The airline delivers an above expectation service in all three cabins, although reviews and opinions are mixed about South African Airways. A full-service airline, the quality can bit a bit hit or miss: certainly in premium classes, the seats and the lounges are just a generation behind that of the latest airlines. The staff, both on the ground and in the air, really can be woeful on occasions. However the food and drink on board is pretty good. Often a flight can be a bit random: there is no way of knowing if you'll get a new plane with all the frills and good cabin crew, or an older version with dodgy seats and entertainment.
The Frequent Flyer scheme is good, and availability at short notice to European destinations is pretty decent (although getting poorer of late). Some of the planes can be old and tired, but on the whole it's a pretty decent airline that'll get you to Africa and back reliably and with some style.
In Business there is a lie-flat bed seat, with a pitch of 78", and 20" wide. In bed mode it comes in at 6ft 6 inches long. There is the same 8.6" screen as in economy, and AV on demand.
Economy seats are a standard 31" - although on the upper deck of the 747 there are premium economy seats, with a generous 35" pitch. Preference for these seats is given to Voyager card members, and Star Alliance Gold members. There is a seatback TV, with a 6.8" screen, and featuring SAA's AV on demand system, called P@ssport. Even in economy, you'll still get a blanket and pillow.
The main layout (flown by the planes named Durban, Bloemfontein, Kempton Park & Vulindlela) has 11 in First, 35 in Business, AVOD and flatbeds up the front. Other variants have 10 in First.
The First Class section is right in the nose - with an excellent view forward through the front seats. There are just three rows of suites, with row 1 the most favoured, just having seats in 1A,D and K. Row 2 and 3 have a kind of double suite in D and G. Seat 1D is missing in two aircraft, and instead there is a kind of vast open space in the nose. Exactly why there is a missing seat in unclear.
Business Class South African 747 seat
Business Class seats in are a 2+3+2 layout. There are two rows at 15 and 16 (and 17 in one aircraft) - although these are sandwiched between the loos and the galleys. There are three more rows at 27, 28, and 29 (or four rows up to row 30 in two aircraft, that are missing seat 1D). It is this row that is the most quiet, and is strongly recommended. On the Boeing there are old style seats. Controls are under a flap in the armrest with the table. The
other armrest has the telephone under it - and the channel controls visible.
Economy South African 747 - the back of the bus
Economy is just that - in 3+4+3. The exit row at row 45 is very popular, as is the bulkhead behind the galley at row 62. Pitch is a standard 31", which is larger than on many airlines, however it can still feel very crampt due to the long overnight flights. Upstairs in the bubble behind the cockpit are some economy seats too - which are lovely and quiet, with a lot of extra room beside the window seats. These are premium economy seats, with a generous 35" pitch, but you'll find it hard to get one at checkin, as they are normally given to premium Voyager card members. They are in two banks or 5 rows of 3+3. Row 84 here is particularly favoured, with lots of extra legroom.
Business Class is of course up the front - where it should be. All of South African's A340s are two class planes, but the front cabin varies - rows 1 to 4 (or 1 to 6 on the 300s) are business class. Business class seats feature the new flatbed seat, featuring a 65" pitch. There aren't even adjustable headrests on these seats. It's OK, but it only reclines half way, making a decent night flight's sleep very difficult. All the seats are also in leather, making a night flight a sticky, squeaky affair. Seats are in a 2+2+2 format.
Economy is very much that - seats come in a 2+4+2 layout. It's got a 31" pitch, and not the slightest sign of any frills. There is no at seat power. Row 31 is an exit, as is row 12. At the front of the economy cabin a separate, much smaller cabin with 3 more rows (rows 9 to 11), before the curtain and business. Many seasoned travellers prefer this smaller cabin. There is marginally less engine noise, it is much more cosy and will have a lot less passenger traffic going through it, and a proportion more attention from the cabin crew. Row 9 in particular gets a lot more legroom, thanks to the divider with business.
The Business Class seat is identical to the economy seat, both in pitch and in width, however if you are in business, and sit on the left, the centre seat is blocked off and the seat arms moved across to give a larger seat - accordingly it is well worth asking to sit in A or C in business. Seat pitch is 32 inches. All models have large 14 inch fold down LCD TV screen under the overhead lockers for both classes.
The A319s have the variable business class seats extending back as far as row 20, although in normal configuration they are only used with the first 3 rows as business class. It has one overwing ejectable windows - sit here, in row 9, and you'll get 2 inches of extra legroom.
There are real, large business class seats on these planes, but in a very odd layout. The business class section has two of the larger seats on the left, and three normal sized seats on the right as far as row 10. However there is the normal curtain that moves back and forward with demand. As such, some economy passengers may end up in the large seats.
Business Class 737 seat
Woe betide you however of you are in economy and in row 11. This is where the full economy seats begin - and as such, 11C is a dreaded narrow seat with no table and lots of people bumping into you. Many regular travellers refuse to fly if allocated this seat.
Firstly, as you check in, at remote outstations the staff will generally help you get a seat you want. At J'borg and Cape Town, if the staff don't like you, they will seat you in the worst possible seats, even if there are plenty of others free. Ignore this, and ask to change your seat in the lounge, where miraculously, you can change seats to much better ones. Indeed, SA allow all people booking tickets through them to also book seats in advance - accordingly if you wander up as a group without seat reservation your seats may be in very different places.
Business Class washing / moisteriser in the loos
South African operate the American system of upgrades. If you are at the top tier of it's Frequent Flier system, you can sometimes get upgraded if you try hard enough, so it's always worth while asking in the lounges.
On Domestic as you board you'll get a blast of loud, instrumental, lift music. It's annoying, and is left on at takeoff and into the cruise. Service in both classes starts at the front, and as such it's vital to sit as far forward as possible, because a choice of two hotmeals are offered both in economy & business. This makes little difference except at lunch (1200-1400) and dinner (1700-1900) times, when a much larger meal is offered. In Business you are sometimes offered a pre-flight drink (but sometimes not, it is very random). There is however always the offer of a newspaper - either the Star (from J'Bord) or the Cape Times (from Cape Town). In the air you may also be given hot towels. After a considerable delay there are 2 drinks trolleys (from the front and middle) followed by a tablecloth on your flip down tray, and the food comes in one trolley from the front. Not that the inconsistency even comes down to the food trays, which can differ, with different cakes & cheese types. It's all very random. Finally, when the trays are cleared there is a coffee & tea run with bottles of wine on the trolley. Sprits for have to be poured from the galley, but make your requests for alternatives made very clearly, because otherwise they are taken and then ignored. Overnight the cabin is kept infernally hot and uncomfortable.
Business Class menu & post takeoff nuts
International has fewer inconsistencies, but the staff are no less unattentive, even right up the pointy end. In First you are shown to seat your from the door, and your coats are taken. You are then offered a drink of anything you'd like (spirits, champers, you name it) and then menus. There is a trolly at front of the first cabin with newspapers. Oddly, on takeoff there is is no attempt to clear the cabin of glasses, or even put the seats into the take off position, and as a result when the plane rotates, at the back of the cabin you get flying papers, glasses, plates, you name it coming towards you. Also they will give you pyjamas upon boarding, and most passengers change prior to take-off. The pyjamas have a comfy blue top with red piping and SAA emblazoned on the back. The pyjamas bottoms are black elasticated trackie-bottoms, and are very comfortable. In the cruise you get a hot towel, post takeoff cocktails & canapés. Dinner is a delight, with plenty of attention and you are addressed by name, although the crew make it clear they don't like you staying up late. The FA makes the bed for you straight after the coffee service, and they get quite a hurt look if you don't let them. They use a thick sheet as a bedspread with a comfy duvet on top. Two pillows of different sizes are provided. After turning-down the bed, they even fold the duvet slightly in one corner just like hotel housekeeping.
Preflight drinks in business class
In Business you are not shown to seat, or addressed by name. On board you get the same washbag as in First, and a trolley comes around with either the Star of the Cape Times newspaper, followed by a tray with either one glass of rather bad champers or water. After takeoff you get another drink with nuts. There are no alternatives offered or available. You get a different menu as in First, but with the same wine list inserted in the middle, but you are not allowed to order anything off the first section. Food is at least offered on separate plates, and the food trolleys have wine bottles on top, so you can get top ups, although the crew aren't very good at offering this.
In Economy it's pretty much as you'd expect. A bit of a scrum on boarding (rules on limits on hand luggage aren't enforced very much), no pre-flight drink, and you just get offered one glass of wine or beer with your tray of food.
For Intercontinenal flights, South African has full AVOD (Audio Video on Demand) in all classes except on the A340-200. As such you should avoid this plane on long haul in economy. On the Boeing 747-400s the AVOD is quite old and slow, with an agonisingly bad interface. It will not be working on quite a regular basis for quite a few seats on the flight. It is much better on the Airbus.
AVOD controller in 747 Business
When the AVOD system, called Airscape, (P@ssport is the mainscreen option) is first switched on, you have to press the Mode button until it shows Int on the handset (for Interactive) and it'll run through a demo. It it doesn't, you may have to ask the crew to reboot your seat, with is a more common experience than you may expect. The film selection screen is agonisingly slow, and with each keypress it scrolls over left and right, to the next film. It can take ten minutes to scroll through all the options, which include all the films, TV programmes, then CDs and finally the maps.
When the films are running, green is play (& pause), yellow is rewind, blue is fast forward, and red is stop.
Airscape moving map
Headphone are poor in all classes. They are of the overhead band type, and are not noise cancelling.
Domestically there is entertainment, however it is really just endless short films and the "Just for Laughs"
AVOD controller in 747 First
type of comedy which endlessly cycles on the overhead TVs. There is 5 minutes of SAA company news, and then a short SA themed quiz. At the end of the flight you are invited to vote for Skytrax.
Sawubona inflight magazine
You can take it off the plane - or even buy it for R25. It's rammed with adverts, but inbetween there are lots of good travel articles, often to destinations that SAA doesn't serve.
At the back is information and terminal maps of not just South African airports, but also European and US destinations.
South African has a separate magazine for it's in flight entertainment. Called Airscape it lists all the films on AVOD, with long reviews of them. At the back are the listings of what films are available on the Mainscreen systems used on the A340-200 aircraft in economy.
Airscape movie listing magazine
Paris CDG at 1925 (arrives JNB at 0750 in an A340), Frankfurt at 2045 (arrives 0830).
The main hub is at Johannesburg from where SAA operates routes to São Paulo, New York JFK, Washington, Frankfurt, Paris, Zurich, Mumbai, Hong Kong and Perth. There is also a service to Atlanta which is a Delta codeshare, and a long one at that, coming in at 17 hours.
Joining is easy; it's possible to do it online.
Voyager operates a fairly normal miles and tier points system. Miles are the currency of the Voyager Programme and they can be earned whenever you fly with South African Airways or another airline in the Star Alliance. Tier Miles determine membership status each year and through them you can progress to Silver, Gold, Platinum and Lifetime Platinum Status.
Miles are valid for three years after the year in which they were earned - and unlike most programmes, there is a fixed expiry year: Miles will expire each year on 31 March. However, if by the end of the preceding calendar year, you had flown a minimum of 5,000 Tier Miles on South African Airways only, Miles due to expire in the current year will be carried over to the next year, and will remain valid for a further 12 months. This complicated system can mean you really don't have a clue when you are due to expire when.
Zurich South African A340
From Africa to Europe, a return Mileage Keeper award is 55,000 in economy, 85,000 in business, and 140,000 in first. Any Day awards are 140,000 in economy, 220,000 in business, and 300,000 in first. Therefore if you can find availability, business class Mileage Keep awards are a bit of a bargain. Otherwise if you can't, you might was well spend the extra for first.
You can spend your miles on all Star Alliance partners, Virgin Atlantic, and Air Tanzania.
Platinum members can use their miles to upgrade at the airport, but only at Johannesburg International Airport. Seats are of course based on space availability on the same day of departure.
You get to check in at the business class checkin desks (at Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Frankfurt, Zurich and LHR), and you also get lounge access on an economy ticket, but only on SAA operated services, and to SAA lounges. You cannot invite a guest. You get another 10kg of luggage on SAA operated flights.
You get to check in at the business class checkin desks, and you also get lounge access on an economy ticket, on all Star Alliance services, and can invite one guest. You get another 20kg of luggage on SAA operated flights.
You get to check in at the business class checkin desks, and you also get lounge access on an economy ticket, on all Star Alliance services. On SAA services, you can access the platinum lounges, and also get access to Airport Upgrades. You get another 30kg of luggage on SAA operated flights.
The truly unfortunate thing about SAA's JNB international business class lounge is its lack of windows. Many people complain that the lounge is a crampt zoo - and that it certainly is unless you bother to explore it. The big secret is that although there is one big room when you walk in, if curve round to the left of the bar, you enter a much quieter lounge. From here curve left again by the sign that says Sports Bar, and there are loads of seats, and a huge telly. Back from the main room at the far end on the left is a smoking room, and on the right a children's room.
Johannesburg business lounge
As you enter the initial small room on the right is a served bar. The wine selection is actually pretty good, with lots of bottles in a bucket, and reds on the shelf behind it. There are also small mini bottles of sparkling red. If you get fed up with asking for beer, there is a fridge at the other end of the room, with cans of Castle lager so you can help yourself.
Johannesburg business lounge food
Food is woeful - and particularly considering the lateness of some of the flights, and how much later you will have to wait if you want to dine on board. There are ham rolls in the fridge by the bar, and that's it. Even the salad plates in the fridge are, alas, just for decoration.
The airline describes the lounge as having a "streamlined efficiency", which boasts, so it says, 33 workstations offering ergonomic business modules, computers, printers and faxes. What it doesn't tell you is that there are only six computers, and fighting for one is a struggle.
It has a much more extensive pre-flight dining menu, which includes choices of hot and cold sandwiches, as well as mains like ostrich fillet, and steak diane, plus a plate with 2 hot and 2 cold appetisers.
Johannesburg domestic lounge
The showers at in this lounge are also superb, with nice 5-head stone and marble arrangements.
At the desk, platinums go right (and have a small cubby hole with a butler), while everyone else, including star golds, go left.
The main lounge very big. Walk all the way through and at the main area at far end there is a bar, plus lots of big windows overlooking the main runway. Further round in the circle are four shower suites, a childrens TV room
Johannesburg domestic lounge
overlooking the gates at one end, on the left side, and a smoking room in the middle of the circle. Several computer workstations are doted around the lounge, although there is no dedicated business centre.
The bar has plenty of staff behind it, who often don't seem very busy. There are the usual beers in the fridge (including Castle) plus two white and two red wines. Opposite the bar is a huge telly - right by the windows where you can't see it properly. It's normally on the SABC.
Food is very limited, with just some sandwiches in a fridge to the left of the bar.
It is small - smaller even than London. There are just 6 seats, and small smoking room (with a TV). There is one computer, and one business centre desk.
Breakfast is just basic cerials, served until 11am. There is a well stocked fridge however, which has beer & champaigne.
A big flat TV has a split screen showing both the arrivals, and SABC. There are a lot of local newspapers & lots of magazines. The staff in this lounge are particularly chatty.
Cape Town South African Domestic lounge
Around the front door it can get very busy. Here there are big comfy armchairs. Further on there is a bar on the left, then at the far end a larger room, and at the far end a balcony, which is very quiet, as noone sits there.
Loos are on the right, and there is also a full shower suite - unusual, for a domestic lounge. Alas, the showers are pretty useless. There are several big TVs, normally on CNN. One hangs above the bar, showing departures.
There is a full bar, with two bottles of red on the worktop, but othersise you have to ask the staff for everything, and that means looking over the counter. It's not a pretty sight - there is always a lot of rubbish behind the bar, with old boxes, crisp packets, and the like cluttering up the floor. There are some spirits, plus Castle and Heiniken lager.
Cape Town Domestic lounge - the balcony
Food is in the fridge next to the bar, but is just sandwiches on plates covered with cling film. If you tire of these, there are muffins are in bowls on the worktops.
There are 2 computers at the far end, but it is very hard to get hold of one. Newspapers are by the door.
The lounge is very large, but rather dull. As the SAA flight is the last flight of the day using this lounge, you can feel rather lonely sitting there as the cleaners hussle you out in time for the 9pm flight. Food is pretty good, with a hot option available for the SAA flight so you can eat in the lounge before getting on board. Food is often curry, with salads and sandwiches also available.
London LHR Star Alliance lounge used by Asiana
The bar is rather poor, with bottles of Gin, Vodka, VSOP, Bacardi Rum, and Whisky with Jack Daniels, Famous Grouse, and Jamesons. There is just one type of white, two types of red, and a rose wine. Most of these are pretty cheap and nasty versions. There is a beer pump for Grolsh, and - rare for a lounge - Magners cider in bottles in the fridge, along with bottles of Becks and cans of Guinness.
There are showers in the lounge, and free Wifi, but no computers.
Full details of this lounge are contained in the bmi pages, under the Joint Star Alliance LHR Lounge section.
Both sides are in yellow sandtone style, with stone flagstone walkstone walkways separating wood floors. You enter to be greeted by two lounge draggons - one for business, one for first. Both sides have windows ovelooking some of the gates.
There is a point just before the first JNB flight is about to leave when the lounge gets insanely busy - with passengers for CPT and the second JNB flight also cloging up the place. Just wait a few minutes, and the place empties again.
First off around the circle on the left is a Business Centre with 2 internet computers, and two desks with LAN connectors. There is also T-Mobile wifi thoughout the lounge. There is a small reading room - with 6 armchairs. At the far end of the lounge is a smoking room (with another TV). On the right is a corridor leading to the opulent bathrooms, two shower suites, and at the far end a "Snooze" room, with two couches that also have a small hifi and bottles of water.
London South African First lounge bar
The bar is pretty good - normally there is a server that stands next to it, serving you and taking orders. There is Piper Heidseck in a bucket, and a counter with 2 bottles of white. There are also two red wines. In the fridge are 4 types of beer including bottles of the very good the SAB Castle (5%), Miller, Cheque Pils, Ialian Peroni. There are free pour bottles of 8 spirits including Gordon's & Bombay Saphire gin, JB, Glenfiditch, Red & Black Label Whisky.
London First reading room
On the counter top are some nibbles and olives, but the F lounge at LHR also does offer a food menu which includes hot sandwiches and some hot and cold appetisers. Menus are racked up to the right of the bar. The salads are really very good, as is the steak and onion tramezzini, and come with 2 bottles of dressing on a silver tray. Alas with plastic knives and forks. And remember if you're on the 2130 departure, you wouldn't get your main course before 2230 at the earliest onboard, so have something light in the lounge, if you want to maximise your onboard eating experience.
There is little food, although if you ask for it you can get cheese or ham rolls. There is TV on an old style big screen, which is normally set to CNN.
There are 2 computers in the main room. Loos at the end of the room, and 4 showers around the corner corridor at the far end. There is a big smoking room taking up all of one side, plus a kids room with toybox and a telly.
Newspapers are on a rack by the door, with all the main UK papers, plus the Standard and a few magazines. Better magazines are in the reading room in the First Class side.
London Arrival lounge breakfast
This facility really operates to offers a good shower, breakfast, and somewhere to sit until you can check into your
London Arrival lounge showers
hotel. As such, it's pretty small, without windows, but a world away from the madness that is Terminal 1 checkin outside.
London South African Arrival lounge
The showers are the mainstay here - get a key for one of the six at reception. They are very good and clean, with lots of free towels, but beware the floor is ery slippery. You can also have your clothes steamed while you shower.
In 1953 SAA made aviation history when it became the first airline outside UK to operate world's first pure jetliner, the Comet. In 1957 the "Wallaby" service to Perth, Australia was added. In 1960 SAA's first Boeing 707 landed in Athens. Two years later, SAA flew nonstop from South Africa into the UK. Johannesburg-New York route, via Rio de Janeiro, opened in 1969. By 1971 the airline replaced the 707s with Boeing 747-200s, and later Boeing 747 SPs, which meant in the apartheid era, it could fly around the horn of Africa, and not overfly banned countries.
In the 1970 it opened a route to Hong Kong being launched. In 1980, SAA began flights to Taipei, with South Africa being one of the few countries in the world to recognise it's government. In 1987, South African Flight 295, crashed over the Indian Ocean, en-route from Taipei. This followed after a fire in the main cargo hold of the 747; all 159 people on board were killed. There has been considerable speculation as to the cause, and what cargo was carried on the plane.
Johannesburg inbound domestic flight
With the demise of apartheid in 1990, SAA shook off its pariah image, restoring services to old destinations, introducing services to new ones and expanding into the rest of Africa, and by 1991 it bought its first Boeing 747-400 jet, resuming flights to JFK, Miami, and Bangkok.
In 1997, SAA introduced its new livery, dropping the springbok emblem, and the Afrikaans name Suid-Afrikaanse Lugdiens. By 2002 SAA has ordered fifteen A340 widebody planes, and then in 2006 South African Airways joined the Star Alliance.
To start with, make sure you are a frequent flyer, and you do fly frequently: after all, if South African Airways are going to upgrade anyone, they will upgrade those passengers who fly with them pretty regularly, and hence will enjoy the upgrade enough to put more business SAA's way. Then if the flight is full in economy, and someone needs to be moved up, the check in staff will first look at Gold members, and then Silver level, and then at other Star Alliance members at the equivalent levels (Gold and then Silver). Another thing that South African Airlines look at is how much you paid for your ticket: it's much more likely to happen with a full fare ticket (although occasionally you can get lucky with a discounted economy ticket). On South African the airline has heard - probably hundreds of times a day - requests for an upgrade: the general consensus seems to be that if you ask for an upgrade, you're less likely to get it, although opinions differ on an upgrade strategy for SouthAfrican.
As always, my advice on dressing properly in the pages on how to get an upgrade applies.
Main website: www.saa.com
Note that all reviews and opinions on SouthAfrican (SA) food, service, seats, planes, upgrades, lounges, and the Voyager Frequent Flyer scheme is soley at my judgement. No legal liability is accepted if you take my advice.
A340-600 at Johannesburg
Note that all reviews and opinions on SouthAfrican (SA) food, service, seats, planes, upgrades, lounges, and the Voyager Frequent Flyer scheme is soley at my judgement. No legal liability is accepted if you take my advice.