Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Trip Report: South African Airways, International + Domestic

A Trip Report: South African Airways (Aug/Sep 2016)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

South African Airways (SAA) is the flagship airline of South Africa, but it is known well beyond Africa.  Since 2006, the airline is part of the Star Alliance network and operates direct flights in the U.S. from New York or Washington, D.C. to Johannesburg.  Reading up on SAA’s history, I was intrigued to try them out.  During apartheid, the airline was put on restriction from certain countries but has worked on rebranding its image.  Since that time, SAA has become well-known in the U.S. as one of the only African airlines to fly directly, allowing for easy connections and transportation to and from the countries.  Lately, South African has been in the news for the financial woes but this made me more intrigued to fly the airline.  I was able to fly SAA a part of a Star Alliance connection flight from America to South Africa.  I flew United from New Orleans to Houston, Lufthansa from Houston to Frankfurt, and then was able to pick up SAA to fly from Frankfurt to Johannesburg (the same route happened on the reverse as well).

I had booked the trip through a travel website (since I was connecting on various airlines)
so when I received my SAA confirmation, I went to the website manage my booking.  The website itself is easy to manage, but how you manage your booking depends on your flight booking.  My booking on SAA was done as a Lufthansa code-share, so I was not able to fully manage my booking.  I was able to update my contact information and frequent flyer number; however, I was not able to add a special meal or other such services.  I knew someone who had also booked a flight on SAA to fly from DC to New York to Johannesburg and then direct back to DC, and had booked it through a travel website but their flights were booked as SAA codeshares so she had more options to manage her booking.
While I was unable to preselect a seat on the outbound, my friend had the option to preselect a seat for a fee ($17 each way) or select a seat for free at check-in 24-hours prior to flight time.  For my seat selection, I could choose my seats 24-hours prior to my flight time or a seat would be provided to me at the airport.  No matter which way you booked, or how the flight was coded, it just seemed better to call the reservation line to confirm all the booking details.  I had downloaded the SAA app as well as through that app I was access all the features such as manage booking and flight status.

My flight was scheduled to take off from Frankfurt at 8:45pm and, after at 10h40m flight, was scheduled to land in Johannesburg at 7:25am.  I had received my boarding pass when I check in New Orleans, but I had a long layover in Frankfurt so I had left the airport.  When I returned, I went to the SAA check-in counter to reconfirm my boarding pass, reconfirm my seat, and ensure my luggage had been transferred.  The check-in desks open 3 hours prior to the flight, so after waiting in line for a bit I spoke to someone who confirmed all my details and I went to the boarding area.  For long-haul flights, SAA utilizes the Airbus A340-600.  Our plane had arrived that morning from Johannesburg (review of that flight later on) and was towed to the gate about an hour prior to departure.   Boarding commenced around 8pm, and since the load was light we were on-board fairly quickly.  There was no method to the boarding process, they just opened up the gates and people went through at their leisure. 

The plane itself looked fairly old, from the old PTV screens to the old seat layout.  The seats were in a 2-4-2 layout, and were already pre-reclined.  The seat pitch was also very nice and comfortable, so this plus the pre-recline provided a log of legroom for the seat.  The entire plane was divided into 4 sections, with the first section dedicated to the Business Class and the last three sections dedicated to economy class.  Given the light load, most passengers in the front section had at least 2 seats to themselves.  Each seat
came with its own PTV, which was very small, out of date, and was not very responsive.  The seats did not have any USB ports or other charging mechanisms.  While the seats and legroom were comfortable, the plane was definitely showing its age with the PTV, the AC control, and other airplane features.  While boarding was being completed, the attendant came around and handed out serviettes as well as amenity kits.  The amenity kits contained standard items – socks, eyeshades, and toothbrush – but it was a nice gesture.  Each seat contained a blanket and a pillow, and in the seat pockets were headphones, the airline magazine, plus the duty free magazine. 

About an hour after take-off, the service cart came down the aisle and drinks plus crackers were served.  After drinks, dinner was served.  I had ordered a special meal so those were delivered first, but the options for the main meal were chicken, beef, or vegetarian option.  It was nice that SAA provided so many options to cater to various dietary types.  The vegetarian meal that I had on-board was actually one of the best airline meals ever – it was extremely tasty.  Additional drinks were served along with dinner.  Tea and coffee were served after dinner, and water was given out when the trays were being cleared.  Afterwards, the lights were dimmed so that passengers could get some rest.

For those passengers who were awake, the PTV offered some movie and TV selections.   The choices were limited, the movies were about 1 year old, the screens were sometimes not responsive, and the screen was small; however, at least the option was available.  Water was available in the galleys, but no additional snacks were provided in the flight.  About an hour prior to landing, the lights came on and breakfast was served.  Again, with breakfast drinks were served as well as tea and coffee.  The food for both the dinner and breakfast were decent and substantial enough to fill you up.  We landed generally on time and taxied to the gate. 

My return flight, from Johannesburg to Frankfurt, as well as my friend’s flight from New York to Johannesburg followed the same general pattern.  The aircraft type, the older feel of the plane, the limited movie and TV selection, and the food options were all similar to my flight.  My friend’s return flight from Johannesburg to Washington, D.C., was operated by a newer A340-600.  The newer plane had the same PTVs with a similar limited selection, a tighter seat pitch, USB ports available, and the seats weren’t as comfortable as the older planes.  Overall, flying an older plane with SAA had its benefits and drawbacks.  The benefits were the bigger seat pitch which allowed more legroom, and that is important on a long-haul flight.  The negatives were the older PTVs, the older seats, the lack of USB ports, and the limited entertainment section.

I also had an opportunity to experience SAA domestically, from Johannesburg to Durban. I was originally scheduled to fly Mango Airlines, but I changed to an earlier flight operated by SAA to experience them domestically.  The flight was a short 40-minute flight and was operated by an Airbus A320 with a 3-3 seat layout. This newer plane had pre-reclined seats and had a nice seat pitch.  There were no PTVs or USB ports, but there were overhead screens which showed variety programs and newspapers were available at the check-in counter.  Even though it was a short-flight, drinks and a sandwich/snack were served; I have only seen this type of full service on a short flight on Middle East carriers before.  It was a pleasant short flight.

Based on my two international and one domestic flights, I would fly SAA again for short and medium-haul flights.  The seat comfort, pitch, and on-board service seemed perfect for a short to medium haul flight; however, based on this criteria I am not sure I would choose them for a long-haul flight.  While I enjoy the generous seat pitch, I would prefer USB ports and a better entertainment selection. 

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