The quiet, modern A350 is a huge improvement over the previous aircraft serving this route; very good price in miles
No Wi-Fi, subpar JFK lounge, business class still without aisle access for all seats, many issues with the soft product
South African Airways just made a big improvement on its flagship route, the only nonstop service between New York and Johannesburg, by introducing the state-of-the-art Airbus A350 with a new business class. The latest Airbus long-haul jet takes the place of the A340, a 1990s-vintage plane which the airline flew with an old business-class product thats quite dated these days.
Since South African is a member of the Star Alliance along with United Airlines, you can get great value for your United miles if youre able to find availability especially in business class on this very long flight. Its also the fastest way to get to South Africa, together with the new United nonstop from Newark to Cape Town but the latter is a seasonal service ending on March 27, while South African goes year-round.
On Tuesday Jan. 21, the A350 debuted on flight SA204 from New York-JFK to Johannesburg (JNB), and will run six days a week until the end of March, and then daily beginning in April.
Just the day before, troubling stories had appeared in international media about the risk of SAAs impending collapse. The airline is bankrupt and operating thanks to emergency funds from the government; in December, a risk expert from the Eurasia consulting firm called itthe foremost example of mismanagement at government-owned companies in the country.
The airline has cancelled some flights and parked some aircraft as a result, but the New York flights and the A350s have not been affected so we booked a ticket to JNB in business on the third day of A350 operations, with a return in economy to test both of the new cabins.
We booked a one-way biz-class ticket from JFK to JNB via United for 83,500 MileagePlus miles, transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards at a 1:1 ratio, plus $5.60 in fees. That was quite a bargain, considering that business-class award seats to Europe on United and its partner airlines go for 70,000 miles at the saver level. Just 13,500 more for a flight twice as long to South Africa is a pretty nice deal; the equivalent of a business ticket on a 14-hour flight for $1,085, according to our current valuations that peg a United mile at 1.3 cents.
Managing my booking on the SAA site turned out to be impossible, though. It would not let me change my seat assignment online, nor could I do it in the essentially useless South African Airways app. I resorted to calling the airlines free customer-service number in the U.S., where the agent who picked up after a 40-minute hold easily switched me to the seat I wanted.
Sometimes the site doesnt work, he added. He was right; my attempts to check in online (or in the app) were foiled, too.
With a 10.40 a.m. departure out of JFKs Terminal 4 and check-in still to take care of, I prudently showed up in ample time at 7:50. I could have taken it easier: the biz-class check-in counter, right past the door marked South African, had two staffed counters and nobody in line. The agent checked that I had two blank visa pages facing one another in my passport people without them have been refused boarding to South Africa and sent me on my way in no time, with a voucher for the Wingtips lounge since the airline does not have its own at JFK.
Security wasnt as relaxed. South African Airways does not participate in TSA PreCheck, and the TSA agents were especially rude that morning. The premium-class line was pointless, immediately feeding into the general one. At least the whole thing lasted less than 15 minutes and I kept my shoes on, since I got through a check by a bomb-sniffer dog.
At the other end of the security barrier, our A350 appeared through the floor-to-ceiling windows, among smaller Delta jets.
The ground experience improved slightly in the Wingtips lounge, located on the same level as security. I had high hopes of getting access to the far better Swiss lounge next to it, as a biz passenger on a Star Alliance partner, but it was closed for renovations, until March.
Not much can be said of the Wingtips that isnt summarized in our guide to JFK lounges accessible with Priority Pass. It does the job, in a very nondescript manner. Youll get a basic eggs-and-sausage hot buffet, cocktail ingredients, power outlets, Wi-Fi, a couch or a table when its not crowded plus a nice view of the airplanes. On a clear winter morning, the sun was beating down mercilessly on the lounges full-length windows and no one from the staff bothered to lower the shades.
Passengers at JFKs vast Terminal 4 should factor in a long trek to most gates, but from the lounge to gate B27 it was a quick walk. Kudos to South African for keeping things orderly, with boarding that began right on time at 9.55 a.m. and kudos to my fellow passengers too for not crowding the boarding area before their turn.
The second A350-900 delivered to South African was waiting, under the control tower. The -900 is the smaller of the two A350 variants, but it still carries more than 300 passengers. A350s are easily recognizable by the gracefully sloping winglets and raccoon-mask cockpit windows; South African has four of them, two previously used by Chinas Hainan Airlines and two leased from Air Mauritius. All are pretty new, and ours was just over one year old.
Cabin and Seat
This is where the biggest problem of South African Airways A350s comes into play. Two have a business cabin with seats laid out 1-2-1, giving aisle access to everybody, as is the latest standard. South African has this layout on its A330s serving Johannesburg from Washington via Accra, Ghana.
But the two ex-Chinese birds have a far less desirable 2-2-2 configuration, forcing window-seat passengers to step over any neighbors. You wont know which one youll get until a couple days at most before the flight, and that only if you know your way around a flight-tracking site.
I got one of the bad ones.
The 2-2-2 business class left over from Hainan Airlines you could still find numerous labels and signs in Chinese all over the cabin has 30 seats in five rows of six. A galley and two lavatories are at the front, and a big space behind separates it from economy, which is also curtained off.
The logos on the upholstery and the seat maps on the doors left no doubt as to who was the previous owner.
On my flight there were 27 passengers in business and two seats blocked off for crew rest, giving just one unoccupied passenger seat. The extendable divider between seats doesnt quite give one any real privacy.
I had chosen 1K, the bulkhead seat on the right. My seatmate in 1H was a clever nine-year-old kid, who quickly sussed me out from my note-taking and photographing of every detail. Are you a journalist? he asked. Shh! I whispered conspiratorially, index finger on my mouth. Dont tell anybody! He obliged, for the next 14 hours; my cover was not blown. (He and his sister were in biz and their mother in coach, an interesting twist on the debate about whether kids should be allowed in premium cabins.)
Other than my smart new friend, though, the seat had little going for it. As a business-class product, it doesnt measure up with the best in todays market.
At 22 inches wide and extending to a 62 fully flat bed, seen below, its narrower and shorter than South Africans own biz seats on the A330.
The tray table, extending from the armrest with an upward pull of the handle, cannot slide forward, so its almost impossible to get out while dining. It will fit a 13-inch laptop, but you wont be able to leave the seat while working on it.
The best thing about the seat is a shoe cubby that locks closed and can store a lot of objects. Besides my shoes I managed to fit into it a DSLR camera with lens attached, Bose over-the-ear headphones, a hefty paperback and a MacBook charger. A tablet would have fit as well, but not a laptop.
Phones and wallets can go in the space under the armrest. which is also where the international power outlet and headphone connection are.
The remote for the entertainment screen and the seat controls complete the array around the seat. Both are very intuitive to use but appeared a bit scuffed.
A USB powered outlet is located by the large monitor, under a coat hook.
The inflight magazine, sickness bag and safety card are stored between the ottomans, where the amenity kits and headphones are also placed.
The overhead light can be controlled from a ceiling button, or from the remote. For reading, there is a LED light on a flexible arm at shoulder level, with a knob around it controlling the lights intensity.
The 30 business seats share two bathrooms, located at the front of the cabin, one on each side. Theyre both standard-size A350 lavatories. The crew kept them well stocked with disposable cloth towels, and both featured toiletries by German fashion brand Aigner.
Amenities and IFE
I found the amenity kit upon boarding, stocked with the basics: socks and mask, toothbrush and toothpaste, moisturizer, lip balm, earplugs and comb.
A comforter and mattress pad to put on the seat in bed mode, the latter a very nice touch, were in the overhead bin.
So far, so good.
Problems began cropping up when it was clear many flight attendants, new to the aircraft, were unfamiliar with it, including with the inflight entertainment system. One, for example, fiddled with the IFE remote for a while before turning to my seatmate: Young man, you seem to know how to do this. How do I get sound?
The headphones had three-prong jacks, but the outlet only two. The crew solved the problem by distributing around cheap headphone sets from economy class, where only 169 seats out of about 300 were taken, according to a flight attendant. (My Bose noise-canceling set worked fine, and in stereo, even with a standard single jack.)
There were some gems on the IFE, including nature documentaries plus 11 African and 11 Asian movies among the 86 featured, but overall it wasnt a great IFE as far as content. The crisp 18-inch touchscreen easier to control from the seat with the very responsive remote would have been great with a wider selection of movies and shows. (The IFEdid offer Invictus, a great movie to watch if you want to get in the mood for a visit to South Africa or just hear Matt Damon make an uncannily spot-on South African accent.)
The inflight map was a delight. Sharp and highly customizable, it could keep one occupied for quite a while. Sadly, this A350 didnt come with an outside camera, or it would have scored big in the aviation-geek department.
But the real issue was the lack of Wi-Fi. Fourteen hours in the air with no internet is a big negative point in 2020.
Sleeping might be a good alternative to staying connected in this case, but you have a much bigger chance of doing that on the trip from Johannesburg, which leaves at 10:00 p.m. The flight from New York leaves in midmorning and lands at 1:00 a.m. ET,. not the best sleep window for most people.
With mandatory closure of the window shades at 1:00 p.m. ET, though, most passengers in biz class managed to sleep for some time. I did for a couple of hours, but the too-short comforter didnt help.
Also note that the lack of individual overhead a/c vents would have annoyed many Americans, used to colder indoor air.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Simply put: food, pretty good. Everything else about meal and drink service, not so good.
The lack of a menu was especially glaring. Granted, SAA is bankrupt and cutting costs, but not providing menus in the top service class of the airlines best airplane on its flagship long-haul route is just not OK.
Thats really too bad, and the flight attendants, who were working hard and clearly proud of their new big jet, would have deserved better from their management, too.
Service began during boarding with a tray of South African sparkling wine or orange juice, followed by newspaper distribution.
No Champagne was available, but thats easily forgivable on an airline representing a nation that makes its own great wines. No one bats an eyelid if Alitalia, for example, serves only Italian prosecco in its biz class instead of French bubbly.
A little more than 20 minutes after takeoff, tablecloths were laid down and shortly afterwards an amuse-bouche of smoked salmon, tomato, endive leaf with blue cheese and chicken salad came out. I asked for the sparkling wine, and a good lunch followed, but with the choices for each course announced awkwardly after the previous one had been cleared out.
The flight attendant serving my side of the aisle, Marcelino, offered first a choice of three appetizers: lime shrimp, a salad, or carrot and ginger soup. Having to choose on the fly, I said shrimp, and didnt regret it. Served with guacamole and pineapples, it was a bright, fresh introduction and paired well with the sparkling wine. Which was indeed excellent, but that just highlighted the lack of a wine list. What else could one drink?
For the main course, another spot decision, between four dishes: Beef with blue cheese sauce and green peppercorns, chicken, grilled salmon, or a vegetarian option? My beef came with carrots and sliced potatoes au gratin. Tender and juicy, it was a good execution of a classic, presented without unnecessary frills.
For dessert, the choice was between a chocolate mousse or a passion-fruit dessert of whose nature I was not totally sure. I asked for a cheese plate instead, and Marcelino brought one right away that included a very good pecorino, a hard sheep-milk cheese I had never seen on a plane before.
A midflight snack appeared at 6:30 p.m. New York time, just as I was ready to go up to the galley to stretch my legs and ask if they could whip me up another cheese plate and tea. (Again, a menu would have told us all this ahead of time.) The choice was between a generic chicken or vegetarian spring rolls. The veggie option did the trick and took care of hunger until breakfast, served at 11:20 p.m., 6 a.m. in Johannesburg. However, it was served without so much as a placemat and with a tiny paper napkin.
As if to punctuate that breakfast would soon be served, the sun rose at 41,000 feet over Angola, with one and a half hours to go.
I chose scrambled eggs and bacon over the other two choices, French toast with berry compote or a fruit breakfast. All could be had with muesli and yogurt. My breakfast was a lot better than the scrambled eggs and hash browns Id had in the Wingtips lounge 15 hours earlier.
Nothing outstanding, nothing bad. If the friendly flight attendants had had some more tools at their disposal, and more experience with the aircraft, they would have scored a higher grade. This wasnt an airline indifferent to its passengers; it was an airline that couldnt, surely also because of its dire financial straits, realize its potential.
Evidently the crew had chosen to let passengers maximize sleep time, since interactions were not very frequent and announcements on the PA system were kept to a minimum. Even the flight deck did not manifest itself until half an hour before landing, when the captain thanked us for flying South African Airways and announced wed be landing 15 minutes ahead of schedule but did not tell us his name.
A 2-2-2 biz class isnt great for a solo traveler like I was on this occasion, but if youre going, say, to South Africa on your honeymoon or on safari with friends, flying 8,000 miles in business for a little more than $1,000 is a great deal for a nice enough product. At this price, I would fly SAA biz again, even though its by no means a world-class offering and it had clear failures at several junctures.
But I would pray to get the 1-2-1 business class the one you are guaranteed to have if you fly SAA out of Washington.
All photos by the author.