9 Thoughts On South African Airways Business Class

Filed Under: South African Airways, Travel

Update: Read my full South African Airways Business Class A340 Frankfurt To Johannesburg review.

In the past week I’ve taken four flights in South African Airways business class, from Frankfurt to Johannesburg to Cape Town to Johannesburg to London.


Having just gotten off the last sector, the flights are still fresh in my mind. While I’ll have a much more detailed report, I figured I’d share my “big picture” takeaway from having flown with SAA.  In no particular order:

Aircraft swaps galore

Thai Airways is notorious for equipment swaps (to the point that many of us use the term “getting TGed” to describe an aircraft swap). Well, I think SAA gives them a run for their money.

My London to Johannesburg flight was canceled, and the second daily flight had an aircraft swap.

On the return, the flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg was swapped from an A330-200 to an A340-600.

Meanwhile the Johannesburg to London flight before mine was swapped from an A340-600 to an A330-200.

SAA-Lounge-Johannesburg - 33

A340-600s on 90 minute flights are awesome

SAA’s aircraft utilization is terrible, as most of their flights to Europe are redeyes, then the planes sit on the ground in Europe all day, then they operate a redeye back to Johannesburg, and then they don’t start their next longhaul flight till that night (at least for the most part).

As a result, South African pretty consistently operates A330s and A340s between Johannesburg and Cape Town. There’s nothing quite like an A340-600 on a 90 minute flight! In my opinion it’s one of the sexiest planes in the sky.

South-African-Lounge-Cape-Town-Airport - 5

South African’s short-haul catering is disappointing

I didn’t have many expectations of SAA coming in, though I found their catering on flights between Johannesburg and Cape Town to be disappointing. It seemed more like economy food than business class food — it didn’t taste good, and the portion was tiny (which was probably a blessing, since it didn’t taste good). 😉

South-African-Business-Class-A319 - 19

Professional pilots and safety oriented flight attendants

When I booked SAA, I had several readers tell me they were unsafe and that they have horrible maintenance. I’m not sure what that’s based on (I don’t pay too much attention to airline safety as such), as they haven’t had a fatal accident in almost 30 years.

Not that it’s necessarily reflective of safety, but I found the flight attendants to be among the most thorough I’ve had in terms of safety checks. And the pilots all put me at ease as well — I felt like I was on British Airways in terms of the professionalism of the pilot announcements, whether it be from Captain Hugh or Captain Nigel, who were piloting my last two flights.

South-African-Business-Class-A340 - 40

A unique narrowbody business class configuration

Different regions have different standards for regional premium cabin comfort. In the US, business class (or domestic first class) is typically in a 2-2 configuration, with more pitch and width in economy.

Meanwhile in Europe, business class is generally just economy with a blocked middle seat and better service.

In the Middle East you’ll find some of the world’s best business class products, often offering fully flat beds and incredible service.

SAA’s A319s, on the other hand, are in a 2-3 configuration in business class. I’d say pitch is slightly less than you’ll find in domestic first class in the US. It just seems sort of half assed to have a separate cabin, but give 20% of your passengers middle seats.

South-African-Business-Class-A319 - 1

I’ve never before seen an A319 with five seats per row.

The quality of SAA’s longhaul business class catering is excellent

The food I did have on my longhaul flights was exceptional across the board. However, I’d note that it’s not the most involved service. You get an appetizer or a salad or a soup, a main course, and then a dessert or cheese course. I suppose you could ask for more, but it’s quite specifically designed so that it’s “or” rather than “and.”

SAA-Business-Class-A330 - 5

So SAA scores points for quality, but not so much quantity.

Instant coffee, really?!

As a coffee addict, there’s little I appreciate more than an airline with good coffee. If they can make espresso based drinks as well, all the better.

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that SAA had cappuccinos on their menu… until I had one.

Both the coffee and cappuccino are the “instant” variety, so it’s just hot water with powder poured in.

Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk!

South-African-Business-Class-A340 - 61

Not all longhaul business class is created equal

As I mentioned in my post earlier, my Frankfurt to Johannesburg flight was operated by an A340-600, while my Johannesburg to London flight was operated by an A330-200.

I slept extremely well on the A340-600, though I find the cabin design to be rather ugly, the entertainment to be outdated, and the fact that there was a single huge cabin made the experience feel less personalized.

South-African-Business-Class-A340 - 4

The A330-200, on the other hand, has a slightly nicer design and a better entertainment system (not in terms of selection, but in terms of responsiveness and picture quality), though the seat doesn’t go fully flat. It wasn’t some horrible sloping seat, but rather the footrest just didn’t go up all the way, and the angle was annoying enough so that it prevented me from sleeping well. The A330-200 also doesn’t have privacy partitions between seats.

SAA-Business-Class-A330 - 1

Do I recommend SAA?

The airline has potential. Unfortunately the hard product is outdated, so if you’re traveling solo, I don’t think these are good seats. If you’re traveling with someone, however, you may appreciate being able to sit next to your travel companion.

The soft product on SAA was fine. The food was excellent, though the menu wasn’t the most involved out there.

The service was almost consistently friendly in a non over the top way, and ranged from reasonably attentive to disorganized.

If SAA is the airline flying a route you need to fly nonstop, or if they have award space, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly with them. But they probably also wouldn’t be my first choice.

  1. @Ben how was your connection on Johannesburg? We had super long lines at immigrations thanks to a couple of A380 arriving and a few missed the connecting flights.

    Isn’t BA operating red eyes to and from SA aswell?

  2. Every airline flying between Europe and South Africa parks their planes for the day at JNB or CPT, so you can’t blame just SAA for not utilizing its planes to the max at LHR, FRA or other cities, when European airlines flying into South Africa park their planes for the day down there. (In fact, at the South African end it does fly its widebodies on many JNB-CPT-JNB flights after they’ve arrived back after overnight flights, then they head back up to Europe or across the Atlantic.) Up at the European end, BA, LH, AF and the others can put their planes onto afternoon flights to North America and cycle them. SAA has no option at the European end other than park their planes. (This is similar to QF and other Australian carriers who arrive in the early morning and must park their planes at the European end until evening departures. Same goes for most US airlines flying to southern South America.) Customer preference and onward connecting situations, tied with time zone considerations, dictate the schedules used today which may not always be optimum for aircraft utilization.

    One can condemn SAA for many other inefficiencies but after decades of flying between Europe and South Africa, all carriers have determined there’s little demand for daytime flights.

  3. @ Tina Yes, BA operates multiple flights a night to both Johannesburg and non-stop to Cape Town, with a mix of 747s and 380s. They are going to 3xdaily to CPT in January.

    @ Ben. I disagree with your review about the aesthetics of the A340 and A330, having flown both. I find the brown of the A330 to be very depressing with a 1960s look. At least the blue design is no more than 30 years out of date. Two other things: first you completely failed to mention the wine – SAA has one of the better Business Class wine lists in the sky, with interesting and good SA wines. Second, it’s the A319 you want to avoid on the domestic flight – all the other aircraft have better Business cabins – and the flight is much longer than 90 minutes- it’s over two hours unless you have particularly favourable winds.

  4. Second what @NB says about wine, the quality wine selection was one of the best aspects of a flight we took on the A330 in business this past November. I was traveling with my wife and we actually appreciated the proximity of the two seats, though I can see how a solo traveler might not appreciate the company. I managed to get a decent night of sleep on the flight and particularly appreciated the decent pitch and width of the seat.

  5. SAA are running a schedule that serves the market, neither those in Europe or in Africa want to give their day flying, both would rather fly overnight and get full days in their departure cities. The only airline maximizing aircraft utilization on this route is KLM, they have a meaning departure out of AMS and arrive in the evening in JNB, turn around the aircraft for a late departure back to AMS. They work as the option for the route, but for business people it’s only useful in limited instances. The departure from Europe kills your day, but you can sleep in a bed for a morning meeting in JNB vs “flying in hot” on the other European arrivals. The late departure from JNB means a late morning arrival in Europe and writing off that day for work, but it does mean you can have a late meeting or early dinner in JNB whilst avoiding rushing to the airport in rush hour and The European and North American departures.

    That KLM flight works for ST because AF runs an A380 on the normal schedule and one can always connect with Kenya Airways, more than enough lift. I should add the KLM flight also means from NA, ST has the shortest one stop route to SA via Europe from North America, no 14hr connections.

    For a technically bankrupt airline SAA is not a bad option, but hopefully now that the politics around the long haul fleet overhaul seems to be addressed, we may see a new business class, but don’t hold your breath. Despite biz being quite full regularly their operational inefficiency means the mega routes like JFK,LHR-JNB are now money losers vs the intra Africa traffic that was carrying the airline. Now though Kenya Airways and the ever steady Ethiopian are taking more of that intra Africa traffic.

  6. “The airline has potential.” No, it has absolutely none. In fact, SAA is declining rapidly. Within the past 10 years, I have seen a steady decline in quality, and in fact I have missed so many flights due to their mismanagement and aircraft problems, that I will never ever fly SAA again. SA is a beautiful country, but it is in serious problems, and SAA is testament to the growing problems of a whole nation. Wait until you are stranded after midnight in Joburg, when your short flight from CPT is delayed and delayed and delayed, with no help whatsoever from ground staff… This is what happened to me several times, and finally I learned my lesson. NEVER AGAIN!!

  7. @Ben, I flew SAA in January from DAR to JNB to CPT and then CPT to JNB and on to IAD. I spoke with a pilot and he explained to me that the reason SAA uses the wide bodies on the JNB-CPT route is mainly for cargo reasons – getting merchandise to and from CPT as few airlines (LH/LX as example) fly to CPT. I remember a time when LH did a tag with their 747 from JNB to CPT but that was in the year 2000. Now LH is bringing back FRA-CPT on Cityline and they still have MUC-CPT, but there is still a lot more cargo needed to go from JNB to CPT that requires the widebodies. I guess it also justifies the cost of having the beautiful A346 doing that route!

  8. FWIW, I saw a similar-looking 2-3 J configuration on a 737 (I think?) on JAL domestic NRT-ITM.

  9. I’m with Jay Jay.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t even bother to price out SAA anymore for anything. My (Cape Town-based) travel agent doesn’t even bother giving me SAA prices to compare against BA anymore, because after years of my telling her “don’t bother” she finally understands that even if BA biz. fares are twice as much as SAA (btw, they are never twice as much, but I’m giving an example) I’ll choose BA anyway, and for her to contrast SAA is a waste of her time.

    I’ll only end up on SAA if they are the *only* carrier that flies a specific route. Otherwise I’ll fly Kenya, Rwandair, Air Namibia, even TAAG, before I step on a SAA plane again. For those who have taken many flights, regularly, in southern Africa, I don’t know anyone personally who would opt for SAA vs. the competitors, including Mango and Kulula (the discount carriers), and I’m referring to both South Africans and those from outside South Africa.

  10. Isn’t five across on the A319 in J with a few extra inches of legroom objectively a worse product than AA Mad Dog MCE? That’s pretty bad company for a J product to be in.

  11. it’s not that uncommon to use instant coffee in some other countries. it’s not necessarily the low-quality perception like here.

  12. Does SAA accept United Miles to upgrade from Economy to Business Class? I am flying with the family at year end from JFK to CPT via JNB. Thanks.

  13. There are more things wrong with SAA than I can list here, but safety is not one of them. Arguably, SAA overuses safety as an excuse to hide behind to cover up their commercial and operational shortcomings. Their proportional spending on maintenance and training inexplicably dwarfs any other carrier in the region. I use SAA Technical for various component maintenance work for my airline and they have been nothing but professional and probably one of our best vendors from a quality standpoint.

    That said, SAA’s internal machinations make your favourite “Real Housewives” franchise seem like a high school drama production in comparison. I never buy SAA tickets more than a few days out as they have a penchant for changing schedules and restructuring the organisation on a whim. Their product delivery is also inconsistent, vacillating between the sublimely good on one hand to the jaw droppingly awful on the other. That is the main reason why I avoid flying with them when possible (and I also direct the travel spending budget for 15-20 travelers to/from SA every month), and why unfortunately so many regular travelers in their home market have also moved their loyalty away.

  14. @DavidB That’s not entirely true. This is a seasonal daily route (Nov-Mar) t/a at CPT.

    LH574 MUC-CPT 19:05-07:35+1
    LH575 CPT-MUC 09:25-19:55

  15. Yeah, it’s funny that Americans, who tolerate perhaps the worst baseline coffee in the world, have such disdain for instant coffee. I’d take a cup of instant coffee over a cup of the stale filtered caffeinated water that passes for coffee in most US homes, diners and aircraft. But then, I’m an Aussie, and we’re notorious coffee snobs. 😉

  16. We fly SAA long haul (usually JFK/JNB, HKG/JNB or GRU/JNB with connection to CPT) and agree that the quality has decreased over the last several years. However we also fly Cathay and I think that their quality has also decreased as much or maybe even more. Flying JFK/JNB earlier this year we were disappointed that the wine selection did not include and decent SA wines. Same with Cathay JNB/HKG. Must also say that the Cathay lounge in JNB is disgusting and the SAA lounge is very much better.

    Hopefully SAA will get some new metal soon as I find the air quality on the A330/340 is poor with incredibly low humidity creating nasal problems.

  17. I just got off a flight from Cape Town-Joburg and Joburg-JFK. Here are my thoughts…

    JFK-Joburg / Joburg-JFK –
    Aircraft – I found the A340-600 bed to be quite painful over time. Its not flat, its curved. I’m not sure if they are intentionally looking to contour the bed or if its simply how the mechanics of the seat allow for a “flattened” angle. The pressure points (even while using the mattress pad) got to my back and hips after a few hours… i don’t have back issues.
    Food – I agree on the food service comments, the quality was good enough but the quantity much less than i am used to in international business class for pretty much any airline I’ve flown. Having said that i like that i wasn’t stuffed full as i tend to get on other airlines… so this is hard to rate. i guess its just a different perspective than i’m used to. but if i have to make a judgement call id give SAA a fail since i have paid a sizable sum and for that payment a full and quality food service should be offered
    Service – On the first flight i had the purser as my assigned attendant. He was thorough and attentive. friendly and knowledgeable. on the return flight i had the opposite. the woman didn’t know the menu and she was forgetful. i noticed another passenger made a formal complaint about her assigned attendant so perhaps it was a lazy crew?
    Entertainment – I use my iPad for all in-flight entertainment so i have more control. but the articulating arm TV screens seem outdated. i do think the WiFi enabled entertainment systems of some airlines is the best option. cheaper for the airline and more control and image quality for the passenger.

    Joburg-Cape Town / Cape Town-Joburg
    -Aircraft – A319 with a 2-3 configuration? What is that all about? This is really a huge pet peeve of mine. United pulls this same stunt on their international business class 777-200 (777) and i get so burned up about it. If i am paying anywhere from $6k-$12k for flights am i really going to get stuffed in a 4 person cluster?? Same with SAA… nto sure what the Jobug-CT segment cost me but if i was eveer stuck in the middle i would be pretty PO’d. My wife says I’m spoiled but i see it as a value problem. if I pay for premium seating don’t try to squeeze every ounce of value out of me. I cant think of any Star Alliance carrier in Asia that pulls this stunt.
    Food – economy class food. not special or memorable for anything quality related.

    All in all i would prefer another carrier for a long haul trip to South Africa. this is not a usual destination for me and i much prefer United (did i just say that?) over SAA any day of the week but United doesn’t make this route as of today.

  18. Yes @Parimal… you can use your united miles to upgrade any Star Alliance carrier

    Parimal says:
    May 26, 2016 at 10:17 pm
    Does SAA accept United Miles to upgrade from Economy to Business Class? I am flying with the family at year end from JFK to CPT via JNB. Thanks.

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