This is the first in a series of posts documenting my January 2019 trip around the world, which took me to Victoria Falls, Cape Town, Chiang Mai, and Hong Kong. You can read an overview of the trip here.
South African Airways Flt. 204, New York-Kennedy to Johannesburg (JFK-JNB)
Airbus A340-600, Business Class
Sch. Dep. 10:50 AM Sch. Arr. 8:05 AM +1
Act. Dep. 10:34 AM Act. Arr. 8:19 AM +1
In booking my trip to Victoria Falls, there were two decent options using United or Aeroplan miles. In retrospect, it probably made more sense to do the done the one I didn’t do – which was Ethiopian from Dulles to Victoria Falls via Addis. I’ve done Ethiopian business class on the long flight before and it was fine, but for some reason I decided to fly on South African from New York via Johannesburg. (The SAA flight out of Dulles was not a good option, given the timing which requires an 18-hour layover in Johannesburg plus a stop in Accra or Dakar, depending on the day of the week.) The flight time was about the same, but it ended up being a lot more expensive in the end, because of United’s pullout from JFK. Flying into Newark and changing airports was a ridiculous proposition. And given the 10:30 departure time out of JFK, I would have had to go up the night before anyway. So, instead I booked a revenue ticket on Delta from DCA to JFK and spent a night at the Hilton Garden Inn at the airport. (My parents are snowbirding in Florida and I realized it was not worth it to try and visit my sister’s family given the hours at issue.) I left work a few hours early, flew up to JFK, and took the easy, prompt shuttle provided by the hotel and had time for a workout and dinner before my morning shuttle ride over to the airport.
The Hilton Garden Inn worked out nicely, as the front desk staff was friendly, and the gym was better than I’d expected. Since I had an Amex Offer that gave me a $40 credit on a $175 purchase, I splurged a bit on dinner to get the bill to $175, having a steak ($21 with fries and a salad) and beer. The restaurant is basically the lobby, so not really relaxing, and there were some very loud other guests. Despite Judy Greer’s commercial, this wasn’t a friendly, high-end bar. The wine on offer was Sutter Home, and they were out of the first two (bottled) beers I ordered. The room was pretty much exactly what I expected (not much) with scenic views of the Van Wyck Expressway.
As a Hilton Diamond member, I was entitled to my choice of bonus points or free breakfast. While I would normally go with breakfast, I went with the points since I figured I’d have breakfast in the lounge, and planned to leave the hotel super-early due to fears that the TSA lines would be extra long given the government shutdown, while also knowing how terrible lines can be at JFK’s T4 on a normal day.
The 7am shuttle from the Hilton Garden Inn came right on time and I was at the terminal five minutes later. I couldn’t find SAA’s business class check-in at first, and had to ask, as it’s not at one of the counters in the rows of check-in desks. Rather, it’s off to the side where you would expect one of those luggage-wrapping services to be. There was no wait, though, and a friendly agent checked my bags through to Victoria Falls, gave me both boarding passes and explained the lounge at T4. A porter put my bag on a cart and hauled it to the conveyor belt. I was at security at 7:12, 12 minutes after leaving the hotel – so not bad.
I had thought T4’s security line wouldn’t be so bad, since so many of the flights out of the terminal are Europe-bound evening flights. I was wrong. Delta has an all-day operation out of T4, and there were big Emirates, China Southern, and Air India planes leaving around the same time as mine, in addition to smaller Avianca and Copa flights. I didn’t have Precheck since I was flying SAA, but I was able to use the priority lane, which lets you cut to the last quarter of the line. It ended up only taking a little over ten minutes, which isn’t that bad.
South African uses the Swiss lounge at T4. Unlike at some other airports, Swiss only has one lounge at JFK, for both premium cabin and elite passengers. I had never been to the lounge before, and it wasn’t particularly impressive. There was a small dining area, a “quiet room,” and then a large space with a second beverage area. It wasn’t that crowded, but I imagine it gets more crowded later in the day. The bathrooms were kind of gross, and the showers were inoperational. There weren’t that many outlets near the seating, so not a great lounge for work purposes.
The breakfast spread was pretty sparse, with two stations on the buffet: one with yogurt, fruit, granola, and cold waffles; and the other with bagels, cookies, and scones. The bagels weren’t quite New York bagels, but better than what they serve at the AA lounge. There was self-serve coffee, soda, juice, beer, and wine.
I had a lot of time, so just relaxed and read all of the news before a long day without internet. My boarding pass said 9:55am boarding, but it had already started when I arrived at 9:45. My last experience in SAA business class was on its new A333, which probably was one of the best long-haul business class experiences I’ve had. Alas, that plane is not operated on the JFK route, and the A346 has a much more old-fashioned business cabin, with lie-flat seats in a 2-2-2 layout. One advantage of this layout is it somehow makes the cabin feel more open because there are fewer rows, and no “walls” between the seats.
I had initially been assigned a window seat, but I decided I wanted to sit in the middle section as it would avoid either having to climb over someone or being climbed over mid-flight. I tried to get SAA to change my seat in advance, but you can’t online, and my email to SAA went unanswered. At check-in, there was plenty of availability though. I ended up having both seats in the center section to myself, and the cabin was about 25% empty, even with some non-revs. If I had to share, privacy may have been an issue, but it worked out fine.
The seat was a bit banged-up and showing its age. There was no USB power, but regular power under the armrest. There was a storage cubby in front of your feet, and a small compartment in between the two seats. The in-flight entertainment screen was fairly small and popped-up out of the center console. The seat reminded me of one of my first business class experiences on LAN (pre-blog). There were no individual air vents, but the temperature stayed comfortable.
While the hard product wasn’t particularly exciting, the service was exceptional. There was a friendly greeting at the door, and the crew continued to be friendly throughout boarding. I was offered a newspaper shortly after I got to my seat, followed by a choice of sparkling wine or orange juice. (I went with the former.) Both the Senior Purser and the Purser introduced themselves to me.
At boarding, there was a pillow, headphones, and amenity kit on the seat, with a duvet and mattress pad in the overhead bin. The amenity kit wasn’t as unique in its design as on my last flight, and was pretty basic. It was a black leather case with the SAA logo embossed, and had a Crabtree & Evelyn lip balm and moisturizer, ear plugs, a dental kit, socks, an eye mask, and a hairbrush/comb. There were also additional Aigner toiletries in the lav.
The in-flight entertainment was okay, with a mix of 100 or so US and international films. There weren’t a ton of new releases, and the TV selection was very poor – about 8 US series and then some documentaries. The image quality on the old screens wasn’t particularly good either. The cabin also had dropdown monitors that displayed the flight map until after dinner, and in the morning after breakfast showed the tail camera. There was no wi-fi available.
We pushed back at 10:35am, with wheels up at 10:52am. Once in the air, there were hot towels, followed by distribution of menus with the wine list. The flight attendant kneeled down to advise me that the soup of the day was cauliflower and introduce himself, and he did the same when he later came to take my main course order.
After menus came the drink cart. I was asked what I wanted, by name, and selected the pinotage, one of two red wines on offer. It was served with canapes, which were plated and served on my tray table so precisely. I couldn’t tell what all of them were, and they ranged in deliciousness, but it seemed to be a stuffed mushroom, some sort of cucumber with chicken, and a spicy shrimp on a rice cracker. Not the best, but better than nuts.
For a starter, the cauliflower soup looked good, but I went with the healthier salad. The salad was really good, putting the salad I got on Cathay in business class a week later to shame. In addition to fresh greens, it had carrots, sliced bell pepper, and goat cheese-stuffed cherry tomatoes. There was a pass of a bread basket, from which I selected garlic bread.
The choices of the main were uninspiring, with no South African specialty, but rather standard short rib, chicken breast, salmon, and tortellini options. I went with the short rib which was very tender, but the polenta “fries” it came with were really just a bland mush.
The menu lists separate cheese courses and dessert courses, but they were all served together. I went with the Sacher torte, which was pretty good, which was served along with a coffee that tasted instant.
One reason the meal service stood out with its attention to detail was that there were four staff members serving each course, and then additional staff clearing and helping prep. There were frequent refills without asking, and each course came promptly. The downside of this was that meal service finished very quickly, with my table cleared an hour into flight. On a US to Europe flight that would probably be a positive, but on a 14-hour flight, what’s the rush?
As evening neared in Africa, I decided to sleep. The mattress pad didn’t do a ton to cushion the fairly firm seat, but it was better than nothing. As a broad-shouldered guy, I found the area towards the top of the seat, which is fully-enclosed, a bit narrow. But I was able to stretch out fully, though my feet occasionally banged the seat in front of me. I was fortunate to have two pillows (the one from the empty seat next to me), as they were fairly thin.
The biggest obstacle to sleep was the woman across the aisle from me. From what I could gather, she was an older South African woman who was living with her husband, a dentist, in Pennsylvania. I knew she would be a problem when she was reading her book aloud to her husband pre-takeoff. Throughout the flight, she kept calling for things, asking questions, and stopping every flight attendant who walked by. One flight attendant finally, kindly, said, “Just rest.” Her husband wasn’t helpful as he was snapping his fingers and barking to the crew as well. Any time I moved, she stared at me, and frequently offered unsolicited (incorrect) advice. Towards the second half of the flight, she switched to offering effusive praise to every crew member who walked by.
I woke about 4.5 hours in and decided to see what the mid-flight situation was. The only things set up at the bars at the front and back of the cabin were bottles of water. The menu and overhead announcement mentioned mid-flight snacks, but were nonspecific. I saw a couple ordering food and smelled something good. I asked a flight attendant for an apple juice (I had an odd craving), and he asked if I wanted a “warm snack” of “chicken or vegetarian.” I went with the chicken, and what came were two little slider patties and a vegetable and halloumi kebab. They didn’t taste like chicken, but were good.
I watched an episode of the Orville, and slept another four hours, waking up a little more than two hours before landing. As the cabin lights came on, flight attendants came down the aisle offering juice, which the woman across the aisle found orgasmic, “Oh…so delicious! Delicious!! Thank you so much oh this is DELICIOUS!” It was OJ from a carton, sis. I then went to take my backpack down from the overhead bin, and she scolded me “Watch out for the glasses!” There were no glasses.
About ninety minutes before landing, the table was set for breakfast. Although the waffle with fruit sounded good, I went with the frittata. I was given a choice of plain or fruit yogurt, and muesli or “Kellogg’s.” There was a pass of a bread basket with muffins, bread, and rolls. The frittata was good, although I could have used ketchup or something for the potatoes on the side. I didn’t try the sausage. Again, the flight attendant serving me (same as for dinner) was super-attentive and again was one of four serving in the cabin. Plates were cleared 45 minutes before landing, and we were on the ground at 8:19am, a half-hour early. It took a long time to disembark, but I was in the terminal at 8:34am, almost 2.5 hours before my next flight.
I am torn whether the decision to depart New York was worth it, but my flight on South African business was really an excellent. Though it wasn’t the newest seat, I was able to sleep, and the service was excellent. The food was better than I had on my Cathay Pacific business class flight out of Cape Town a week later, and the flight was pretty easy.
Up next, my connection in JNB and onward to Victoria Falls.