Flight Review: South African Airways (A340-600) Business Class from New York to Cape Town (via Johannesburg)
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TO THE POINT: South African Airlines’ business-class product on the A340-600 certainly isn’t the most luxurious, but it gets the job done — the convenience of flying nonstop from New York to South Africa is unparalleled, and you can’t beat the value when it comes to redeeming miles. The pros: very friendly and speedy service and great award rates with Aeroplan. The cons: very little privacy and a 2-2-2 seat configuration.
A few years ago, I flew on South African Airways from New York (JFK) to Johannesburg (JNB). While it was a pretty decent flight overall, it was nothing I was dying to try again, although it was definitely a convenient and efficient option when I needed to travel from the East Coast to South Africa. I remember the food and service being just okay, but the seat itself offered a great redemption value.
When I knew I would be going to Cape Town for a PeaceJam conference earlier this month, I started looking into the best ways to get there. South African Airways is a member of Star Alliance, so I knew it was a viable option, and that I could take advantage of transferring miles from Amex Membership Rewards to Air Canada’s Aeroplan program since it’s a partner airline. Not to mention, the overall convenience of having a nonstop route straight from New York (JFK) to Johannesburg (JNB), which would then require a short hop over to Cape Town (CPT), made this flight option a no-brainer.
I booked this one-way flight in business class for myself, along with two members of the TPG team, each for just 75,000 Aeroplan miles per ticket — transferred from Amex Membership Rewards — plus, 94 CAD (~$72) in taxes and fees.
If we had paid cash for all three tickets, it would have cost roughly $3,878 per person — or about $11,634 for all three tickets! If you were to book this ticket another way — by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United, for instance — it would cost you 80,000 MileagePlus miles per ticket, still not a bad option as a 1:1 transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards.
I paid for the cash portion with my Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card and earned 3x points on travel since it the flights were booked directly through the airline — if I had booked this flight a few weeks later, I could have used my Amex Platinum card and earned 5x points on airfare for booking directly through the carrier. I made sure to bring my Amex Premier Rewards Gold Card with me to the airport because airlines sometimes require you have the card on file with you when you’re flying to Africa.
If there’s one thing to always remember when flying out of New York’s airports, it’s that traffic is totally unpredictable. So while we originally had plans to test out a couple of lounges in JFK’s Terminal 4, I was held up in traffic and didn’t get to JFK until about 9:45am for my 11:15am flight.
The check-in process itself was entirely seamless. In Terminal 4, you’ll find the main counters, but several carriers have additional premium check-in counters off to the side — closest to the main doors — so they’re easy to miss if you’re not looking. Knowing that, I proceeded through the front door and immediately saw the premium passenger check-in area. The agent was nice and very helpful. After checking my bag and getting my boarding pass, I made my way to security.
Although TSA PreCheck isn’t available when flying on South African Airways, you’ll still get access to the premium security lane if you’re a business-class passenger. Security didn’t take too long and before I knew it, I was on my way to the lounge.
The last time I flew on this route to South Africa in 2013, it was a completely different Terminal 4 — anyone who has flown through here will know how different the entire space is now compared to how it used to be. Perhaps one of the biggest changes for me on this trip was that the Swiss Star Alliance Gold/Business Lounge is now located after security.
In the old version of T4, you’d have to go to the lounge and then plan for there to be enough time to get through security and eventually to the gate. But the new(er) lounge is located just past security on the upper level of T4, looking down on those who are walking below.
The lounge is accessible for Star Alliance business and first-class passengers and Star Alliance Gold members. After showing the lounge attendant my boarding pass, I was allowed to enter. The lounge itself is rather long and narrow.
There was a larger food area that featured breakfast items, including a create-your-own waffle station with a variety of fresh fruit and other tasty toppings.
There were also the basic continental breakfast items you’d see in a lounge — breads, bagels and croissants, among other pastries.
There was also a self-serve bar area, as well as an espresso machine and more fresh fruit.
While the lounge is definitely a step above other cookie cutter types that domestic travelers have come to expect with carriers at home, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Specifically, there just aren’t the same level of amenities that I’ve seen in many other premium lounges while traveling internationally — such as at Swiss’ new lounges in Zurich.
One of my favorite things about the lounge is the quiet room, located between the two main areas of the lounge. Inside, there are comfortable recliner-esque chairs, and it was completely empty when I was there. Before a long flight where I’d be surrounded by lots of other people, it was nice to take a break and get some privacy.
I also really like how bright the lounge is — there are floor-to-ceiling windows lining the sides of it that look out onto the tarmac so you’ll get some great opportunities for plane watching, perfect for your inner AvGeek.
There was a little wear and tear though, especially on the carpeting, but it’s not all that unusual given the amount of people who come through the lounge on a daily basis.
Conveniently enough, the A340-600 that was going to be flying us from New York to Johannesburg was within sight and just a short walk from the lounge, so I left as the attendant announced the boarding process was about to begin. After a short four- or five-minute walk from the lounge to the gate (while doing a Facebook Live, which can be seen below), I had arrived.
One thing I noticed right at boarding that continued throughout the flight was the exceptional level of service. Not only was everyone friendly, but the gate agents and flight attendants were also extremely speedy and efficient.
We started boarding at 10:30am, just before our scheduled departure time. Not only does this help to ensure the plane leaves the gate so we can take off on time, it also gives me more time to get comfortable and situated in my seat.
Cabin and Seat
The business-class cabin on South African Airways’ A340-600 is comprised of 42 seats in a 2-2-2 configuration.
Each of the flat-bed seats offers 73 inches of pitch and is 23.7 inches wide.
Although a 2-2-2 configuration isn’t my favorite layout because the person sitting next to the window has to climb over their seatmate, this cabin wasn’t all that bad. Of course, if given the choice, I’d recommend choosing one of the seats in the middle — especially if you’re traveling with someone.
Whereas business class on some other carriers — specifically United and Delta — is pretty closed off, this cabin is rather open. While this might mean you don’t have as much privacy, I enjoy being able to talk to someone without feeling like I’m boxed out or have to contort myself in order to have a chat. That being said, there was also a divider between the two seats for when you do want some alone time.
Each seat’s controls were located on the armrest. There were quite a few options, but all the buttons were easily accessible and easy to use. There was also a nice massage function, which wasn’t too powerful or erratic.
The amenity kit for each passenger was located in one of two cubbies on the back of the seat in front of you.
There was a shoe cubby at the bottom of the seatback, which was simple and not obtrusive.
As I mentioned earlier, the seats are more pod-like from the back, but are pretty open when you’re sitting down. As a result, the seats look rather sleek.
When it was time to sleep, this seat definitely got the job done and I napped for 7.5 hours relatively well. The cabin temperature was quite comfortable for the duration of the flight, and I only had to adjust myself a little bit because at 6’7″ I didn’t totally fit — I’m okay with sleeping on my side with my knees bent, but it’s not the most ideal situation.
Overall, the cabin itself was a little outdated, but perfectly comfortable and capable of getting the job done for a long-haul flight.
Food and Beverage
I was very impressed with the food and beverage service on this flight, but not for the reason you might be thinking. As I mentioned earlier, when I was boarding, the South African Airways crew were so friendly and efficient with everything. And that continued through the meal service. After ordering, we were finished with all the courses within about 20-25 minutes. Each time I was done with a plate, my setting would be cleared and the next course was placed in front of me.
First, to start my lunch service, I was offered a selection of drinks. Of the white wine choices, the Chardonnay from the Western Cape of South Africa was nice and refreshing. Each passenger was also given a selection of canapés — all were rather tasty.
I opted to splurge and get two of the appetizers. First, I had the soup of the day, which was creamy mushroom. It tasted pretty good but also wasn’t the best tasting soup I’ve ever had.
I then chose a seasonal salad, which was also pretty basic but tasted fresh.
For my main course, I opted for the soy-glazed short rib, which was served with potato purée, roasted carrots and edamame sauce. The short rib was a little bit on the dry side, but still tasted pretty good.
TPG’s VP of Marketing, Cliff Fleiser, opted for the roasted chicken breast, which was served with potatoes, grilled asparagus and creamy wild mushroom sauce. He said the chicken was just okay — not the best.
TPG’s Associate Editor, Emily McNutt, tried the grilled salmon fillet, which was served with wild rice, asparagus and shiitake vinaigrette. We came to a consensus that the salmon looked the best, and she said it tasted pretty great as well — not too overcooked or dry.
To finish off meal service, I chose to get the Banoffee pie, which was pretty tasty. The crust was flaky, and the filling not too sweet. It was a great way to end the meal. The flight attendants also came around with a selection of chocolate truffles. I didn’t try any at the time, but they looked pretty good, and it’s always nice to have them as an option.
About two hours before landing in Johannesburg, flight attendants came around to wake passengers up and take orders for breakfast. Cliff and I chose to get the vegetable and cheese frittata, which was served with chicken sausage, mushrooms and skillet potatoes. I also got some muesli and fresh yogurt. All the breakfast items were pretty good — it wasn’t the best frittata I’ve ever had, but was still tasty.
Emily opted for the fresh fruit plate, strawberry yogurt and a croissant, and said that both the croissant and the fruit weren’t all that fresh, and the croissant was a bit hard. Overall, however, she said everything tasted pretty good, especially the coffee.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
The in-flight entertainment system wasn’t located on the seatback in front of you — instead, you had to pull it out of a small compartment between the two seats, which was a bit frustrating.
The IFE system itself was a bit dated — it was bulky, didn’t respond well to the actions of the remote and its touchscreen was rather slow. There were a variety of options, like TV shows and movies, which consisted of a mix of American and African classics as well as current programs.
We were each given a set of noise-cancelling headphones, which were decent enough, but definitely not of the same quality you’d find in a set of Bose or other industry-leading brands.
The amenity kit was pretty nice though and included all the basics. The kit itself was sturdy and aesthetically pleasing. Inside were a dental kit, lotion, chapstick, socks, and an eyeshade, among other items.
As I’ve already mentioned, the service was what really set this flight apart from the others. Everything was done with a sense of urgency, which is great for the passenger. Not only was the service quick, but each flight attendant was friendly throughout, a nice breath of fresh air compared to what I’m used to experiencing on US carriers. Anytime the service is good on a flight, the trip is drastically improved, even if other aspects — like a dated cabin — aren’t up to par.
Flight #2 — Johannesburg (JNB) to Cape Town (CPT)
Upon landing at JNB, we had to continue on a short two-hour-and-10-minute flight to Cape Town (CPT). But first, in order to get to the domestic terminal, we had to go through immigration, which was an absolute disaster since there were only three immigration officers working, and two or three long-haul flights had just landed. Unfortunately, there was no expedited lane for business-class passengers, so we were stuck waiting in the long line with everyone else, which ended up taking about an hour and 15 minutes. If South African Airways can improve the product in any way, it would be to create designated lanes for business and first-class passengers at immigration.
Thankfully, we had some time to spare before our connecting flight was set to leave. Once through immigration, we had to gather our bags and head to the counter to re-check them and go through security once again. It wasn’t a long process, and we were at our gate in no time. From there, we took a bus to the plane, climbed the stairs and boarded the cabin of the A340-300.
In brief, the flight itself was pretty standard for a domestic route. It was nice to have all the space of an A340 on this nearly two-hour flight. The cabin itself essentially looked the same with the pod-like features of the seats.
In this 38-seat business-class cabin, each seat had 73 inches of pitch and was 23.7 inches wide. It was a pretty spacious cabin, especially for such a short flight. There was a small meal service, but I chose to sleep rather than take advantage of it — plus, I was still full from the first flight. In all, this short trip was a seamless experience that I’d look forward to flying again.
South African Airways’ business class aboard the A340-600 certainly isn’t the most private or cutting edge product on the market, but it’s definitely worth a try. The lie-flat seats are nice for the 14.5-hour flight, and the speedy and friendly crew made for an enjoyable experience — even though the cabin and the food weren’t quite up to par. For just 75,000 miles and about $72 per person, I saved an incredible amount of money — upwards of $13,000 — considering I flew myself and two members of the TPG team to South Africa. You really can’t beat that kind of value!
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