Flight Review: South African Airways Business Class JFK-JNB

Jan 7, 2013

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This is the second post of my South Africa Series. Follow along to read my reviews on several different aspects of my trip. Other posts in this series include: Come Along With Me To South Africa!Hotel Review: Westin Cape TownTrip Report: Watching African Penguins at Boulders Beach and the Cape of Good HopeCape Town DiningHotel Review: Hilton Cape Town10 Things I Love About South AfricaHotel Review: 12 Apostles Hotel and Spa Luxury RoomTrekking Up Table Mountain In Cape TownHotel Review: Hyatt Regency JohannesburgTrip Report: South Africa Safari at Savanna Lodge in Sabi Sands Private Game ReserveSafari Highlights at Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa.

When deciding how to get to South Africa (just about three weeks ago!), my first thought was to use my Star Alliance miles from either United or US Airways to fly their partner airline, South African Airways, which flies non-stops to the US. Otherwise it would probably have meant transiting through Atlanta on Delta or through London (so two long flights instead of one) or somewhere else in Africa like Cairo aboard Egyptair, which would have added on a lot of extra time on an already lengthy trip.

My South African Airways A340-600 waiting at JFK.

Searching for Availability

I thought it might be difficult to track down award availability given the tight time frame and the fact that I have to be back in New York by the time of my presentations at the New York Times Travel Show later this month, but even when first searching just the flights between the US and Johannesburg on United.com’s award search, I found space on both the JFK-JNB and Washington Dulles (IAD)-JNB flights the first weekend in January.

My next step was to search for connections within South Africa since I wanted to start my trip with about a week in and around Cape Town, then transit up through Johannesburg for safari in Kruger National Park and then get back to the US from Johannesburg.

Turns out there was tons of award availability in both business and economy within South Africa aboard SAA, so I just kept checking back over the course of two days in mid-December to find the outbound availability I wanted, and when the JFK-JNB flight opened up a business class award seat, I booked it on the hunch that once that was taken another one would open up, and sure enough, the next morning there was another business class award seat aboard the same flight that I booked for TPG Managing Editor Eric (who says I’m a terrible boss?), and then routed us both back to New York via the JNB-IAD flight, which had plenty of availability that whole time while the JNB-JFK route looked to be completely booked (people coming home from their big holiday trips).

US Airways Restrictions

I decided to use US Airways miles since I have a stockpile of them thanks to Grand Slam diligence the past couple years (sadly not in 2012) and taking advantage of the Miles Multiplier and the lucrative transfer miles bonus in 2012. I also wanted to use these miles because business class to Africa is one of the sweet spots in their Star Alliance partner award chart– only 110,000 mile roundtrip.

You only need 110,000 US Airways miles for a business class award to Africa.
You only need 110,000 US Airways miles for a business class award to Africa.

A roundtrip business class ticket from the US to Europe is 100,000 miles, yet a roundtrip business class ticket from the US to the very southern trip of Africa is only 110,000 miles – just 10,000 more! United would have only required 120,000 miles, but I value them more so I wanted to use US Airways miles for this trip.

Just for another contrast, friends of mine actually just flew Delta from Atlanta to Johannesburg non-stop and they were only able to find low-level availability one way, so it ended up costing them 190,000 miles instead, which they viewed as a huge success. Granted they flew on a 777-200LR with Delta’s international BusinessElite seats, which I flew from LA to Tokyo back in 2011 and would have found more comfortable than SAA’s seats (see below), but it would have meant transiting through Atlanta and a whole lot of extra miles and unreliable availability, so I chose Star Alliance instead.

However, I had to keep in mind a few restrictions US Airways places on award tickets. First, I could only have one stopover or one open jaw, meaning that since I wanted to fly JFK-JNB and then on to Cape Town for about a week (final destination), return to Johannesburg and stopover for a few days for my safari, that I would have to fly back to New York rather than another destination. That’s also because US Airways only allows roundtrip award tickets, so I had to have the full amount of miles for both of us, which I did. Lastly, US Airways does not allow any changes to awards once travel has commenced, whereas I would have been able to continually enhance my ticket if I used United since I have Platinum status and they allow changes for free (so I could have switched to the JNB-JFK flight if it opened up close to departure).

The Value

After some long conversations going through the routing segment by segment with a US Airways awards rep – I had to call because you can’t book partner awards online with US Airways – who was less than helpful and seemed a bit put out that her entire morning was spent helping me assemble this itinerary, I finally got everything booked. The grand total: 110,000 miles plus $121.87 in taxes and then a $75 fee for booking within 21 days and an award processing fee of $50 since I don’t have US Airways elite status.

Sample South African Airways Itinerary Pricing.
My South African Airways itinerary would have cost almost $9,000.

If I had bought my ticket, it would have cost about $8,775, so minus the fees, my miles were worth 7.75 cents each. Because Eric was coming from LA and ostensibly heading back there after our trip, Eric’s ticket would have cost closer to $10,000, bringing the CPM closer to about 8.25 cents each.

Checking In

I was excited to try out South African Airways since I’d heard good things about it and the airline seemed to up its game around the World Cup a few years ago.

During check-in right at the door of Terminal 4 at JFK, I was given a lounge pass to the Swiss/Star Alliance Gold lounge in the terminal which is, unfortunately, outside security, so it’s hard to sit back and relax for long knowing you’ve got to get through security and to your gate when they announce boarding.

Lounge area at JFK.
Swiss/Star Alliance Gold Lounge area at JFK.

It was just a small, cute little space that looks like the lounges in Zurich with limestone walls, dark leather furniture, and a small café area with breakfast and finger foods, a self-serve bar and espresso-maker as well as a conference room, small office area and a relaxation room with lounge chairs.

The Flight

Boarding was a breeze – there was no one else in the business class and priority line by the time I got there, and I settled into my seat.

Business Class is in a 2-2-2 configuration.

South African is one of those airlines that has foregone first class on its long-haul fleet including the A340-600 that I was on in favor of a premium business class experience. The cabin was all white and blue with 42 seats arranged in a 2 x 2 x 2 configuration in seven rows. I was right in the middle of row 5 since I like direct aisle access on long-haul flights rather than having to climb over someone to get to the lav. The first thing I noticed was that the aisles were super tight and I couldn’t even roll my standard carryon-on roller- I had to turn it sideways and drag it down.

Overview of business class during boarding.
Overview of business class during boarding.

I was handed a glass of Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut and a South African newspaper by a pleasantly bossy flight attendant who saw to us for flight and checked out the seat.

Seat controls.

I was a bit disappointed that they only have a smidge over 6 feet in pitch, which meant that even though the seat reclines to a fully horizontal 180 degrees, I was still pretty cramped, being 6’7″. The width was decent, though not completely spacious at 20.5 inches.

Although it was nice the seat was completely horizontal, I didn't quite fit!
Although it was nice the seat was completely horizontal, I didn’t quite fit!

They provided a small mattress liner, but I found sleeping to be difficult- not just because my feet were crammed and I had to sleep on my side with my legs bent, but also because the pillow and blanket were thin. Delta leads in-flight comfort with a huge comfortable duvet and well-padded lie-flat bed. While I did end up “sleeping” for about 6 hours, it was mostly thanks to my good friend Xanax and the fact that I was still exhausted from a crazy week in Miami for New Years, hosting a group of friends from New York. I actually found the seat to be more comfortable in the recline position, so if you are tall and don’t fit, don’t think you have to keep it as a flat bed all night. Play around with the settings and see if there is another position that is more comfortable.

In flight entertainment.
In flight entertainment.

The entertainment system was a 12.1-inch personal screen that popped out from the center armrest and was controlled either by touchscreen or the remote, though they seemed to be experiencing problems with the entertainment system throughout the flight, so I’m glad I loaded up my beautiful 15″ Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display with Homeland, which I watched for several hours on the flight.

Lie-flat seat.

The amenity kit was small and sparse with just the usuals like an eye mask, toothbrush and toothpaste, footies, a brush-comb combo, ear plugs and some face and lip moisturizer.

Amenity Kit.
Amenity kit.

The seat also had a little cubby for shoes, a pouch where I could put my laptop, and a sort of rough cotton mattress pad that wasn’t quite big enough to cover the seat in reclined position and a light duvet as well as a medium-size pillow.

Meal Service

My sassy South African Airways flight attendant.

Call me crazy, but on a 15 ½ hour flight, I think you should probably get more than two small meals – more on that in a sec.

Three small canapés two with goat cheese and smoked beef and sundried tomato and a third with crab salad.

Lunch was served quite soon after takeoff. It began with three small canapés, two with goat cheese and smoked beef and sundried tomato and a third with crab salad. We got a choice of two appetizers so I chose the Long Island duckling with fig and quinoa salad and the small seasonal salad.

Long Island duckling with fig and quinoa and small seasonal salad.

For a main, I decided to try the black truffle risotto with snow peas, grilled tomato and truffle sauce, and thought it was pretty flavorful for an airline meal. Eric had the Thai green chicken curry, which ended up being…well, “soupy” is the best way I can describe it. Portions were also tiny. With lunch I decided to try a South African Sauvignon Blanc called Ntahera, which was fine but not remarkable – crisp and citrusy.

Black truffle risotto with snow peas, grilled tomato and truffle sauce.

For dessert I had a cheese plate and a glass of South African Boplaas Cape Tawny non-vintage Port.

Eric’s soupy Thai green chicken curry.

I woke up in the middle of the night and asked for a snack and was given what was basically a hot pocket. I visited the galley for snacks and all that was offered was bottles of water and Oreos. That tided me over but by the time breakfast was served about 90 minutes before landing, I was starving again and the small plate of scrambled eggs with Irish bacon, mushrooms, a grilled cherry tomato and rosti potatoes just didn’t cut it, though I did get a small bowl of yogurt as well.

Scrambled eggs with Irish bacon, mushrooms, a grilled cherry tomato and rosti potatoes.

All in all, though the flight experience was pleasant enough, I wasn’t blown away. On a flight that’s that long, of course you’re going to nitpick every little thing because you have time (and even more time!) to think about them all, so I must say that for flagship service aboard a carrier that bills itself as a premium airline (they kept saying they were voted the Best African Airline, but not by whom though I guess the competition isn’t as fierce as in Asia, for example) I thought the experience was a bit lacking. For instance, all the flight attendants disappeared during a very long portion of the flight – there was no one in either galley to ask for a glass of water or to reset the entertainment system (again). It felt like they were only around for the first two hours and the last two hours of the flight.

Although I was still jazzed after the flight and excited to be in South Africa, and I do still think this was a tremendous use of miles, I’m hoping the experience on my flight back is more enjoyable.

Pros: Non-stop flight from New York to Johannesburg, ability to book multiple flights within South Africa a stopover, great value for miles, fully lie-flat seat

Cons: US Airways award rules fairly rigid (ie roundtrip requirement), seat was cramped, service was spotty

However, I’m still thankful for being able to use miles and ~$225 to book an extremely expensive ticket. Though if I was paying out of pocket and deciding between South African and Delta based on comfort and in-flight experience, I’d definitely go with Delta.

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