Review: Federal Airlines Flights South Africa

Filed Under: Other Airlines

As I mentioned in the previous post, Federal Air is one of the airlines that specializes in offering flights to safari camps in South Africa. We were staying at Singita Boulders in Sabi Sands Reserve, and then Singita Lebombo in Kruger National Park, and Singita uses Federal Air as their preferred airline.

So we took the following three flights on Federal Air:

  • Johannesburg to Sabi Sands Reserve
  • Sabi Sands Reserve to Kruger National Park
  • Kruger National Park to Johannesburg

First I’ll talk about the booking process, then the Federal Air baggage allowance, and lastly will share my experience on the three flights we took with them.

Booking Federal Air

We booked our Federal Air flights directly through Singita. Essentially they sent us the schedule for the flights, we told them which ones we wanted, and they billed us directly. As Singita describes it, they have the following value-add benefits for Federal Air flights:

  • Unlimited number of seats bookable for Singita guests flying between OR Tambo Johannesburg and the lodges (up until 72 hours prior to flight)
  • Where possible, Federal Air will arrange earliest drop off at Singita lodges and latest pick up from Singita lodges to maximize time spent on safari

Here’s the schedule for flights from Johannesburg to the Singita lodges:

Then here’s the schedule for flights from the lodges back to Johannesburg:

As you can see, the rates aren’t cheap:

  • Our flights from Johannesburg to Singita Boulders and from Singita Lebombo back to Johannesburg each cost ~307USD per person (so a total of ~615USD per person for both flights)
  • Our flights between the two lodges were covered by Singita, because they have a package where if you book two lodges they’ll pick up the cost of your flights between them

A few other things to note:

  • Most people combine a safari with a trip to Cape Town, though Federal Air doesn’t fly there; you’ll have to fly to Johannesburg and then book a separate flight to Cape Town
  • Federal Air also flies to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, though this is different than the Kruger airport that is used for Singita Lebombo (which is a dirt airstrip, and is much closer to the lodge)
  • While Federal Air publishes schedules, they do change these quite often; they note that these are subject to change, as they operate different routings every day based on which lodges they’re picking people up at
  • If you’re connecting to Federal Air same day you can let them know at least 72 hours in advance and they’ll provide a meet and greet service where they’ll pick you up at your gate and drive you to the Federal Air facility in Johannesburg

Singita provided the following recommended minimum connection time, but it could make sense to leave more time given their varying schedules:

Federal Air Baggage Allowance

Federal Air passengers are limited to one checked bag and one carry-on item:

  • The maximum weight for checked baggage is 20kg (44lbs) and for carry-on baggage is 5kg (11lbs)
  • Federal Air “suggests” luggage sizes of 40cm x 30cm x 60cm (16″ x 12″ x 24″), packed in soft luggage/duffle bags with no rigid sides

I’d note that while our bags were weighed in Johannesburg, they weren’t weighed at any other departure points (given that they weren’t “real” airports).

Federal Air Beechcraft 1900D Review

From Johannesburg to Singita Boulders we took the flight that was scheduled to depart at 10:30AM and arrive at 12PM. This flight was operated by a Beechcraft 1900D with the registration code ZS-STE. This is a 26 year old plane that used to fly for Midwest Express in the US. These little planes sure do get around!

Federal Air Beechcraft 1900

Boarding started at 10:45AM, and at the door we were greeted by first officer Nick.

Federal Air Beechcraft 1900

Fed Air has open seating, and the Beechcraft 1900D has a total of 19 seats. This includes eight rows of seats in a 1-1 configuration, and then the last row has three seats. The plane sure does have an awkward feeling, given how high the ceilings are despite the narrow cabin.

Federal Air Beechcraft 1900 cabin

We selected seats near the wings. There were a total of 12 passengers on this flight — the first stop was Singita Boulders, and then they continued to another lodge.

Federal Air Beechcraft 1900 cabin

By 10:50AM boarding was complete, at which point the first officer did a quick safety briefing, and informed us of our cruising altitude of 23,000 feet and our flight time of one hour to Boulders, and then another 10 minutes from there for the remaining passengers.

We started taxiing at 11AM, and took off 10 minutes after that.

Federal Airlines Beechcraft 1900 wing view

There were views of Johannesburg on the way out, but other than that there wasn’t much scenery, given that the bush looks much more interesting from ground level than from above.

View after takeoff from Johannesburg

There were some snacks and drinks at the front of the cabin that passengers could help themselves to, though the 1900D doesn’t have any bathrooms or flight attendants.

View approaching Sabi Sands

We ended up touching down at Singita Boulders at 12PM on runway 1.

Arriving in Sabi Sands

We were the only ones getting off here, so they left the right engine running while they opened the door to let us out and took our bags out as well.

Fed Air Beechcraft 1900 upon arrival

Here we were picked up by a Singita jeep plane side. Not your average airport transfer, eh?

Not your average airport pick-up!

Coleman and Themba, our guide and spotter for the next three days, introduced themselves and whisked us off to the hotel, which was about a 15 minute drive away.

Here we go!

Federal Air Cessna Grand Caravan Review

After three days at Singita Boulders we headed to Singita Lebombo. These lodges are only about 90km in apart, though you can’t drive even nearly that directly. So the fastest drive is nearly four hours, which is why most guests fly between the two lodges.

We were only informed of our departure time the day before our flight. We left Boulders Lodge at around 10AM, and were told our flight would be at 10:20AM. The drive took about 15 minutes. Singita has a charming waiting area at the airport, though the plane was already waiting for us.

Singita Boulders departures lounge

This time we were flying a Cessna Grand Caravan. As we approached the plane first officer Dan welcomed us onboard and also introduced us to captain Ruby.

Fed Air Cessna Grand Caravan

Fed Air Cessna Grand Caravan

Fed Air Cessna Grand Caravan

The Grand Caravan has a total of 12 seats — there are four rows in a 1-2 configuration, and passengers board through the rear.

Fed Air Cessna Grand Caravan cabin

Fed Air Cessna Grand Caravan cabin

The cabin was super comfy and the plane felt new. We were told that we were the only passengers on the flight so we could spread out however we wanted. We were provided with a quick safety briefing, and informed of our flight time of 20 minutes and cruising altitude of 3,500 feet.

Fed Air Cessna Grand Caravan cabin

We took off from runway 19 at 10:40AM.

Views enroute to Kruger

It was cool to have such a direct view of the cockpit.

Views approaching Singita Lebombo

The flight was smooth, and sure enough we touched down at 11AM, as expected. This airport only had a dirt strip, so it was a rougher taxi after landing.

Singita Lebombo airport

There we were greeted by Singita representatives. Singita set up a little lounge of sorts, with bathrooms and refreshments.

Singita Lebombo airport lounge

Singita Lebombo airport lounge

Singita Lebombo airport lounge

The drive to Singita Lebombo took about 40 minutes from the air strip.

Federal Air Pilatus PC-12 Review

After three days at Singita Lebombo it was time to fly back to Johannesburg. We were told that our flight would depart at 12PM, so we left the hotel at around 11AM. Once there we hung out in the same departures area pictured above.

Singita Lebombo airport

The inbound plane ended up being delayed a bit, and at 12:10PM a Pilatus PC-12 appeared. I’d note that for all three flights we weren’t told in advance what planes we’d get. I did know it wouldn’t be the Beechcraft 1900D for this flight, since they avoid using those on dirt strips.

The Pilatus PC-12 is significantly faster than the Cessna Grand Caravan (the cruising speed is ~315mph rather than ~215mph, based on a quick Google search), so I was happy we had this for the flight back.

Fed Air Pilatus PC-12

Fed Air Pilatus PC-12

I don’t think I’ve ever been on one of these planes before, so I was excited. The plane had a total of nine seats — there were three rows in a 1-1 configuration, and then the last row had three seats.

Fed Air Pilatus PC-12 cabin

Even though this was the smallest plane of the trip (capacity-wise) it had more of a “big plane” feel than the Cessna.

There were already four people on the plane when we got on, so Ford and I ended up sitting in the first row, while my dad sat two rows back. That meant I sat right next to the snack basket — hah.

Fed Air snacks

From the first row I still had a cockpit view, though it was a bit obstructed.

Fed Air Pilatus PC-12 cockpit view

At 12:20PM we were given a quick safety briefing, and were told our flight time would be one hour, and that we’d cruise at 20,000 feet.

Fed Air Pilatus PC-12 wing view

Within a few minutes we took off. There was some turbulence on the climb out as we passed through some thick clouds. Ford hates small planes, so he was squeezing my hand from across the aisle.

Bumpy flight departing Singita Lebombo 

The PC-12 really feels like a bigger plane in terms of the cabin — there are air vents, and they even have fancy window shades.

Fed Air Pilatus PC-12 window shades

At 1:15PM the captain turned around and told us we were starting our descent and would land in 15 minutes.

View enroute to Johannesburg

View approaching Johannesburg

We ended up landing at 1:25PM. It’s sort of weird to land such a small plane on such a big runway.

View approaching Johannesburg

From there we had a five minute taxi to our arrival stand.

Taxiing Johannesburg Airport

We parked in the same Federal Air area we had departed from six days prior. We were told to wait inside while our bags were fetched.

Arrival area Johannesburg Airport

Our bags were retrieved within minutes, and then we were all driven to the airport’s main terminal for our flight (we were heading to Cape Town on British Airways Comair).

Federal Air Bottom Line

I have nothing but good things to say about our Fed Air experience. These flights to remote destinations are rarely glamorous, though Fed Air made it as pleasant as possible, with the help of Singita.

Between the nice lounge in Johannesburg, the friendly and professional pilots, the punctuality of their flights, and the variety of planes I got to experience (yes, I’m an aviation geek), I’d recommend Fed Air in a heartbeat.

  1. Lucky,

    Looking at that interior photo of the Grand Caravan brought me back to our honeymoon in Tanzania – the headroom was non-existent! I hit my head twice during some bumps during takeoffs.

    Can’t wait for your review of the Singita properties.

  2. Airlink, South African’s regional affiliate, flies Kruger Mpumalanga to Cape Town nonstop. I flew the route last year on an Avro RJ I believe. I rented a car and it was about a 90 minute drive to the crocodile bridge gate. Very convenient for a short safari when I spent a month in Cape Town.

  3. The one thing to keep in mind with Federal is that as they’re not considered a common carrier so no Travel insurance benefits apply.

  4. I adore the Pilatus PC-12. Boutique Air flies them domestically in the US. One of my favorite experiences is being in that small plane going in and out of the way bigger infrastructure at ATL.

  5. Like @Will I count myself as a Pilatus fan. We’ve chartered one from FLL to N Eluthra in the Bahamas a few times. Great choice for these types of operations given a relatively generous payload for luggage on top of passengers.

  6. Could you give some pictures of the view along the flight so readers could compare with the sea plane transfer in Maldives?

  7. There’s something special about walking up to a small plane on some dirt strip, haven’t done that in way too long! Makes me more jealous than any first class trip review…..

  8. We had similarly good flights with FedAir last month: Kasane, Botswana (BBK) to Singita’s Sabi Sands airstrip (which serves their Boulders and Ebony lodges) on the same Pilatus PC-12 you were on, and Sabi Sands to JNB on a five-passenger Phenom 100 jet (ZS-STS*) both of which we had to charter because they were the only options that would guarantee my mom — who has emphysema — pressurized cabins for the flights we needed to take. FedAir was professional and kind, and made us feel safe in this precarious-feeling situation…especially Mom, who had never been on planes that small before. I am grateful to FedAir for running such a top-notch operation, and to Singita for choosing them as their air partner.

    * FedAir usually uses a four-passenger Cessna Citation Mustang for their daily jet service to Singita Sabi Sands, but they apparently chartered this plane, because there were five us traveling that day.

  9. @tuotuo – there is no comparison in the views. Over the past month, my wife and I were both on FedAir planes to/from Boulders, and on a Trans Maldivian seaplane from the Westin Miriandhoo to MLE. The views over the bush in South Africa are uninspiring shades of beige, while The Maldives’ azure waters and shimmering islands can inspire poetry. Interestingly, there is majesty to be seen/felt on the small plane flights in Botswana’s Okavango Delta…but South Africa’s bush is just dull from the air (though lovely on the ground).

  10. You may say it’s not glamorous, but having the whole plane for you and your loved ones feels pretty high end to me! Amazing trip!

  11. Lucky, your consistent inattention to detail is really tiresome…

    1. Your views on departure from OR Rambo are of Boksburg and the Eastrand, the furthest edges of suburbia, barely considered Johannesburg, certainly not even close to the city (the airport is in the far East of the city, in fact not even in Johannesburg municipality and you flew further east)
    2. The main airport inside the Kruger National Park is Skukuza and has an asphalt runway. It is now owned by Sabi Game Reserves I believe. I’ve flown in and out of there on Fed Air planes around 13 years ago
    3. As mentioned above there is a non-stop flight from Nelspruit (Kruger Mpumalanga Gateway Airport) to CPT. I have heard of a flight from Skukuza as well but am not sure if that actually exists

  12. The flight from CPT to Nelspruit (Avro RJ85) is the route we took. Had a driver meet us there and drive us to Sabi Sands, then on return we went from Nelspruit to Victoria Falls nonstop on an ERJ135. Its not Qatar business but the flights were great and the drive from and to Nelspruit gave us a glimpse of how the people live in that area.

  13. I flew a FedAir Grand Caravan to/from Ulusaba and this was a nice reminder of our honeymoon two years ago. Being an avgeek, I loved being able to sit behind the pilots.

    I did feel bad for the other couple with two kids on our flight. 3 of 4 of that group got wildly airsick and basically covered the back in vomit. The pilots did not know as the smell did not make its way forward until we got to the taxi stand. My wife was gulping for air. When we deplaned, the ground crew brought over paper towels but the husband, kindly, informed them to bring a hose.

  14. @Michael, what carriers fly out of Rambo airport in east jo-burg? It’s been tiresome trying to find information on this place. Please answer in detail.

  15. This is like flying in New Zealand. One of the provincial Air NZ feeders used Beech 1900Ds and I had the best view ever out the pilots’ windshield of the approach to my home town from Auckland – out over the Pacific and back west to the runway sat in my side window-less seat 1A. Enjoyed your review of the flights and the lodges. Have a friend in Cape Town trying to lure us down there with the promise of safari on the side.

    BTW, the ‘Jeep’ is a Land Rover

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