Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Flying South African Airways Business Class From DC to Johannesburg

Any way you slice it, getting to South Africa from the US is a long hike. One of the best ways to make the trip (at least from the northeast) is to fly South African Airways, which has a direct flight out of JFK to Johannesburg (JNB) and a "direct" flight out of Washington Dulles (IAD) to Johannesburg (the latter has a refueling stop in Dakar, Senegal about half way through the trip).

I recently had the opportunity to try out South African Airways' international business class on the IAD to JNB route. Overall, it was a very enjoyable flight - good food, good wine, and a great value for using miles!

Our South African Airways A343 at the gate in Dulles

Food and Wine:
On a 17 hour trip, there's a lot of food to go around - especially in business class. Three multi-course meals make for a lot of dishes:

Dinner and breakfast menus
Lunch menu
Wine list: sparkling and whites
Wine list: reds and port

One of the great things about traveling as a couple (apart from the wonderful company, of course!) is getting to try that many more dishes :)

As a pre-departure beverage, we both thought that Champagne was only fitting:

Cheers!

We both began our meal with the canapés, which I found to be a nice start to the meal.

Dinner service canapés

For our appetizers, she had the soup of the day (potato and leek) - it was creamy and very tasty. I had the olive oil poached hamachi, which was a lighter start - but still a healthy-sized portion. To pair, we enjoyed a glass of the Chenin Blanc, which was very nice.

Olive oil poached hamachi

For our mains, I had had my eye on the cowboy rib eye steak - unfortunately, by the time they got to me it was no longer available. As a result, we had the cranberry stuffed chicken and the pecan crusted red snapper. The chicken was ok - I liked most of the flavors on their own, but the combination of a cranberry stuffing with morel cream sauce was a bit odd for me. The fish on the other hand, was quite good - very moist and tender, with a nice crust to compliment it.

Cranberry stuffed breast of chicken
Pecan crusted red snapper

My intention was to pair the Pinotage with a nice, juicy steak. When half of that plan fell through, I ended up waiting on the Pinotage until the cheese course. The wine was great - probably my favorite on their list. The cheese on the other hand, was fine, but pretty boring. I like cheddar and Edam, but in my opinion, they're a bit boring to be showcased on a cheese plate (especially to have them comprise 2 of the 3 cheeses).

Dinner service cheese plate

To finish, I had the key lime cheesecake with a glass of Port. The cheesecake was good - but not particularly remarkable. I also thought the presentation was somewhat lacking when compared to most of the previous courses. I'd never had a South African Port before, but it was quite enjoyable!

Key lime cheesecake

After dinner, I decided to try to get some sleep before our refueling stop in Dakar. That stop comes ~7-8 hours into the trip, so I was just hoping to get a few hours' worth of sleep before landing. One great thing about SAA is that they have flatbed seats in business class on their long haul flights.

The Seat:
Overall, I found the seat to be quite comfortable, and I was able to get a fair amount of sleep between the two legs of the trip. The mattress pad and heavy duvet that they provided certainly helped with that! We were actually on one of the SAA 343s that is a former Iberia plane - which meant that the seats were slightly different from SAA's other planes. Reports were of slightly less recline, and while I did find that to be the case, it really wasn't that much of a difference.

Our seats, 4A and 4C

I did find the style of the seat to be sub-optimal for especially tall passengers (I'm 6'6").With no cut-out or ottoman to rest my feet on, I found that I had to choose between letting my feet dangle off the edge of the seat, or curling up a little tighter than I normally would prefer in order to fit within the boundaries of the footrest attached to my seat (even when fully extended). I also found the seat movements to be somewhat jerky when shifting the orientation, though that was only a minor annoyance. As I mentioned above, I was still able to get a fair amount of sleep, so I was certainly happy with the seat. It did fall a little short of my (admittedly high) expectations.

After a short break in Dakar, it up again for the second leg of the journey.

Leaving Dakar, Senegal

Food and Wine (Round 2):
The second leg of the trip was less impressive, as the meals were breakfast and lunch (vs. dinner), and many of the dishes seemed to actually be leftovers from the dinner menu from the first flight. The wines I chose to accompany my lunch (Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon) were good - but not as good as the Chenin Blanc or Pinotage.

Even breakfast was multiple courses: fresh fruit with yogurt and cereal, followed by a choice of an omelette or pancakes (I chose the omelette). Both were good - though I would've preferred them in the opposite order. I generally like my omelettes with meat and/or cheese of some sort, but the veggie-only one that was served was tasty.

Fresh fruit, with yogurt and muesli
Asparagus and tomato omelette

Lunch was the real disappointment. Once again we started with canapés, which were tasty enough:

Lunch service canapés

The appetizers were supposed to be a choice of smoked duck and a seafood duo, but instead we were given a choice of chicken or fish (it was salmon). Neither was on the dinner menu, so I guess maybe they had to change the menu entirely? The salmon was actually pretty good, but the chicken was pretty sad:

Salmon appetizer
Chicken appetizer

For the main course, I was again looking forward to the steak - and hoped they would rotate the order-taking, so that it might actually still be available by the time they got to me. Unfortunately, the options presented to me were "fish" or "vegetarian option". I opted for the fish, which certainly wasn't the one described on the menu (for either lunch or the prior flight's dinner service):

Fish lunch option

The pasta and vegetables were fine, but the fish itself was really, really dry and pretty flavorless. Easily one of the worst dishes I've ever had while sitting in business class. The "vegetarian option" was listed as a farfalle pasta, but instead ended up being the same onion tart from dinner service.

Fortunately, the cheese was better than what was included in the dinner service - though still not as good as most I've had on United, where the cheese is freshly-sliced and served from a cart.

Lunch service cheese plate

Desert was fine - I'm not much of a tiramisu fan, and that's what they served instead of the pineapple and coconut cake that was listed on the menu (another leftover from the dinner service).

Tiramisu

Overall, I thought the food and the wine were good to very good. There were some very tasty dishes, and some very good wines, but there were also a few clear misses as well. I think if I'd actually been able to order what I wanted, and if all the dishes were actually what was listed on the menu, then it might have actually been pretty great.

Service:
I found the service to be reliably friendly on both legs of the flight (the crew changes at Dakar). The entire crew seemed courteous, patient, and helpful - and almost always had a smile on, or a humorous comment to make. I give them high marks, but I would've appreciated some sort of explanation of the menu changes on the second flight.

Entertainment:
I ended up sleeping / eating for the vast majority of both flights, but did manage to watch The Campaign and Ted during the trip. The entertainment system was ok - the movie selection was reasonably good (but not great), and there was a bit of a lag when using the touch interface, but it certainly got the job done.

Entertainment system interface

Miles:
South African Airways is a Star Alliance member, and so can be booked using United or US Airways miles. On United, business class from the US/Canada to South Africa is 60,000 miles each way (40,000 in economy). This is what I booked. On US Airways, business class is 110,000 miles round trip; economy is 70,000 (there is no one-way option).

I hope you've found this review helpful - I look forward to flying South African Airways again in the future, and would be very curious to hear what kind of experiences you've had as well!


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