This is part 18 of my series exploring my March 2017 trip to South Africa and Namibia, which started here.
My trip back home was an unusual, but not that illogical, route using Aeroplan miles, flying South African Airways from Johannesburg to Sao Paolo, then United from Sao Paolo to Dulles. It’s about the same length as a routing via Europe, and was available on the day I wanted to travel in business class.
You may no notice that I have pretty much no pictures of my trip from Johannesburg to Sao Paolo, for reasons that will be explained later. So, enjoy my words. This is particularly frustrating as my flight from Johannesburg to Sao Paolo on South African Airways was on one of its brand new A330-300s, featuring its new and vastly improved business class hard product. (A complete accident, since it wasn’t announced until after I booked.) The new seats have direct aisle access and are completely lie-flat In order for this not to be too boring, I’ll incorporate some of the SAA PR pictures of the plane so you can at least see what I’m talking about. Now, onward.
At Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, getting from the Gautrain to the proper check-in area was a bit confusing. There was no list of airlines anywhere so I wasn’t sure where to go. First I tried going to the check-in area at Terminal A, which is where my flight was leaving from. Well, no SAA there. I later discovered that SAA has all of its check-in at Terminal B, which was a ten-minute walk in the opposite direction. Terminal B check-in was a huge facility, with a short wait at premium check-in. At first the agent insisted I needed a yellow fever vaccination certificate, which is completely not true – even if I wasn’t just laying over, Brazil doesn’t require that from anyone.
So, I walked back to Terminal A. There was no premium security line but the line moved quickly, and there was a circular conveyor belt for the x-ray machines, which conceivably is more efficient—if people understood how it worked. Passport control had a bit of a long wait, but I was through at 9:13am, still more than an hour before boarding of my flight.
In terms of lounges, I had several options – the South African Airways Premium Lounge, and then three Priority Pass lounges: the Shongololo Lounge, the Mashonzha Lounge, and the Bidvest Premier Lounge. From reading reviews, it seemed the SAA lounge wasn’t so great (wrong), so I went to the Shongololo Lounge, which was closest to my gate and had the best reviews of the Priority Pass lounges. The disappointing experience started at check-in, when I said “Hello” and handed over my phone, which had my digital Priority Pass membership card open. The response was a brusque “What’s that?”
The lounge was mostly a series of circular windowless rooms, with a range of odd seating areas with high-back chairs. The food was pretty unappetizing, with some premade cold sandwiches, white bread, gross-looking hot food, and packaged crisps. There was no one who worked there walking around, so some Middle Eastern guests told me to make them toast. I declined. There was a coffee machine, so I grabbed a coffee and left. At least it was clean, and it wasn’t crowded. I did notice shower facilities as well.
It was still 30 minutes til boarding, so I went to the SAA Premium Lounge, which was much nicer. There are two sides of the SAA Lounge in JNB- Premium, for lower-level elites and business class passengers, and Platinum, for higher tier elites. The Premium lounge was much nicer than the Shongololo lounge and I should have spent the whole time there. The lounge was much bigger, with tons of seating and plentiful outlets, with a wall of windows looking onto the tarmac. There was a much more appetizing hot and cold buffet, and I made a small plate of eggs. There was a fully staffed bar with both spirits and a coffee bar, and lots of staff milling about cleaning. There were additional coffee and water stations around the lounge, and also a separate children’s space. I couldn’t get the lounge Wi-Fi to work, but used one of the generic time-limited airport free ones.
I headed to the gate about 10 minutes before scheduled boarding, and there was a huuuge line to get into the boarding area, with a single man checking everyone’s documents. It moved so slowly – it took twenty minutes for me to get up there for no apparent reason. Some elite/business class people just pushed themselves to the front of the line, but that seemed wrong to me.
The plane itself was absolutely gorgeous, with a stunning tan, brown, and red color scheme. In business class, the seats were in a 1-2-1 staggered configuration. Each seat is completely lie-flat, and the solo seats alternate between having a table between the seat and the aisle, and one between the seat and the window. There were two separate business class cabins – a larger one and a smaller rear mini-cabin behind the galley. Given the plane had only been in operation for a few months there was no good information about seating available, but I can tell you now – don’t take seat 8A, like I did. Whereas every other seat has 2 windows, row 8 has only one and a bulge in the fuselage where the second window would be, making the seat a few inches narrower in the shoulders. They probably should have made it so that seat was an “aisle” seat, instead of a window seat. It was extra claustrophobic because across the aisle was not another seat, but a floor to ceiling cabinet, and the galley was pretty loud at boarding.
Although the seats were nice looking, functionally they weren’t the best. They didn’t have a massage feature, and weren’t as customizable as I’d like. You couldn’t just recline the back, for example – as the back reclined the seat moved forward and the leg rest rose. The seat is also very firm. The non-seating aspects were good, though. There was a storage cubby on the outside of the seat, and plenty of other pockets and nooks. Each seat has a big LCD TV screen with a USB plug, and the space for a tablet, which seems like smart planning. The IFE did not work until takeoff, alas. There was additional power on the side. The seats also have both a shoulder and lap belt. On boarding, there was a basic pillow and headphones at the seat.
The crew was pretty friendly, with announcements in Portuguese and English. Shortly after I got on board, I was offered a choice of sparkling wine or orange juice – the wine was excellent. The flight attendants came by with newspapers shortly after.
The cabin had filled up over the course of boarding, so I figured I wouldn’t be able to switch to a different seat. Once airborne, the purser proactively announced that they would not be able to upgrade passengers on board, and that passengers cannot visit the premium cabin from economy even if you’re a family traveling together, but you were welcome to do the reverse. Nonetheless, after takeoff, I saw that only one of the 16 seats in the rear business class cabin was taken (with someone who I think may have been a nonrev due to the service she was getting). I politely asked if I could switch, and the flight attendant asked the purser who said it was fine. It was a smart move, as passengers were already starting to line up in the aisle next to my seat for the bathroom.
I moved to seat 9K, which was the bulkhead and a “window window” seat.” The only downside of the seat was that the TV was farther away, which is a stretch for using the touchscreen (though I eventually found a remote). Instead of a side cubby, it had a huge storage space under the foot rest. Oddly it seemed that none of the rear business cabin seats had side storage, but maybe I was wrong.
I felt a little bad because the Flight Attendant ended up coming to the rear cabin just to serve me throughout the flight, but he was totally gracious and pleasant about it. After takeoff, he introduced himself and brought me a duvet and mattress pad, followed by a hot towel, then menus, and an amenity kit. Throughout the flight, he had a pleasant demeanor, kneeling down to ask me questions and hitting the sweet spot of good yet unobtrusive service.
The amenity kits were pretty, and I liked them more than the Air France ones on my outbound. The design was by a South African designer, Mphelane Mareletse, and had a nice leather accent. It just was more unique than the bland solid kits I’ve been used to. The contents were pretty standard, with socks, eye mask, earplugs, toothbrush/paste, hair brush/comb, and Crabtree and Evelyn jojoba oil lip balm and face cream.
In the bathroom, there were more Aigner creams. But the mirror was already shattered and duct-taped- which stood out on a plane that was only a few months old.
Since I lost my pictures, my meal service description is going to be based on notes that are now almost three months old, so forgive me. There was a separate menu of South African wines, and I started off with a Methode Cap Classique sparkling wine and canapes promptly after takeoff. The canapes were a beef and mushroom thing, a chicken satay, and something that was like a potato cake that my notes say “REALLY good.” That was followed by an appetizer course, which was a choice of garden salad, soup, or a mango prawn salad. I went with the plain salad, which was fresh and tasty. I would have skipped the bread, but they had garlic bread, which is one of my weaknesses.
I loaded up the IFE for lunch, and there were about 100 movies, with a pretty good mix of age, and national origin. I selected The Martian which was better than I expected.
The flight attendant was ahead of me, coming to clear before I finished courses, which never happens, as I’m a fast eater. But perhaps since I was the only one in that aisle in the cabin he didn’t have a lot to do?
In business class on SAA, there’s always a “signature meal,” created by the executive chef of Tsogo Sun hotels. On some flights its springbok or another South African game meat. On this one, it was was beef and mealie pap, but I’d had basically that for lunch the day before at Lebo’s. The other options were stuffed chicken and salmon. I went for the salmon which was a pretty small portion for a main course, with even a notably small portion of rice. It was fine, nothing special, and washed down with a glass of chardonnay. I skipped the cheese course, and had a small mascarpone cake, along with a coffee (served with a choice of chocolates) for dessert.
My goal was to stay awake the whole flight, since by the time the meal finished, it was already 6:20am back home. The cabin wasn’t too warm, and was indeed a little cool—a rarity—which helped.
By the time The Martian ended, I was only 6 hours out of Sao Paulo. I watched several episodes of Black-ish, and at one point a snack basket was brought out with chips, cookies, and dried fruit – not sure if those were the “refreshments” that were supposedly on offer in the galley. I did sleep for about an hour, but the bedding wasn’t great. The seat wasn’t so much a problem, though it could have had a bit more padding. It was that the pillow wasn’t thick enough, and the mattress pad didn’t do much to add thickness. The duvet was also pretty light. On top of that, it was a bit loud between the galley and the lavatory.
I watched more Blackish, then loaded Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which was pleasantly surprising. Since I was the only one in the cabin, wasn’t visited much. I rang the bell once and got a Diet Coke quickly. Then, with just under 2 hours to go, hot towels came out, followed by the second meal service.
It was basically a two-lunch flight given that it both took off and landed at mid-day local time. I started with a glass of Cabernet and a sparkling water. For the starter, there was a choice of a duck breast or chevre roulade. I went with the chevre, which I do not remember at all. It was brought out on a tray that also had the dessert, which was a sad fruit salad. For the main course, I selected the beef entrée, which seemed to have the same rice as the first course. The beef was not very good at all, completely overcooked. The food seemed “right-sized” which I think is underrated, although I could’ve gone for a little bit more food on the second meal. It still could be tastier, though.
Soon enough, we were making our final approach, 30 minutes early. And then, as it seems to have a tendency to do every time I land in Sao Paulo, is where the fun began.
In all, it was an extremely pleasant 10-hour flight, and I have no qualms recommending South African long-haul. The soft product ranged from okay (food) to excellent (service). The new seats are definitely better than many others being flown to/from Africa, including the Ethiopian “new” business seats and the Air France seats I flew from Paris to Cape Town.