FASCINATING: SonAir Flies 747s Between Houston And Luanda?!

Filed Under: Other Airlines

As longtime readers know, I have an unhealthy obsession with random airlines and routes. The more obscure a route, the more determined I am to fly it. I spend a lot of time looking up random airline routes, and at this point I’d like to think I’ve at least heard of every single airline operating longhaul flights out of the US.

Well, yesterday I was proven wrong. A friend told me abut SonAir, which apparently operates twice weekly flights between Houston and Luanda, Angola. I had never heard of the airline, and while I can see the logic to the route (well, more so a few years back than now, but still…), I find this fascinating.

SonAir seems to operate a twice weekly 747-400 service between Houston and Luanda, which they call the “Houston Express.” At ~7,700 miles, that’s a long flight. Per their website, here’s the configuration of the plane:

The airplane has a modern configuration to serve 189 passengers in 10 Business Deluxe seats, 76 Business seats, 67 Economic Class Premium seats and 36 Economic Class seats.

As you can see, the plane has a very sparse configuration, presumably because part of the plane is used for cargo. The pictures of the cabin that are online look nice, at least for the 10 “Business Deluxe” seats (presumably formerly first class).

The flight seems to be operated by a 747 with the tail number N322SG, which is a 17 year old Air Atlas 747-400. In looking at the plane’s history, it was first operated by ANA, then Oasis Hong Kong, and then Atlas Air since 2010.

The route operates twice weekly, with the following schedule:

Rather bizarrely the flight is open to the public, but has to be booked through WTA (World Travel Agency) in Houston. I can’t find any way to book it online.

This flight used to only be available to US oil executives and workers who commuted between Angola’s offshore oil extraction platforms and Houston. However, ch-aviation reports that this flight is open to the public as of May 1, 2017. However, I suspect it’s not cheap, and that there aren’t many options for ex-Cairo or ex-Colombo ticketing to score a deal. 😉

The funniest part about this is that I’ve been wanting to try Luanda-based TAAG Angola for a while, as they have one of the few remaining first class products I haven’t tried. Oh, and they also have a very cool livery.

SAA-Lounge-Johannesburg - 34

Anyone as fascinated by this flight as I am? Has anyone taken this flight before?

(Photo credit for featured image to John Taggart)

  1. I used to Live in Luanda and I saw really often this 747 (my school was just under the approach course of the planes, nice view but the noise is bothering when you pass an exam). I always wondered how looked the cabin, now I have a partial answer. Thanks Ben!

    PS: No wonder you never heard of SonAir, they are the air carrier of SonAngol, the national oil company. Usually they fly helicopters to the offshore oil rigs (usually the pilots are former military pilots), but they have a few 737s and Dash-8s for when they have to move employees to other places in Angola.

  2. It is only recently available to the public for bookings, like in the past couple months. Prior to that it was industry charter only. We talked about it a bit on DLD when that policy change was made.

  3. Found out about this the other day! Apparently they have a partnership with UA and you can even earn MileagePlus miles with them (makes sense flying out of IAH). It would be a fascinating product to review!!!

  4. Friends in Houston have been taking this flight for work for years. I saw it boarding 2 years ago when I was in Houston. Interesting crowd

  5. Ben, you pretty much summed things up. The “Houston Express” has been around for quite a few years, and as you noted, has long been a commuter flight for oil industry personnel. My hunch is that the down-turn has led to opening up availability to the public. Friends who have taken the flight have all had praise for the experience. Luggage allowance never seems to be an issue–many people on board are either moving to/from Luanda, or bringing lots of personal stuff back to Angola after a return “home” to Houston. [They report that prices for even the most basic necessities in Luanda are sky-high]. Its often fun to see the Atlas Air 744 parked at IAH Terminal D. Looking forward to your report.

  6. I was in Luanda in 2011. It is incredibly expensive for most people unless you live like a native. I represented an automotive concern that serviced the equipment used by the oil/gas industry. We did a lot of business in Angola for a number of years. When I went in 2011 I went through Delta via Atlanta to Dakar and onto Luanda. Fortunately I speak Spanish, so Portuguese was not that much of a jump.


  7. Houston has had interesting oil niche routes, such as SAS’s 44 seat
    all business class nonstop 737-700
    IAH-Stavanger flight, United’s IAH-Lagos nonstop, and SIA’s IAH-Moscow flight.

    A TAAG review from GRU-LAD would be exciting!

  8. Yes, it’s a flight chartered by Chevron to get their employees to and from Houston to Luanda. Premium economy seats are business class seats with economy service, business class is what you’d expect on a transatlantic flight with angled seats and the first class cabin has fully lay flat seats I believe, many of my friends said the flight is actually pretty good.

  9. The Houston Express has been around 1990s originally on World Airways MD-11.
    And yes you get United miles, last I heard 7,500 each way.

  10. You get access to the lounge in Luanda if you take this flight and are only able to select a seat once you are at the airport. I also recall that this is a “must fly” route and SonAir/Atlas keep a spare 747 around IAH on the days it flies. You also should get United miles for flying on this due to the partnership with UA.

  11. You should take it, then TAAG to GRU and a new product from Brazil to the US – Azul or the new Avianca GRU-MIA

  12. @ Lucky, if you’re wanting to fly random carries you might want to check Georgian Airways on your trip later this year to the Caucusus. They fly to Paris so could use them to position for a flight from there

  13. If you do go ahead and book it. I’d suggest you to try TAAG to GRU Sao Paulo, and then Azul Airlines out of VCP Sao Paulo to FLL, the have been delivered pretty new planes, and have a great product on business.

  14. Old news. For almost a decade this flight has been in operation. At times even in conjunction with Continental

  15. I know someone who works for an Cheveron and he flies OAK – IAH – LAD – SZA a few times a year. he has also flown LHR – LIS – LAD – SZA on TAAG. He said the SonAir flight is basiclly like flying on BA first class in the 1990s and he said flying TAAG is like flying Air France in the 1990s. . . So I woud be very interested in what you thing of both products. BTW Cheveron booked his SonAir flight so I have no idea how to book it.

  16. Based on calling the WTA in Houston about a month ago, the prices for the Houston express from Houston to Luanda were about $6000 in first class and around $5400 in business, both are for one way tickets.

  17. I Flew it back when world airways was doing it. I remember sonair was even on the wingtips

  18. Reviews would certainly be entertaining! And I’m salivating at the idea of reading Ben’s impressions of Luanda.


    Getting a visa to Angola can apparently be a lesson in frustrating futility. Does anyone else remember that scene from the film Ninotchka, where Leon tries to get a visa to the Soviet Union? I imagine Ben’s attempt at scoring an Angolan visa could be just as comical. That attempt, in of itself, could be the basis for a particularly fascinating OMAAT post!

  19. @Imperator- Getting my visa for Angola was the most frustrating thing I ever experienced. It cost 300 US$ and 3 months of my time. Angolan embassy employees are beyond useless (and borderline rude) and everytime you go there, you learn the existence of another form to fill and tax to pay.
    Fun fact: I had to give 24 ID pictures with my visa appliance (yes 24).

  20. This world is crazy

    Early this morning GIG’s official account made a post about the aircraft who operates this flight.

    It was charted from ny to rio during world cup

  21. I am waiting on you to say something about the Hong Kong Airline route HKG-LAX is now on sale.

  22. @seamus this was actually my trip report that you posted. Lucky, FYI took it many times for business while working for an oil major.


    No longer in the industry, but prior to leaving, heard it had been shuttered (or possibly frequency reduced being that that it is now bookable). You could always see the 747s sitting at IAH, as one was required to be a backup (know a few folks who got stuck in Luanda, waiting for the backup bird)

    Unique niche route and experience. Have fun in Luanda 😉

  23. @ George – That link you provided in chinese is because the person who took those pics was a chinese who worked at SZX, the article mentioned the SonAir 744 was flying with DL 744 to do NBA sports charter from US to SZX.

    FYI, UA at one point had a 744 config called OP that had 36 F seats and 123 C seats, i had flown it before on ORD-NRT and got an operational upgrade to C from Y because Y was “overbooked” due to there are very few Y seats.

  24. I’m actually one of the flight attendants that work on it quite regularly it’s a fun flight to work considering it’s on the 747. It can be quite long but a beutiful aircraft

  25. @Chris: whoa thanks for the heads up on Saint Helena finally opening. Ben has definitely got to fly there!

    As to Angola, stayed at a lodge in Namibia last year right on the border … asked for (and got) the cottage closest to the river so we could see into Angola from the room. There is zero security anywhere to be seen … you could just cross the river into Angola (but what would you do on the other side???

  26. Totally surprised to see this. I work as a flight attendant on the SonAir aircrafts. There are actually two nearly identical aircrafts.

  27. Lucky says: “the more obscure a route, the more determined I am to fly it”

    Start planning for BZZ-ASI when it restarts presumably in 2019. Some paperwork will be required but its doable.

  28. @Steven M – The Kunene river is crawling with crocodiles, so crossing it is not a wise idea unless one is in a boat.

    Serra Cafema has all it’s structures raised several meters off the ground for this reason.

  29. “Have fun getting the Angolan Visa! Pretty sure you’d be rejected.”

    No, he won’t be rejected.

    I would suggest to others, however, that applying for a visa to Angola is best done through one of the visa services available around the world. Yes, it costs more, but if you value your time (and sanity) that’s likely the best way to go about it…

  30. I work for Atlas and actually fly that route occasionally.
    There are two Sonair 747-400 aircraft. N263SG and N322SG. Both have pretty much the same history.
    The food standard in Y has gone down a little recently due to budget cutbacks at SonAir. Staffing etc is still the same.
    I hope you enjoy your trip!

  31. I am a pilot for Atlas and will be flying this route on this coming Monday. Happy to answer any questions. Happy travels!

  32. As of today I received a notice that this routes last day is March 28th, 2018. Been flying it for work for a while now. When you have a 140 seats on a 747 and fly over with 50 passengers during non holiday periods it was bound to die. Not sure if the cargo being loaded hasnt been dying off as well.

  33. Just a note regarding this part of the article:

    “As you can see, the plane has a very sparse configuration, presumably because part of the plane is used for cargo.”

    The sparse configuration is not because of cargo; it is not a combi 744. The entire main deck and upper deck are configured for pax (like a normal 744). The sparse configuration is because of the number of J seats.

  34. Sonair has announced this flight will be discontinued as of March 28th, 2018. Oil companies have not informed yet how this will be handled.

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