Review: South African Airways Business Class A340 Frankfurt To Johannesburg

Filed Under: South African Airways

My flight from Toronto landed shortly after 11AM, while my connection to Johannesburg wasn’t until 8:45PM. Therefore I had a full day. Since I had plenty of work to do, I spent the entire day in the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge. It’s a nice lounge, and I prefer it to Lufthansa’s offerings at Frankfurt Airport (simply because the Air Canada Lounge doesn’t get as crowded). My stay in the lounge even came with some free entertainment, thanks to my fellow guests.

Eventually I briefly headed over to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge, which was right across from my departure gate.

Since I’ve reviewed both of those lounges before, I won’t be doing so again with this review.

About 90 minutes before departure, the beautiful South African Airways A340-600 which would be taking me to Johannesburg was towed to its gate. It was even in the special Star Alliance livery. The plane had been sitting at Frankfurt Airport since it arrived early that morning from Johannesburg.

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South African Airways A340-600 Frankfurt Airport

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South African Airways A340-600 Frankfurt Airport

The flight was boarding from gate B26, and the boarding pass indicated that boarding would commence at 8PM, 45 minutes before departure. Not surprisingly, given that this was a flight originating in Germany, the flight boarded at 8PM on the dot.

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South African Airways departure gate Frankfurt Airport

South African Airways 261
Frankfurt (FRA) – Johannesburg (JNB)
Friday, May 20
Depart: 8:45PM
Arrive: 7:25AM (+1 day)
Duration: 10hr40min
Aircraft: Airbus A340-600
Seat: 4K (Business Class)

I boarded through door L1, where I was greeted by the purser, Felicia. She pointed me towards the far aisle, where my seat was located.

South African’s A340 business class consists of one huge cabin. There are seven rows of fully flat seats, all in a 2-2-2 configuration.

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South African Airways A340-600 business class cabin

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South African Airways A340-600 business class cabin

I quickly headed to row four (the center of the cabin), where I had reserved a window seat. While I usually prefer an aisle, they only had windows left when I was rebooked on this flight.

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South African Airways A340-600 business class cabin, seats 4H & 4K

The seat had two seatback pockets — one was for literature, while the other was for headphones, etc.

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South African Airways A340-600 business class cabin, seats 4H & 4K

The seat wasn’t especially wide or well padded. Furthermore, while the seat wasn’t in great condition, it was in better condition than I was expecting given that the seat is presumably over a decade old.

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SAA business class, seat 4K

Seat controls were located on the center armrest and were easy to use, though the seat’s motor was rather loud.

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SAA business class seat controls

In addition to the two seatback pockets, there were also two cubbies between the seats which were big enough to hold an amenity kit, bottled water, etc.

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SAA business class legroom

At the bottom of the seat in front of me was a locker, which was big enough to hold my shoes. I thought that was a pretty functional design.

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SAA business class shoe compartment

Between seats was a privacy partition which could be raised. While it wasn’t especially effective when in the upright position, I found it worked wonders when fully flat, as it added a sense of privacy (the A330 I flew on the way back didn’t have such a partition).

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SAA business class privacy partition

Then the entertainment controls, headphone jack, and power outlet were located underneath the center armrest.

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SAA business class headphone jack, power outlet, and entertainment controls

The entertainment controls weren’t exactly the most modern variety out there.

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SAA business class entertainment controls

I also couldn’t actually get the power outlet to work for charging my phone, though oddly it worked with my computer.

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SAA business class headphone jack and power outlet

The headphones in the seatback pocket were noise canceling, though they were a bit clunky.

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SAA business class headphones

Unfortunately these seats didn’t have individual air vents, which I found to be rather annoying.

My seatmate was one of the other first passengers to board, which meant the process of taking pictures throughout boarding was incredibly awkward, as he looked at me like I was from a different planet when I was photographing everything. Perhaps that’s another reason I prefer private seats with direct aisle access, so I don’t have to deal with the odd looks from seatmates when taking pictures.

Shortly after settling in, the flight attendant working my aisle came by to introduce herself and offer a pre-departure beverage. I selected a glass of sparkling wine.

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SAA business class pre-departure champagne

Shortly thereafter the crew distributed newspapers, and then amenity kits.

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SAA business class amenity kit

The amenity kits were well stocked, with socks, earplugs, a toothbrush and toothpaste, eyeshades, and some products from Temple Spa.

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SAA business class amenity kit contents

The Temple Spa products included skin and lip balm.

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SAA business class amenity kit Temple Spa toiletries

During boarding the blankets were all in the overhead bins, though I quickly grabbed my pack. I was impressed that SAA offers both mattress pads and duvets, which were quite thick. The bedding was top notch.

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SAA business class pillow, blanket, and duvet

By 8:30PM boarding was complete (with every seat in business class taken), at which point Captain Mick welcomed us aboard, on behalf of himself and the two first officers, Derrick and Kenny. The captain had a very strong South African accent, and explained we’d be flying over Zurich, Algiers, and then down Africa, with a pretty smooth ride. The flight time would be 10hr5min.

I quite enjoyed the views out the window, including of a retro livery Turkish A330, an Oman Air A330 (the same flight I recently took to Muscat, except it was operated by a 787 at the time), etc.

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Turkish A330 in retro livery at Frankfurt Airport

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Oman Air A330 at Frankfurt Airport

At that point Felicia made her welcome aboard announcement wishing everyone a “warm South African welcome,” and then screened the safety video. Since the individual TV monitors in business class are pulled up from the center armrest, only the overhead monitors screened the video. They were only located above the center seats, and on the bulkhead.

Finally at 8:45PM we began our pushback, exactly on schedule.

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View after pushback from Frankfurt Airport

We taxied out to runway 18, and I quite enjoyed the plane’s reflection as we taxied past several glass buildings.

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Taxiing Frankfurt Airport

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Taxiing Frankfurt Airport

We also taxied by one of Lufthansa’s gorgeous new cargo 777s (I’ve always thought Lufthansa’s livery would look great on a 777).

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Lufthansa Cargo 777 Frankfurt Airport

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Taxiing Frankfurt Airport

Moments before takeoff the captain announced “ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to be airborne; crew, your stations please.”

At 8:55PM we lined up on runway 18, and began a very long takeoff roll.

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Taking off Frankfurt Airport

The views on the climb out were gorgeous, as we were taking off right as the sun was setting. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Beautiful sunset after takeoff from Frankfurt Airport

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Beautiful sunset after takeoff from Frankfurt Airport

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Beautiful sunset after takeoff from Frankfurt Airport

Eight minutes after takeoff the seatbelt sign was turned off. I quickly headed to the lavatory behind business class, which was tiny and not in especially good condition. While there were two lavatories behind business class, only one of them was for business class passengers, while the other was for economy passengers.

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SAA business class lavatory

The lavatory had Aigner amenities.

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SAA business class lavatory Aigner toiletries

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SAA business class cabin after takeoff

Once back at my seat I browsed the entertainment selection. The system was outdated, to put it nicely.

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SAA A340 entertainment system

I did enjoy the tail camera feature, though the screen was so grainy, which took away from the enjoyment.

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SAA A340 tail camera

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SAA A340 entertainment selection

I ended up watching the movie “How To Be Single,” which I thought was hilarious.

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SAA A340 entertainment selection

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SAA A340 entertainment selection

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SAA A340 entertainment selection

15 minutes after takeoff, Felicia handed out menus and the wine list, and personally welcomed each passenger aboard.

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South African Airways business class menu and wine list

Once she was done handing out menus, she came around the cabin to take meal orders. She skipped around, and stopped by certain seats to say “in appreciation of your loyalty, can I take your meal order first?” I’m not sure if she was just doing that for South African Voyager Club elites, or what her system was.

By the time she came around to me, she asked for my first and second choice. I selected the chicken as my first choice and pasta as my second choice. When she asked my seatmate what he wanted, he said “chicken.” When she said “and your second choice?” he responded “just the chicken, otherwise I will not eat.” At that point she walked away.

About 30 minutes after takeoff hot towels were distributed.

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South African Airways business class hot towel

After that the dinner service began. The menu read as follows:

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And the beverage list read as follows:

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45 minutes after takeoff the crew rolled carts through the aisles with canapés and drinks. While well intentioned, the service seemed extremely disorganized, because they’d start with one cart in the back and one in the front, and by the time they got to the middle row (where I was seated), there seemed to be confusion over which crewmember was responsible for those seats.

To drink I ordered a glass of sparkling wine, which was better than I was expecting. I was also proactively given a bottle of water, as well as some canapés. These consisted of shrimp, ham, and tomatoes with cheese.

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South African Airways business class dinner — canapés and champagne

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South African Airways business class dinner — canapés

While the drinks were served off a cart, the rest of the meal was done off trays. The flow of the service was way off, because my seatmate got his main course about 15 minutes before I got my starter. He actually laughed when he got his chicken (since he refused to name a second choice), looked at me, and said “it worked.”

For the starter I had ordered the soup of the day.

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South African Airways business class appetizer — soup of the day

I still don’t know what exactly it was, though I can say it was delicious. It was easily one of the best soups I’ve had on a plane.

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South African Airways business class appetizer — soup of the day

The pretzel bread and garlic bread were exceptional as well.

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South African Airways business class dinner — pretzel and garlic bread

My starter was cleared about 10 minutes after I was done, and then shortly thereafter I was served my main course, which ended up being the pasta (since they were out of my first choice). While I didn’t initially want the pasta, it was really great. It’s rare that a pasta dish is as good in the air as on the ground, but SAA nailed this one.

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South African Airways business class main course — rigatoni with sundried tomatoes

A little over 90 minutes after takeoff dessert was served. I was asked if I wanted the dessert or cheese. I asked if I could have both, which the flight attendant agreed to.

First I had the pavlova, which was incredible. I had a cappuccino to accompany it, which unfortunately wasn’t as good. I’m fairly certain it was simply hot water with a cappuccino powder.

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South African Airways business class dessert — pavlova and cappuccino

As I finished with that course, a flight attendant came around with a box of chocolates, and I selected one.

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South African Airways business class dessert — praline

Lastly I was offered a cheese course.

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South African Airways business class dessert — cheese plate

After dinner I was asked if I wanted to be woken for breakfast, and I said I did. The dinner service was done just under two hours after takeoff.

The quality of the food was excellent, and the service was well intentioned, though the flow of the service was terrible. Furthermore, only offering passengers the option between a soup or salad or appetizer seems a bit stingy.

As the dinner service finished up, I had the most gorgeous view of the moon, despite the fact that the plane’s windows were small and rather filthy.

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Gorgeous sunset enroute to Johannesburg

I was ready to sleep, given that this was my second redeye in a row. The issue was that the guy in the aisle seat was already sleeping, so I had no way of really placing my mattress pad on my seat, given that you have to stand up to do that. So I simply reclined my seat and went to bed.

Much to my surprise, I slept extremely well. I’m guessing that was largely due to exhaustion, but I got a solid 6hr30min of sleep. As much as I’ve long been opposed to window seats, I quite liked having one in this instance. I could raise the privacy partition and face the window, and felt like I had my own cocoon. The seat is also legitimately fully flat.

Unfortunately due to my seatmate I couldn’t get a picture of the seat in the fully flat position on this flight, but below is one I took on a subsequent flight on the same plane.

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South African Airways business class bed

I woke up about 80 minutes before landing in Johannesburg, as we were starting to approach South Africa.

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Airshow approaching Johannesburg

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Airshow approaching Johannesburg

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Airshow approaching Johannesburg

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Airshow approaching Johannesburg

Upon waking up I decided to watch a sitcom, specifically “Undateable.”

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SAA business class entertainment selection

Within a few minutes the crew began the breakfast service, starting with hot towels being distributed, followed by orange juice.

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SAA business class breakfast — orange juice to start

The breakfast menu read as follows:

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Service wasn’t done off a cart, but rather the crew came around to each passenger and asked what they wanted:

“For breakfast would you like the omelet?”
“Yes please.”
“Would you like some yogurt?”
“Yes please.”
“Fruit or plain?”
“Fruit please.”
“Would you like some cereal or muesli?”
“Yes, muesli please.”
“And something to drink?”
“Yes, coffee with milk please.”

As I said with dinner, service was rather disorganized, because it seemed like I’d be next to be served (they’d ask for orders and then immediately bring the food), but in my case it was another 15 minutes before I was offered breakfast.

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SAA business class breakfast

The food itself was once again exceptional. The omelet was very good for an airplane omelet.

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SAA business class breakfast — cheese omelet

The muesli and yogurt were quite good as well, and I combined the two to make yogurt muesli.

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SAA business class breakfast — muesli

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SAA business class breakfast — fruit yogurt

About 30 minutes before landing the captain came back on the PA to provide updated arrival information, anticipating we’d touch down shortly before 7AM. As is the norm on redeye flights at this stage, the cabin was rather chaotic, as everyone wanted to use the lavatory, stow their bags, etc.

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SAA business class cabin after breakfast

The sunrise was beautiful as we descended.

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Sunrise over Africa

I also briefly watched the tail camera, until we were forced to stow our monitors, about 20 minutes before landing.

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Tail camera on approach to Johannesburg

I was a bit surprised when we dropped our landing gear above the clouds, though then I realized that Johannesburg just had really low cloud coverage that day.

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Sunrise over Africa

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View on approach to Johannesburg

We touched down at Johannesburg Airport at 6:55AM with a smooth-as-could-be landing. As we taxied to our arrival gate, the purser once again wished us “a proudly South African goodbye.”

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Touchdown in Johannesburg

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Taxiing Johannesburg Airport

The airport was still fairly quiet at this hour, though I was a bit puzzled by the Air Corridor 737 parked just off the runway, which didn’t even have engines anymore. Is that really the best place they could store the plane?

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Air Corridor 737 Johannesburg Airport

We had to cross another runway before getting to the terminal, as our taxi took about 10 minutes.

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Crossing runway at Johannesburg Airport

Finally the airport seemed a bit busier as we approached the terminal, though there were mostly regional planes on the tarmac.

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Johannesburg Airport planes

The international terminal was still quite empty.

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Arrival gate Johannesburg Airport

Upon deplaning I bid farewell to the crew and was ready to get to Cape Town!

South African business class bottom line

I was both pleasantly surprised and disappointed by SAA.

The seats were roughly what I expected. They’re comfortable and nice enough if traveling as a couple, though not ideal if traveling alone, since you’ll have a seatmate. They could certainly use a refresh.

I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the crew and the quality of the food.

However, I was disappointed by how disorganized the crew was, and that there seemed to be no flow to the service. I was also disappointed by how restrictive the menu was, given that you were only offered an appetizer or soup or salad. Lastly, given how outdated the product was, the entertainment system was pretty bad, both in terms of the selection, as well as in terms of the quality of the video and audio.

Overall I wouldn’t hesitate to fly South African Airways if they’re the most convenient airline in a market and/or have award availability, though they likely wouldn’t be my first choice otherwise.

If you’ve flown SAA business class, what was your experience like?

  1. I flew SAA business class EZE-JNB back in 2013 connecting off of a UA biz flight from IAH. It was cool to compare to the two back to back. I found the food and service to be better than UA, but the seat was not as good as that on my ex-Continental business seat on a 767.

  2. Hi Ben – Amongst the big 5 of Africa: South African, Kenya, Ethiopian: Royal Air Maroc and EgyptAir, where would you rank the business class of SAA?

  3. …“in appreciation of your loyalty, can I take your meal order first?” Hopping around the cabin to take orders by status is very inefficient from a service perspective and also a bit insulting to other passengers. You mentioned this happened on Air Canada as well. Why make other paying passengers feel less worthy, and do it openly, in front of everyone? So if I bought a business class ticket on SAA for the first time and my seatmate is elite, he/she gets their order taken and I don’t until later? If I was the elite traveler in this situation I would find this extremely embarrassing. A more discreet way to handle this would be to take the orders from the front like they do in economy and simply grey out forward seats on the seat selection page to all but elite status travelers. That way elite travelers still get first meal selection and nobody else is made to feel less worthy. Makes sense? I just think we’re taking this whole “status thing” a bit too far.

  4. I flew SAA longhaul business class a few times about a decade ago and funny enough the seats appear not to have changed a bit since then — so I would agree they’re holding up very well for their age. At that time they were cutting-edge since most other airlines still had angled lie-flat seats, and I always found them quite comfortable though I’m sure they’ve lost some padding since then. The “cradle” position, where your knees are raised like in a recliner or rocking chair, is particularly nice for lounging and is not a position that many other business class seats offer.

    Back then the food was also pretty bad, so good to see that they’ve apparently improved in the years since. Service sounds fairly unchanged, on the other hand.

  5. This is just tongue in cheek but any chance you could use the word disembark in place of deplane. I know deplaned is US English but it just sounds like a made up word (i know it’s not) tiny bug bear, hate the word.

  6. Wow that IFE looks like a color version of MS DOS.

    I often get the same reaction you had when I have a seat mate and I’m taking pictures of everything, I find it easier when they notice to just tell them why i’m doing it and then they become interested and normally ask for the URL to read about it during the flight.

    I think the standard business class product should all be direct Aisle access, so this product is pretty dated now.

  7. @ Charlie

    I understand where you are coming from, however I don’t think this is any more embarrassing than boarding the aircraft before any non-elites or being greeted by name, or being brought to or taken from the airplane in a limousine, so on so forth.
    If anything, I agree with their practices and I wish more airlines would also do this. Personally, I am sick and tired of having my primary food option being denied just because I happen to sit one row further back than someone else who has never stepped foot on this particular airline and has not been loyal to the alliance. Having your firm food selection denied based on your seating arrangement seems completely arbitrary to me as it is just pure coincidental nonsense.

  8. Lucky – I’ve never heard of someone so excited to get their dinner choice when it’s chicken. I mean, it’s not like they scored with lobster or something else 🙂

    @John – could you pre-order food, so that you’re guaranteed the meal of your choice?

    I agree with @James; if your seatmate is curious about why you are taking photographs, tell them, and have a business card ready with your site’s URL (even if that’s the only thing on the card). This is an opportunity to network or gain more readership for your blog.

  9. @Susan, I normally do it to avoid people informing the cabin crew and getting into a situation. You know how paranoid people are these days on flights. But yes a few more readers won’t be a bad thing.

  10. @John – or maybe the airlines could let everyone in premium cabins order their food in advance, then everyone gets what they want. You can even do that in economy if you want a “special meal.” I have a work colleague who orders sodium free meals because “special meals” are generally better and bigger, and he secretly brings his own salt!). With computer order systems between airline and caterer it should be easy to do and could be a great sales feature for premium seating. That should work for both of us. I’d just feel strange if my order was taken and my seatmate’s wasn’t (seatmate: why wasn’t my order taken? Me: because I am a VIP and you aren’t. Ouch) . And kudos to Lucky’s seatmate who refused to accept an alternative. He got what he wanted, and Lucky wasn’t so lucky this time!

  11. Looks boring and somewhat nasty. How many engine shots could you take?

    Food looks like United garbage. What a horrible way to travel and to a terrible place.

  12. I’ve flown this route on this aircraft several times. I like that SAA isn’t shy about serving grown-up food in business class – e.g., salmon tartare, vitello tonnato, pavlova – rather than assuming we’re infants who are going to be impressed by a hot chocolate chip cookie.

    My main gripe about their J cabin is that the seats aren’t insulated from the aisle traffic. The FAs (often “sturdy” Afrikaans women of a certain age) tend to stomp around like oxen, and you feel and hear their every step when you’re trying to sleep.

  13. Your photos of menus illustrate one of my pet peeves on virtually any airline, in any class cabin: the beer selection stinks. Even on flights where the airline and the cabin seem to compete for their idea of “classiest” (whether Emirates bling or, as above, South African wines), they typically offer only industrial yellow lagers from whichever country. Bud = Heineken = Amstel = Tsingtao = Corona. This is the equivalent of serving boxed wine and a $4 bottle of champagne.

    Other than on Alaska Airlines or the token Goose Island or Sam Adams on major US carriers, where are the quality craft beers, and why is the industry stuck in the 80’s on this point?

  14. @wayneham: Brussels Airlines Business Class! So. Many. Options. Lambic, Kriek, Dubbel, etc. etc.

  15. I flew SAA (biz) about two years ago. (retired, but a former client pushed – a lot.) If I had reviewed the ride, it would have read much as yours did. SAA and other operators cannot dump/tore/sell their A345 and A346 airplanes fast enough. Early on, it was close to the only airplane with such long legs. Today, there are multiple other choices.
    I too was pleased and surprised by the outbound meals. To be honest, the meals provided for the escape flight – catered in J’burg, were horrible.
    Despite a full staff of managers and FAs, the cabin service was miserable. SAA’s hard and soft products need major upgrades.

  16. Oh wow, this brings me back. I flew SAA back in April of 2006. This was when SAA was still a part of Skyteam. I flew direct from Atlanta to Johannesburg with a fueling stop in Ilhas da Sol in the Cape Verde Islands. We flew in business class and it was my very first time in business class as well. As this was 10 years ago I dont remember which type of aircraft it was, but I remember eating ALOT. I mean we were offered food almost every hour. We boarded around 10 AM and was immediately offered lunch and after that I swear the food and drink almost never stopped for the 18 hour flight (which included the 2 hour stopover for fuel). We were not offered a mattress pad but we did have an IFE with a couple of movies and music and a game and the wine list was fantastic. This flight will always be special to me because it was the first time I ever flew over seas and I remember thinking, I can never ever EVER go back to coach!!

  17. I enjoy your reviews. Helps me to determine what carrier I shoot for with future destinations. I would be quite disappointed if I walked into that “Business Class” for such a long haul. The food looked good, but the seats and entertainment were horrid. I personally have found my favorite BC service to be found with Lufthansa, and Austrian Air which I found to be very impressive!

    I laughed at the beer comment another reader posted above, and had to agree. Although, my last flight on Lufthansa Business Class had Erdinger .5L bottles on hand, which is one of my favorite European beers. So I was a happy camper!

  18. SAA is absolutely out dated and I even prefer British airways for flying to South Africa. For me ba has the worst business class cabin arround together with af 380 business class. But Sara is even worst the seats are horrible and you can not even say business anymore I would say premium economy… do not understand how Sara has such old and outdated seats and entertainment… the worst, Sara is very expensive offering the worst comparing to other airlines in business.

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