNB), with the outbound in business class and the return in coach.
While we booked an award ticket on the outbound in biz, we paid cash for the JNB-JFK segment in economy. The airfare was $880 for a round trip in January with a return in October. From New York to Johannesburg, we’ve found round-trip fares as low as $695 on Google Flights.
Related reading: 7 things to do before your first trip to South Africa
I credited the miles from this flight to my United account, since SAA is a member of Star Alliance like United. The cash ticket booked into W class, discounted economy, which earns 50% of miles flown according to United’s partner-earnings chart. That got me almost 4,000 award miles, as well as 664 Premier Qualifying Points. I have no elite status with United, so I earned no bonus redeemable miles.
You must pay to choose any seat online on South African, except when flying biz class or select other fares, so we forked over an additional $30 for a window that the seat map on the airline’s site said was surrounded by unoccupied seats. The price for unlimited-legroom seats in exit rows is a hefty $125, and clearly no one bit, because I found all those seats unoccupied on my flight.
Uber is a reliable way of getting around Johannesburg, and that’s how I arrived at the airport at 7 p.m. for the 9.40 departure of flight SA203. Newcomers to O.R. Tambo airport — the official name of JNB — may be confused. All international flights arrive and depart from Terminal A, and domestic flights are at Terminal B; however all South African Airways passengers, including those on international flights, must check in at Terminal B. The good news is that Terminals A and B are under the same roof.
To find out what check-in counters to use, look for your flight on the electronic displays.
Adding to the confusion, the screens told me that check-in for SA203 to JFK was at counters B26 through 62, but the actual check-in for New York was one row behind. Not a big deal, but the overall feeling is that the check-in process at JNB could use a bit of rationalization.
There are numerous self-check-in stations, too. SAA also offers online check-in, beginning 24 hours before departure.
The line before me at the economy check-in was all of two people deep, and my boarding pass said I was just the 139th passenger to check in out of of 339 total seats. A full 200 seats not taken with just a couple of hours left before boarding was an encouraging indication that there would be a lot of room to stretch, even in coach. And the points JNB had lost with the check-in process it quickly regained with an easy, unfussy security check and passport control.
For economy-class reviews, we don’t factor in lounges as part of the ground experience. However, passengers holding a premium credit card that comes with Priority Pass access — regardless of what class they’re flying — are spoiled for choice at JNB, with no fewer than five lounges — three in Terminal A for international passengers only, two in B for domestic flights — to choose from.
I checked out the Bidvest Premier Lounge, and I’m glad I did. It’s huge, with lots of comfortable seats and power outlets, quiet corners, showers and one of the best hot buffets in any Priority Pass lounge I’ve seen, anywhere.
I could also have had access to the South African Airways International Premium lounge, even as a coach passenger, thanks to the Chase United Club Infinite Card. The card comes with United Club membership, allowing access to the lounges of United’s partners in Star Alliance when flying on a same-day flight aboard any alliance carrier. I could have brought a guest into either lounge.
Not very crowded — JNB is currently operating well below its maximum passenger capacity — and offering international-standard amenities and dining options, Terminal A would have kept me happy even without lounge access. The lighting, though, might need some work; the terminal is a bit dark. In a lovely touch, paper lanterns had been hung from the ceilings for the Chinese New Year.
At the gate, after the customary second security check for flights to the U.S., there was some room to sit, and thankfully no passengers blocking the boarding lane before their turn. But there was no indication on my boarding pass of any zone or priority order, and I wondered how SAA would handle boarding.
Very informally, it turned out: 20 minutes after the indicated boarding time, with most passengers still sitting quietly, someone just walked up to the podium, presented his boarding pass and strolled aboard through the general-admission lane. Without any announcement on the loudspeakers — JNB is a silent airport, with no boarding announcements — or even on the monitors, people took it as the signal to commence boarding, and they did, in a surprisingly orderly fashion.
Cabin and Seat
The airplane taking me back home was identified by the South African tail code ZS-SDC, a former Hainan Airlines plane that SAA is leasing. The coach-class hard product on it is in fact better (in relative terms!) than the seats up front in biz. While it has lie-flat beds and big entertainment screens, biz class on the ex-Hainan jets is in a dated 2-2-2 layout, but the coach seat is the latest standard. It’s a different story with the two A350s in the SAA fleet that sport an up-to-date biz class with a 1-2-1 layout; both configurations serve New York, so which one you get is a bit of a crapshoot.
Even better, the online seat map had not lied: I didn’t have anybody next to me. With three whole seats to myself plus all the pillows and blankets I could raid from unoccupied seats, I had the elusive prize known as “poor man’s business class.” South African’s A350s are arranged with 3-3-3 seats in coach, like most A350s, which have a wider fuselage than the A340 and A330. They can comfortably house nine seats abreast, while the 330 and 340 are limited to eight in a 2-4-2 layout.
Most of the 309 economy seats have 31 inches of legroom and 18 inches of width. Coach class is divided into a front and back cabin roughly equal in size, with a block of lavatories in the middle and more lavs at the back.
Six unlimited-legroom seats are at the front of the second cabin. These are the $125-fee seats that nobody occupied on this flight.
Slim seatbacks maximize legroom but sacrifice some padding.
Every seat has a powered USB outlet and a standard headphone jack just below the entertainment screen; each block of three seats shares two international power outlets.
Besides the usual tray table, cup holder and seatback pouch for literature and general storage, there’s a mesh net under the seat in front that can be used as a footrest.
Headrests are height-adjustable and feature moving wings, useful for cradling the head while sleeping.
Once at cruising altitude, my block of seats with the armrests raised turned into a five-foot “bed.” At 6 ft 2 in, I couldn’t stretch, but I was just fine with legs slightly bent. Remember to fasten your seat belt above the blanket, so flight attendants won’t wake you to make sure you’re buckled up during any turbulence.
“Welcome aboard our brand spanking new Airbus A350,” the purser, Roger, proudly said over the loudspeaker after boarding was complete, fudging the facts a bit. ZS-SDC is by no means an old bird, but it’s also not brand new: It was delivered to Hainan in January last year, and passed on in November to South African. It still has Chinese logos and labels all over. That’s still a very young plane, though, and coach class felt fresh and very modern. “Please bear with us, as it is as new to us as it is to you,” Roger added. This was just the first week of long-haul operations with the A350 for SAA.
The crew of SA203 that day proved to be far more loquacious than their colleagues on SA204 from New York, giving us warm announcements that — together with all the available space, quiet engines and lack of crying children — helped create a nice atmosphere.
Just before pushing back from the gate, Captain Warren Steele came on the PA to welcome us “aboard our brand-new aircraft” and introduce first officer Wayne Hartley and the two relief pilots. On flights this long, two captains and two first officers is standard, with two resting and two flying.
Another perk of all those unoccupied seats was no wait for the restrooms. Six bathrooms in coach work out to more than 50 people per lav if economy class is full, but on this flight I never waited a second. What was good news for passengers was very unwelcome for the airline, though. SAA, which hasn’t made a profit since 2011, needs all the revenue it can get, and flying near-empty planes is not the way to do it. Coach was sparsely occupied on my flight from New York, too.
Note that one of the bathrooms between the two aisles, at the center of the plane, is much larger, and accessible to passengers with disabilities.
Amenities and IFE
Not all airlines hand out amenity kits in coach class, but SAA does on its long-hauls. It’s a basic kit, with socks, eye mask and toothbrush / toothpaste set. Headphones were distributed too, but I preferred my own Bose noise-canceling set to the flimsy-looking ones issued by the airline.
A warm blanket and pillow completed the amenities.
The sharp, very responsive, touchscreen-only 10-inch seatback display worked perfectly, but the problem with the inflight entertainment was the lack of Wi-Fi. Being disconnected for such a long time just doesn’t fly these days. While the IFE wasn’t very satisfying in terms of breadth of its movie and TV offerings, with the same middling content as on my previous SAA flight, it did contain a few gems. A notable find was Johnny Clegg, The White Zulu, a documentary on the extraordinary musician and dancer who mixed Western and Zulu art forms, helping raise worldwide condemnation of South Africa’s segregationist apartheid regime.
Like more and more IFE systems, this one has a Favorites function, so you don’t have to navigate painstakingly through menus to find whatever caught your eye. The moving map (showing the plane in its previous Chinese colors!) is a pleasure to use too, while the cockpit view, another feature becoming increasingly common in IFEs, offers a true aviation-geek delight: the same view as the pilots have on the Primary Flight Display.
The screen doesn’t tilt, so when the person in front of you reclines it can be hard to watch. It wasn’t an issue on this flight, but it could be annoying on a full one. During the approach, the IFE was taken over by an arrival-info video that offered very useful immigration info and tips on navigating connections at JFK. It would have been perfect if besides apparently bizarre observations (“New York has a wide selection of banks!”) it had included something on ground transportation, particularly a warning about taxi scammers.
Inflight magazines are on oft-overlooked part of the entertainment; SAA is among the airlines that do the magazine right. Sawubona, a greeting in the isiZulu language meaning “I see you,” is a glossy, 140-page affair. It balances longer feature stories with useful articles containing practical tips on where to stay and eat at destinations not often found in the inflight mags of major international airlines (Ghana and Montenegro, for example.) The January issue included an editorial by acting CEO Zuks Ramasia acknowledging that the airline is in bankruptcy, or “business rescue,” a procedure during which it can keep flying but will restructure, similar to Chapter 11 in U.S. law.
The airline’s situation, by the way, is huge news in South Africa. On the day of my flight, I saw at least two cartoons in national papers satirizing the carrier’s troubles.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
You can drink all the free alcohol you want on SAA long-haul economy; I didn’t, to fend off dehydration, but the flight attendants were more than happy to keep their passengers well supplied, like we found on a previous review of SAA coach.
The drinks cart came out very fast, pushed by a flight attendant who offered me two drinks.
At 10:25 p.m., just a half hour after takeoff, the menu options for coach were announced over the loudspeakers: beef stew with mashed potatoes, chicken with rice, or vegetarian coconut curry.
The beef I chose was nowhere near as good as the one I had in South African’s biz class a few days earlier, but was still worthy of a passing grade for a coach-class meal. The mini pasta salad that accompanied it wasn’t very tasty; the tray included a piece of cheddar cheese, crackers and a dessert, which I skipped. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But with two seats free next to me, I could sprawl and arrange my tray into a proper table setting — now that was out of the ordinary!
We didn’t get a midflight snack, just a water bottle distributed by flight attendants at the halfway point between dinner and breakfast. This would have been a minus on a daytime flight, but on a long overnight, it worked; people could wander to the galley at the back of the plane and ask for more water or a quick snack, or they could continue sleeping.
At 11:50 a.m. South African time, 4:50 a.m. at our destination, the crew began to wake passengers up by switching on the cabin lights, at low intensity. “We hope you had a good night’s rest,” the purser announced. “We have one and a half hour to go. We will now come out with towels and breakfast.”
Another announcement followed, listing the menu choices, one savory and one sweet: an herb cheese frittata with grilled chicken sausage, or a mixed-berry crumpet with a berry compote. The tiny frittata was pretty tasteless, and all I could say for the coffee was that it sort of woke me up. But no one flies coach for the fancy food, and at that point passengers were looking forward to being on the ground more than anything else, anyway.
Crew members in the cabin and on the flight deck were clearly happy to be doing their job, and you could feel it.
On a flight unfolding entirely at night, with passengers intent on trying to sleep, cabin crews should focus on letting people rest. The flight attendants on SA203 did just that. Lights went out at 11:28 p.m. Johannesburg time and stayed out until breakfast, more than 12 hours later. The quiet was never interrupted except when some light chop prompted announcements to remain seated with seat belts fastened.
Meals were served and trays removed fast, flight attendants interacted with passengers smoothly, and the flight went off without a hitch. I managed six hours of solid sleep. I couldn’t have asked for more from an 8,000-mile flight in coach.
The crew’s upbeat attitude and tone sent a message: We’re glad you’ve flown with us, and we’d like you to come back. The chatty purser Roger had the last word, as we approached our gate at JFK’s Terminal 4. “On behalf of the commander, Warren Steele,” he said, “goodbye, and God bless.”
As 15 hours and 40 minutes in the air came to an end with a smooth landing at dawn on JFK’s runway 22R, I was nowhere near as tired as I had feared I would be.
Crossing seven time zones over almost 16 hours in coach class would normally be an ordeal requiring days to recuperate, but South African Airways returned me home to New York in remarkably good shape. Granted, the rare boon of a “poor man’s lie-flat seat” was largely responsible for that, but the A350’s cabin enhancements over previous aircraft surely played a part. With its low fuel consumption, ultra-modern flight deck and technological advances, the Airbus twinjet is popular with pilots too, and in his pre-landing announcement our captain lauded the “wonderful airplane” that had just carried us across the Atlantic.
Would I be looking forward to doing this again without the benefit of makeshift business class? Not especially. But with the low fares South African is offering on this route, I would choose its A350 in coach again.
All photos by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy
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