What you see is not always what you get. South African Airways (SAA) JFK–JNB
South Africa is one of my favorite places in the world. No matter how many times I’ve been there, a special type of excitement builds up inside of me when I return.
Check-in to South African Airways (SAA) was fast and uneventful. After security, we headed to the Swiss lounge that SAA uses at JFK. It was less than inviting, but it was an awkward time in the morning. Offerings were minimal (though soda and juices were available), and I had a banana. I also had a bit of a problem with Internet, and had to wait too long to get an email out before the 15-hour flight.
The gate was a long way from the lounge, and hearing my name over the speakers was not a good sign. Luckily, my partner let the gate agents know I was on my way. I boarded last, was pointed to my seat, and as I buckled up was offered a newspaper. Next, the safety video started, followed by a welcome announcement mentioning that lying on the floor was not permitted. Moments later we were in the air.
SAA flies an A340-600 with a 2-2-2 configuration in its business class cabin and offers a 21”-wide seat that fully reclines into a flat bed. You can also find movies and TV shows on-demand and entertainment via a personal 12” monitor, with a separate control panel to adjust the seat and power outlets.
The seats were old, dated, and very lumpy. It was obvious from the moment I sat down that these seats had seen better days and had more than served their intended purpose. I remember when they were new and when SAA started to offer the duvet years ago—the seats were lumpy
then! The power outlets did not work. I’ve flown enough times to know this but tried it out for the purpose of this review. The outlets and the headphone plug were difficult to reach, and an armrest restricted me from seeing what I was doing. I’m not very tall, so the metal footrest at the bottom of the seat served no purpose—it was hard and cold, although the cabin temperature was warm. I wanted to be as fair as possible, so we did a fact check. I was correct: The planes had no major change in business class since 2003.
I ordered my main course and asked if I could have my demi-glace on the side; the flight attendant made the adjustment for me. I ordered a glass of the Taittinger Brut Reserve (a favorite of mine), and enjoyed a refill when staff made a second pass. My lunch was a good-sized serving and very tasty, although I saved room for dessert. When I requested another glass of champagne, I was told that they were out. I asked if it simply wasn’t cold and needed to be chilled. The attendant replied in a soft tone that they only allotted two bottles for the flight (despite being 15 hours long). Later, she explained that the company is trying to save money and apologized. I considered ordering a cocktail, but their selection of mixers was not to my liking. Instead, I had a glass of white wine, one of the three wines offered. Later, with my dessert, I ordered an Amarula and vodka on ice so I could sip it while watching my movie, hoping to fall asleep. The rough duvet had a potato sack feel and was very thin and short, but the flight attendant found me an extra pillow so I was able to sleep.
THE FLIGHT…AND MIDNIGHT SNACK
I woke up a couple of times to ask that the AC be set lower, use the lavatory, and drink some water. Three hours later, I decided to sit up and work on a few things (at least until my battery ran out). At this point I was hungry—flights have that effect on me.
I walked to the galley and asked for a soda and a glass of wine. By this time, only one choice of wine remained. It was explained to me that they did not serve mid-flight meals but a snack basket was available. It included Lays potato chips, pretzels, Oreo cookies, strawberry fruit bars, and a pound cake that had been cut in slices and half covered in wax paper. I turned to look at the attendant and ask if she was just kidding with me. She apologized and managed to find a few small baked goods—I kindly declined. I was stunned that no one else asked for food and just went back to my seat for about 15 minutes. When I later went back to get something and make the best of it, I noticed almost nothing remained.
Another passenger had walked away with a handful of snacks and the baked goods were gone. Only one bag of chips remained, and I took them as fast as my hands could move. I asked for a glass of the remaining wine and sat back down with disappointment. A few moments later, another attendant came by and offered me two half sandwiches. The gesture was very sweet, but I could not tell you what was in them (my guess is that they were egg salad of some sort). I walked them back to the galley and explained that I had healthy snacks in my bag that I should be eating, returning the sandwiches. All the while, I was hoping that this was not all that the passengers in economy had to eat for 15 hours.
In my opinion, SAA employees are doing a good job when it comes to customer service on long-haul flights. The flight attendants did as much as they could with what they had at their disposal. Though the seats were uncomfortable, I knew to expect that—but to take food and beverage away is simply unacceptable.