Never during this time SAA made sustainable profits, it was always punched around by politics and plagued by mismanagement, corruption and inefficiencies. This is also what you read in South African newspapers all the time. But still, it is flying uninterruptedly, and there are no massive customer complaints to be heard, at least not on an international stage.
Its network, however, has been massively shrunk, in Europe, only Frankfurt, Munich and London are still served at all. I can remember a time, about 20 years ago, when SAA flew Johannesburg-Munich-Hamburg with a Boeing 747-200.
This time, like most of the times, I wanted to go from Cape Town to Germany. Unfortunately, SAA has axed the last remaining long-haul non-stop route out of Cape Town, to London, since long ago, so every customer, for better or worse, is forced to fly via Johannesburg. So at least I could use this fact to make some day appointments in the metropolis.
The first setback came already at Cape Town airport in the morning, unexpectedly: No, they could not check my bag through to Europe already, as it was "too early". On the outward journey, from Hamburg via Munich to South Africa, that was absolutely no problem, spending a full day in Munich, hands free.
But OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg is overcrowded, and also plagued by notorious problems of pilfering with checked luggage. That's why bags are only accepted four hours prior to departure, it was then explained to me in Johannesburg. So I had to make efforts to dispose of my bag otherwise and then check it in the afternoon only.
In the evening, when all European flights leave, it's the absolute peak hour at the airport. I was there several hours before my scheduled departure at 19.55, being so early spared me long lines at security, as there is no priority or Fast Lane here.
SAA's Baobab Lounge in the international departure area is mainly big, which is beneficial when it gets crowded, because almost always you can find a seat. At the entrance there is a guarded bag storage, a good idea. Unfortunately, the whole lounge is brightly neon-lit and therefore not very cozy.
Drinks are handed out by a bar keeper, friendly end efficient, the food offerings are plentiful, with hot and cold dishes. Very mediocre is the offering of international newspapers, besides local gazettes there is just Corriere della Sera from Italy to be found, although SAA doesn't even fly there, as well as Sport Bild in German, not enough for a global airline.
Within half an hour, SAA offers even two departures to London, because it doesn't operate any bigger aircraft anymore than the A340-600. My flight is the earlier one of the two, and it's operated by the most modern aircraft SAA currently owns, an A330-200.
Only a few steps from the lounge ZS-SXV is awaiting, younger than five years, while the A340-600 on my inbound flight accumulated already more than 13 years. The cabin consists only of two classes, with 36 Business Class seats in the front, divided into two compartments, in a conventional 2-2-2 layout, three rows each.
A night on 6K
I am seated on 6K, in the last row of Business Class, on the left hand window. SAA hasn't changed its product much since introduction of the A340-600 early this century, also a result of lack of funds and unclear planning.
The seats in the A330 are a bit more modern than in the A340, distinguished by their leather upholstery in elegant beige, in contrast to the blue in the four-engine jet, appearing much heavier. Officially, SAA however concedes the A330 has one inch less seat pitch than the A340, with 73 inches (185cm) in the twin jet.
The aircraft appears to be fully booked, when things get under way on time. Before take-off the usual round of beverages (sparkling wine, water, juice) and local papers. After take-off, menu cards are distributed, while amenity bags are already put out at each seat.
These are assumingly the ugliest I have seen in a long time, made of artificial leather of low quality, bad haptics and in an off-putting brown color, done in a strange format. It contains all that is needed, but the bag itself is a design crime.
The menu card is just the opposite, very elegantly presented, SAA, like Lufthansa, is boasting its cooperation with star chefs, this time Reuben Riffel from Franschhoek has created some dishes. To start with, beverages are served.
Strangely, SAA advertises on its website to offer French Taittinger champagne on board, while my longstanding SAA experience tells me that the airline exclusively serves home grown bubbly called "Cap Classique". These can be superb, while I still would prefer a Taittinger - but at least advertising and reality should add up.
Main course? Outstanding! Sorbet? A real highlight!
While I picked a good R&B album from the modern IFE system, offering over a hundred movies and 170 music albums, dinner begins. As starter I have ordered Sliced Smoked Duck with gooseberry compote, but its flavour experience is limited. There is a total of three starters available, also soup and salad, which I could have combined as a light menu option.
As a main course, I select the Baked Sole with Cream Cheese and Chives from four options, served with linguine pasta, snap peas, baby corn and a caper tomato sauce. The fish itself is so outstanding that I almost don't care about the things offered on the side, and that there is nothing to see of cream cheese and chives. Just the crunchy veggies make a good fit.
The lesson here is, with just good basic raw produce, no one needs complicated recipes. Rounded off with a fresh, aromatic 2015 Orange River Colombard white wine, I am fully content with my dinner experience.
I let go of the cheese, and inquire what flavours of artisan ice cream are available, as it is not specified on the menu card, and get a cup of extremely delicious passion fruit sorbet. A real highlight. Now a Klipdrift brandy for digestion and I'm ready to doze off for the night.
For that, the seat can be extended into a 180° flat bed, before a mattress cover is put onto the seat, and a thin down duvet is then supposed to create bedroom comfort. Fortunately, the cabin on this night flight is agreeably fresh and not stifling hot, as too often, that's where the blanket comes in favourably.
Foot end bends down
On the negative side, the seat, or rather the foot end of the 180cm-bed, is not up to what is promised: Even fully extended, it's not in a flat line with the rest of the bed, but slightly bends down. This doesn't make it a full-flat seat then and is very annoying while trying to sleep for a human 1.88 meters in length.
As almost always after night flights, I let go of breakfast, which is always offered much too early, but rather stay in "bed" until shortly before landing. Nicely enough, I still get a hot tea while on approach, and already the A330 gently touches down on time at Heathrow, after eleven hours and 13 minutes of flight.
For the first time, I arrive at the new "Queen's Terminal" 2, exclusively used by Star Alliance. At 6.30am local time on a Saturday it's luxuriously empty and offers great architecture, creating a transfer experience at Heathrow superior to that in Frankfurt or Munich.
SAA offers a solid Business Class product with all the trimmings one has come to expect these days. The conventional layout of the seats in pairs allow for relatively little privacy, and the slightly bending foot ends are annoying in a presumable full-flat seat. Hopefully SAA will be in a financial position to upgrade its Business Class product to a more modern standard and overcome these points.
Airline: South African Airways
Aircraft type: Airbus A330-200
Cabin: Business Class
Date: May 13, 2016
Andreas Spaeth flies. Very frequently. On PaxEx.com one of the leading European aviation journalists shares his personal passenger experiences traveling around the globe.
Follow Andreas on his Twitter @SpaethFlies.
© Andreas Spaeth | Abb.: Andreas Spaeth | Jul 4, 2016 14:57