No matter how you crack it, traveling from the U.S. to South Africa can be an exhausting process. The main reason why South African Airways (SAA) has always been my preferred airline for travel to Africa is because they offer competitive rates on the most convenient routes from New York and Washington D.C.* Ranging from fourteen to sixteen hours, SAA's daily nonstop flight from New York City (JFK) to Johannesburg (and vice versa) is simply the most efficient way to travel to South Africa.** My experiences in economy have always been decent, so when South African Airways invited me to try their business class service, I was curious to see whether or not it would really make a difference in my overall impression of such a daunting flight.
Once I checked-in and passed through security, I made a beeline to the SWISS Lounge (shared with SAA) to have a quick coffee and pastry. Later in my trip, I visited the SAA lounges in the domestic and international terminals at Johannesburg. I had only visited an airport lounge once before, and I really enjoy waiting for my flights in a less crowded area with free wifi and snacks.
Predictably, the dining was one of my favorite parts of my journey from New York to Johannesburg and from Johannesburg to Washington, D.C. The staff were incredibly friendly and accommodating, having worked for the airline for many years. They addressed us by name as they passed champagne, fresh squeezed orange juice, and the daily newspaper while we boarded and got ourselves settled in.
The meal schedule is designed to ease you into your destination’s time zone, so a five-course dinner was served just after our mid-morning take off from JFK. The crew passed menu booklets which included the bio of the South African chef who had planned this month's menu. They took my order and hand delivered each course, allowing me to eat at my own leisurely pace. The only downside about meal time was that the tray table was so big (and awkward to store) that I was stuck in my seat until all my meal accouterments were cleared.
I skipped the amuse-bouche and jumped right in: a tomato soup and side salad, herbed lamb chops with potato au gratin, sautéed spinach and rosemary demi-glace, cheese plate, and a slice of red velvet cake. My meal on the way home was less exciting (chicken), but still tasty. I tried both white and red wines before settling on the spicy and fruity 2010 Stellekaya Pinotage. Business class dining is all about indulgence, and I had no trouble whatsoever getting into the spirit.
After dinner, I used the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. The one major difference I noticed between economy and business bathrooms were the products on the shelf. Even the toilet had a view! :)
Snacks like chips, fruit, and granola bars were available in the galley throughout the flight, but with such a large dinner, I was able to make it until breakfast was served (about an hour before landing). The fresh fruit, granola, yogurt, and croissants were enough to fill me up for breakfast, so I skipped the second course of omelette or crepes. Yes, even breakfast had courses!
Considering the long duration of this overnight flight, having a seat that turns into a fully flat bed is the greatest business class perk. I had an aisle seat on both my flights and found it easy to hop up to stretch my legs regularly. After dining, the crew helps you make your bed if you like, which consists of a seat pad, a thick duvet blanket, and full size pillow.
The 2-2-2 seat configuration within the Airbus A340 felt very spacious but didn’t provide us with any privacy. There was a panel that could be raised between our armrests, but I felt it would be more awkward to use it and didn't see anyone else in the cabin using it, either.
On my flight down, I made the rookie mistake of assuming the flattest position was the best possible way for me to sleep. It was enough room to bend my knees and turn, but it just didn't feel right with the movement forward. It wasn’t until I tried the chair's cradle-like position on the way home that I slept for a little over five hours. As a whole, my experience in SAA's business class demonstrated it is possible to combine comfort, efficiency and great coffee at 34,000 feet.
*The SAA flight to/from Washington D.C. includes an hour long stop in Dakar, Senegal, which is why I feel this route is less ideal. Most passengers remain on the plane, but some disembark/embark and there is a crew change. All overhead bins are opened and passengers are required to claim their carry-on bags. Because this stop happens halfway through the flight, it's an awkward experience.
**Delta offers a daily non-stop (sixteen hour) service from Atlanta to Johannesburg, but if you live in the northeast like me, SAA is most convenient.
Thank you to South African Airways for generously sponsoring my flight to INDABA 2015. All opinions and images in this post are my own. Visit the South African Airways website to find out more about flying business class to Africa.