After traveling around the world to Cape Town, South Africa, without a return ticket, it was about time to find our way home. Despite our hopes that the Cathay Pacific Business/First sweet spot would open up, the peak post-holiday rush kept everything booked solid.
In the end, we opted to fly the shortest route back to the United States with South African Airways on their aging A340-600 aircraft (which no longer operates), in what I can only title “bankrupt business class.”
As the airline rapidly removes aircraft from their fleet and slashes routes, it’s easy to see cost-cutting across the board, even at the front of the plane.
Booking the Flight:
South African Airways award space from Johannesburg to New York is incredibly random. It will appear and disappear for weeks on end seemingly without cause. Interestingly, most of their flights, at least around our dates, went out nearly full in business class.
Award flights can be booked with a variety of miles, including Star Alliance partners United and Aeroplan, which both charge a whopping 80K for the one-way flight. Of course, these programs allow you to tack on an additional flight from sub-saharan Africa at no charge, which would have helped us leave Cape Town.
In our case, we utilized a well-timed Membership Rewards 30% transfer bonus to Virgin Atlantic. Virgin Atlantic charges 75,000 miles for the one-way flight, meaning we each transferred 58,000 Membership Rewards points. In addition, we paid taxes and surcharges of $273.04, most of which would have been avoidable had we booked with United MileagePlus miles.
We then booked a $56 South African Airways A350 flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg.
Pro Tip: Flights within South Africa usually drop in price close to departure; don’t book too early!
At the Airport:
After missing our connection in Johannesburg the night before due to an outrageous seven hour mechanical delay from Cape Town, we were seriously ready to get home.
We breezed through the dedicated Business Class check-in. No fast-track passes were given for immigration or security. Nonetheless, we were through in around 20 minutes, leaving us with approximately two hours to enjoy the lounge.
Business Class ticket holders (and Star Alliance Gold members) have access to the Business Class Lounge. South African Airways also offers the Voyager Platinum Lounge, where the highest tier members of SAA’s frequent flier program have a much more exclusive lounge experience.
The Business Class Lounge was spacious, with a variety of different rooms and food areas to choose from. There was a kid’s play area, a smoking area, a quiet room, and a large community meeting table, along with standard lounge-style seats. In the center of the lounge was a large, manned bar with numerous complimentary drinks, including South African wines. You could also store your luggage with an attendant at the entrance.
The lounge was incredibly full during our stay, as South African operates several long-haul redeye flights from Johannesburg to New York, London, Frankfurt and the now-discontinued Munich flight.
After indulging in the wine and food, we moved towards the gate. At the gate entrance, our passports were scanned (by an unofficial looking iPad no less) and we were all directed to open our luggage for inspection. Every country seems to handle US departures differently, but always with significantly more scrutiny than any other flights.
We waited for 5-10 minutes before boarding began. Naturally, at the first indication of boarding, all passengers rushed the gate, making our Business Class status meaningless. We were, fortunately, able to enjoy entry into the L1 door with a greeting by the chief purser, which made for a quieter boarding process.
On the Plane:
South African Airways SA203
7 January 2020
STD: 9:40PM / STA: 6:05AM
ATD 9:40PM / ATA 6:05AM
South African Airways A340-600s contained their old business class product with seven rows of 2-2-2 seating. Though not every seat has aisle access, I’m actually a fan of the more open concept with seemingly unlimited pitch. It didn’t hurt that I was traveling with a companion either. We took row seven, seats D and G in the rear center of the cabin.
Waiting at each seat was a small, South African Airways-branded amenity kit with all the essentials, including Aigner amenities, a pillow, and some so-so noise-cancelling headphones. Unfortunately, the only storage is a very small latched door, which can barely house shoes and a small purse. The amenity kits were waiting in a pair of portholes. All other items need to go in the overhead bins.
The seats themselves were incredibly comfortable with dated but functional controls. I particularly enjoyed the ability to move each part of the seat independently.
The IFE screen was a different story. The screen flips up from the seat, meaning it cannot be used during takeoff and landing. Moreover, the quality is dismal and the selection is weak for a long-haul international airline. Licensing many movies costs a lot, so it was no surprise given the airline’s financial situation.
It took around twenty minutes for pre-departure beverages to make their way through the cabin, with sparkling wine, orange, and apple juice on offer.
We departed the gate on time during the evening rush of departures. After a lengthy takeoff roll, we were in the sky for the 16-hour flight to New York.
After takeoff, the flight attendants went through the cabin with carts to collect drink orders. My companion requested a wine list, and was told that no menus—for neither food nor beverage—were available. Another sure sign of financial trouble.
I started with a Cabernet Sauvignon, which was served alongside a trio of canapés. Surprisingly, they were really delicious, with great texture, flavor, and variety.
Unfortunately, the service inconsistency started here. On my side of the cabin, the FA was outgoing, constantly smiling, and extremely attentive. Before the appetizer was served, my wine had already been refilled twice. On the other side, my companion had to explicitly request refills, which were delivered slowly.
Afterwards, the flight attendants came back through the cabin to take our meal orders. It was made clear that we would get to choose one soup, salad, OR appetizer, plus one main and one dessert. Seconds were not offered nor entertained (I tried). I was told it was because each galley had been minimally catered.
I started with the chilled roast beef and pesto appetizer. Despite being thick, difficult-to-cut pieces, the flavor was actually quite good. My companion ordered a salad which had a delicious dressing.
For the main, I ordered the steak, which, while overcooked (as I’ve come to expect), was incredibly flavorful. Every element on the plate was delicious, which is more than I can say for many business class entrées I’ve eaten. My companion’s roasted chicken breast dish was also very pleasing.
Bread was provided throughout the meal. Interestingly, they offered garlic knots which tasted incredible.
I finished with Caramel Macchiato-flavored ice cream, which was served in its plastic container, and a glass of port.
During my time in Cape Town, I got hooked on Amarula, a South African digestive. I requested some on ice as a night cap, and the FA brought me not one, but two bottles, plus chocolate truffles (my companion never received any from his FA). She made quite a big show of getting every last drop out of the bottle, which was appreciated!
In total, South African’s catering is still impressive, though the limited choices take away some of the magic. Their food is in the upper half of business class food I’ve tried, and I would gladly go back for more.
I went to the lavatory to put on my Etihad Airways pajamas, one of my treasured souvenirs from my incredible First Class Apartment flight just the week before.
Turndown service is not provided on SAA. However, they make a mattress pad, thick blanket, and comfy pillow available to each passenger immediately after takeoff. Assembling the bed is quite easy, so I didn’t mind the lack of help.
Sleep is where I think the 2-2-2, open-concept seat shines. I sleep sprawled out, which means a tiny footwell does not do the trick for me. Despite the open concept, the head of the “bed” is within the seat’s shell, meaning you can’t see anyone around you, making it feel private. Overall, I slept beautifully on this flight, getting nine hours of nearly uninterrupted rest.
I woke up hungry, and went to the galley to find that only small bags of chips and cookies were available. I’m fairly certain I didn’t miss a mid-flight service, though I have no menu to confirm that. On a 16-hour flight in business class, there is no excuse for such small mid-flight snacks.
Luckily, breakfast was just around the corner. Breakfast was served in a single tray alongside bread. I ordered the pancakes with berry compote, which was a risky choice. I was also asked if I wanted yogurt and cereal to go along with it. Meanwhile, my companion ordered the scrambled eggs but was not offered cereal or yogurt by his FA.
Overall, the breakfast was average. It was not particularly special, nor was it bad. We landed not long after, marking the end of my longest ever flight (just narrowly beating Los Angeles to Hong Kong).
Would I fly South African Airways A340-600 in business again? Well, I don’t have to make that decision, because as of earlier this month, they’ve abruptly retired the A340-600 from the fleet.
Their New York flight is now offered by the A350-900, which can have either a 2-2-2 or 1-2-1 business class format. South African Airways routinely switches aircraft types at the last-minute, especially with their financial unpredictability, so be very cautious.
That said, if you can handle the obvious cost-cutting measures, like having limited choices and no printed menu, you’re still in store for excellent catering and pretty good service.
Plus, if you’re looking to use points and miles, this is truly your only reasonable, nonstop option to South Africa, as both United and Delta are quite stingy with saver award availability on their respective Newark-Cape Town and Atlanta-Johannesburg services.
If trying every business class product, or a convenient flight to sub-Saharan Africa are your goals, South African Airways “bankrupt business” remains an excellent choice.
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SA still operates JNB JFK route and still sells future tickets for the same route
Thanks for reading! Yes, South African still operates this route, but they’ve switched to exclusively A350-900 aircraft.