Sunday, January 27, 2013

South African Airways Business Class Take Two: Johannesburg to JFK

South African Airways (SAA) serves North America on 2 routes: Johannesburg to Washington Dulles (via Dakar, Senegal) and Johannesburg to New York JFK, non-stop.

My first trip was on the Dulles route, and I was excited to compare and contrast it to the JFK service - especially since the JFK route is truly a direct flight, and doesn't need to stop to wake everyone up refuel halfway through the trip.

Ground Experience in Johannesburg:

SAA has a large Baobab business class lounge in Johannesburg. While it was very busy, we didn't have any trouble finding a seat with a nice view of the runway. There was hot food available, but I wasn't especially hungry after having eaten on the flight over from Cape Town, and with a multiple multi-course meals ahead of me on the long trip to JFK. That said, I did try the peanut soup and thought it was very tasty.

South African Airways Baobab Business Class Lounge Johannesburg
Lounge entrance
View of the runway from the business class lounge at Johannesburg JNB airport in South Africa
View of SAA, Delta, and Qantas tails from the lounge

Access to the Baobab lounge is available to passengers traveling in business class, as well as those with Star Alliance Gold status. For more information, you can visit the SAA website.

They also have a Cycad first class lounge, which I thought was odd considering that SAA doesn't have a first class cabin on any of their planes. Access to this lounge is reserved for passengers traveling in first class on partners Lufthansa or Thai, as well as top-level elites on SAA and Lufthansa. Full details are available on the SAA website.

The Seat:

SAA's JFK route is served with an Airbus A346, a slightly larger plane than the A343 that serves Dulles. More notably, all of the 346s are original SAA aircraft, whereas there are 2 ex-Iberia planes that are rotated into the various 343 routes (including Dulles). We happened to have one of these ex-Iberia planes on the flight over - and while the difference in the 346's seat wasn't dramatic, it was certainly noticeable.

South African Airways 346 business class seat
My seat, 4G

I liked the seat better than the ex-Iberia seats, as it offered a true 180 degree recline, and the transitions were much smoother (the ex-Iberia seats are just the slightest bit shy of 180 degrees, but it is noticeable). That said, I still found it to be pretty hard - I got a lot of sleep, but did wake up a number of times during the flight, in spite of the thin mattress pad that was provided. I actually found the most comfortable position to be just slightly shy of a full 180 degree recline for sleeping purposes.

Food and Wine:

There are only 2 meals served on this route, which isn't very much for a fight of over 16 hours. However, I certainly wasn't hungry at the end of the trip, and I thought the quality of the food was slightly better and more reliable than I had had on the Dulles trip.

South African Airways business class menu #1
Wine list: sparkling and whites
South African Airways business class menu #2
Wine list: reds and port
South African Airways business class menu #3
Dinner menu
South African Airways business class menu #4
Breakfast menu

Dinner service began with canapés, and they were nice, flavorful little bites (as any good canapé should be)

South African Airways canapes

I decided to start with the soup of the day, which sounded more appetizing than the cold chicken salad. It was very nice - creamy and rich, but not overly so. And the garlic flavor wasn't overpowering.

South African Airways soup appetizer
Soup of the day: roasted garlic and potato

For our entrees, we enjoyed the beef filet and the grilled chicken. Both were very enjoyable - certainly not at the level of fine dining in a restaurant, but a very good, very satisfying meal. Unfortunately, there was no Pinotage on this flight, so we had the Cabernet Sauvignon, which was still very good.

South African Airways beef fillet entree
Pan Fried Beef Fillet
South African Airways grilled chicken entree
Grilled Chicken Supreme

For desert, I didn't think the sweet options sounded all that inspiring, so I opted for the cheese plate. Here is how it was plated when I received it:

South African Airways cheese plate #1
Cheese plate: SAA presentation

Uninspiring to say the least, and not particularly appetizing to be honest. I thought I'd do a little re-plating, just to illustrate how a little effort can go a long way:

South African Airways cheese plate #2
Cheese plate: Food, Wine, and Miles presentation

Better, no? I'm not trying to be an a$$ - I realize that in some ways it's a little absurd to complain about how your cheese plate was presented to you while flying in business class from the other side of the world. However, I also thought it was a good illustration of how SAA fell a little short of my (admittedly high) expectations.

After getting a healthy amount of sleep, we woke up just as breakfast orders were being taken. Breakfast began with a plate of sliced fruit and yogurt, which were both good (especially together).

South African Airways breakfast fruit plate
Fruit plate

For the main course, we tried both options - the smoked cheese and tomato frittata, as well as the cinnamon crumpets. They were both quite good - easily two of the best breakfast options I've ever had on a plane (and for me, the crumpets were a nice dessert to my frittata!)

South African Airways business class breakfast #1
Smoked cheese and tomato frittata
South African Airways business class breakfast #1
Cinnamon crumpets

Overall, I thought the food and wine were quite good. As good as the best parts of the trip on the Dulles to Johannesburg trip, but with none of the low lows.


The entertainment system had dozens of movies and TV shows to choose from, and I was able to find a few movies that made the parts of the trip where I was awake go by very quickly. The interface was fine - but I actually found the system on the ex-Iberia 343 to be a bit more modern and user-friendly.

South African Airways Airbus 346 entertainment system
Entertainment system user interface


As was the case on my first flight, I found the service to be very friendly, professional, and courteous. I should note that as with the flight down, service on this flight started from the front and back of the cabin at the same time. Being in the exact middle of the cabin, I was literally the last person served and the last person to put my order in for meals. This didn't end up being a big deal, but I would recommend picking a seat closer to the front (or back) of the cabin if you want to make sure to get your meal preference.


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).


Right before we boarded, my wife noticed that Allison Williams (daughter of Brian Williams and one of the stars of HBO's Girls) was on our flight. The show must be doing well, because she and her boyfriend (I'm assuming that's who he was) were sitting just a few rows in front of us - and I'm pretty sure they didn't use miles to book the trip :)

HBO Girls poster
It's not TV, it's HBO

Overall, I enjoyed this second experience on SAA's business class more than the first. The seat was better, the food was better, and not having to make a stop halfway through the flight allowed me to get a lot more sleep. Even though it didn't blow my mind, I will probably still look to fly South African Airways if / when I return to South Africa. It's hard to beat a direct flight from New York.

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