Short-Haul Surprise on South African Airways.

On the apron at Lusaka, Zambia.     Author’s photo.

October 10, 2019

WHEN IS economy class better than business class? Never, basically. The distinctions, though, can sometimes be blurry, particularly on shorter flights. Which brings us to a pair of intra-Africa hops I took recently with South African Airways.

Logistically the flights were similar. Both were international sectors, but brief, at about 90 minutes each. The first was aboard a widebody Airbus A330; the second on a much smaller A319. Here’s how things went down…

Business class, Johannesburg (JNB) to Victoria falls, Zimbabwe (VFA). Airbus A330-300.

Like any premium class experience, this one started in the lounge. The carrier has two lounges in the international wing at O.R. Tambo International Airport, named “Platinum” and “Premium.” The former is for high-level frequent flyers, so for us it was Premium. Which was fine. It’s a bright, amply appointed space with plenty of seats and a sweeping view of the apron. This was a morning departure, and the buffet had all the breakfast fare you’d expect, both hot and cold. For a change there were no shrieking kids or other obnoxious patrons.

Boarding, on the other hand, was noisy and chaotic, as it always is, with people ignoring the zone calls and crushing around the doorway and podium. A placard indicated a separate priority lane for business class, but getting there meant pushing our way through a scrum of heedless passengers. When I finally stepped into the plane, the sudden peace and quiet was palpable.

The business cabin had 46 sleeper pods in a 1-2-1 configuration. This is South African’s top-of-the-line product. Not even its A340s, used on its longest intercontinental routes, have these seats. I was struck by the colors: sandy tones accented with red and silver. It was one of the more attractive cabins I’ve seen in some time, and the feel was warm and inviting. A shoulder panel featured all the usual mod cons: AC and USB ports, a reading lamp, seat controls, and a storage nook.

There was no amenities kit of any kind, though, and the headset compartment was empty. For a flight so short that’s not much of a penalty, but it seemed a little… skimpy. And the lack of a headset rendered my 15-inch video screen all but useless. This was a long-haul aircraft, obviously, filling the gap on a quick morning turn between runs to Accra or Lagos or wherever, and apparently we weren’t gonna get all the frills. To be expected, maybe? I settled in, looking forward, at least, to a glass of champagne.

Business class on the A330.     Author’s photo.

Except, there wasn’t any. Indeed, this goes down as the first time I’ve ever sat in business class and was not offered any type of pre-departure beverage. No champagne, no juice, nothing. Quite peculiar.

After takeoff I switched on my screen. The remote control device was cumbersome to manipulate, but after a few minutes of fumbling I managed to pull up the moving map display, tracking our progress as we crossed from South Africa into Botswana, taking in a sunny view of the Limpopo River and Botswana’s Makgadikgadi salt pan, where I visited in 1999.

A short while later a breakfast was served. Or snack, maybe, is the appropriate word. There was no printed menu, so I’m unsure what the airline called this particular entree, but imagine a cold, saucer-sized plate of sliced tomato, pepper, mushroom and cheese. It sounds better than it was. And the strangeness of the lack of a pre-departure drink was outdone only by a lack of wine once aloft. Drink options were restricted to coffee, juice, and soda. Again, very unusual. There was no hot towel service, either.

By the time we touched down at Vic Falls, I was bored and eager to disembark. This is not my usual feeling when traveling in premium class. If an airline is doing it right, you don’t want to get off. With a flying time of an hour-and-a-half, I didn’t expect the same service I’d get on a transoceanic flight. Still, this was a widebody plane on an international sector, however short, and the global standard — at least on legacy carriers outside the United States — is a higher one than this. It was a perfectly relaxing flight, but underwhelming just the same, especially at a price that was double the economy fare.

Economy class, Lusaka, Zambia (LUN) to Johannesburg (JNB). Airbus A319.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the second leg, from the Zambian capital of Lusaka back to JoBurg, turned out to be more enjoyable. In economy class, no less, on a much smaller plane. Had the seat next to me not been empty, or had the flight been longer, the take-away might be as positive. But it was a surprisingly pleasant ride that managed to throw the shortcomings of the first one into starker relief.

My gripes were the hideously long check-in queue and disorganized boarding lounge at LUN, which had more to do with poor airport design than any failure on SAA’s part, and absence of any seat-back video. On the plus side, however, the 32-inch pitch felt unusually generous, cabin staff were extra-friendly, and the meal — a hot chicken and pasta dish — was five times better than the weird little pile of tomatoes and peppers I’d picked at on the A330. And what’s this, complimentary wine! That Vic Falls is predominately a leisure market might explain some of the difference, but let me get this straight: we were served complimentary wine in economy class, yet not in business, on what were otherwise identical routes? Talk about a head-scratcher.

There were no jet bridges at LUN, and our parking stand was a good distance from the gate. While it might seem a silly thing, I appreciated the chance to walk to the aircraft, by way of a marked pathway that ran along the inside of the apron, rather than be forced into jam-packed bus, which is usually how it works with remote parking.

For the price ($180), I got what I paid for and a little bit more. This cannot be said for the first leg. Pretty much everything was better on the economy class ride, save for the seat itself. The business class pod was stylish and comfortable, but impossible to properly savor on a flight so brief. For twice the fare, it simply wasn’t worth it.

Maybe SAA’s troubles have something to do with this? The carrier has been in financial distress for some time, under pressure from the Gulf carriers and fast-growing African juggernauts like Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways. For now, SAA maintains membership in what I call the Six Continent Club. It’s among only a handful of airlines to serve at least one city on each of the major continents. (For SAA that means New York and Washington in North America, Hong Kong in Asia, Sao Paulo in South America and Perth in Australia.) Nevertheless, I was startled when I flipped open the inflight magazine and had a look at the destinations map. What used to be fairly formidable global network has been whittled away. The airline currently serves only three cities in Europe, and much of its flying is handled by partner carriers.

I hope they make it. South African Airways is one of the world’s “classic” legacy carriers. Its 747s and 747SPs helped pioneer ultra long-haul flying, while South Africa itself has a rich aviation history that, surely, deserves a national airline of its own.

South African’s radio call sign is “Springbok” — one of the coolest, most distinctive and evocative call-signs out there.


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3 Responses to “Short-Haul Surprise on South African Airways.”
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  1. chandelle says:

    It is my reasoned view that the day airlines (a) assure pax of the availability above their respective seats of stowing space for their cabin baggage and (b) prevent pax who board early from using up all available baggage space, the problem that you mention – of folk trying to ignore calls for boarding by zones – will cease

  2. Simon says:

    I don’t have a problem with not being served alcoholic beverages during boarding in the AM.

    I would however have a problem with the fact that my window seat is two feet from the window. I realize these pods and staggered seating have become very popular in C class with many airlines, but I still expect to be able to gaze out the window in my window seat. I’d imagine that’s rather unpleasant with all that distance to the actual window while leaning over the cable covering the next guy’s feet.

    • Patrick says:

      With the staggered seats, I always avoid those with the console on the window side (like the one in the picture). Not only are you further from the window itself, there’s no buffer between you and the aisle. The seats with the console on the aisle side are give you considerably more privacy.