Flying to Africa has limited flight options compared to other regions, however one of the major airlines on the continent is South African Airways. Most of their long haul fleet is comprised of A340s that are starting to show their age. However, the large business class seats and excellent food make booking an award flight a terrific use of miles, especially on the 10+ hour flight from Europe.
South African Airways is a member of the Star Alliance, which means if you have miles with most members of the Star Alliance, you can book a miles award redemption on South African Airways.
For this booking, I used my Singapore Airlines Krisflyer miles to book business class seats for 45,000 miles plus 360 Euro in fees. The amount of miles required for a 10+ hour flight was a bargain, however Singapore Airlines passes on fuel surcharges and other fees.
The Singapore Airlines website recently enabled booking flights on partner airlines, however it is still buggy and sometimes you still have to call in an award.
If I had United Airlines miles available, I could have booked the same flight for 55,000 miles and $107USD in fees.
Originally, my ticket was booked in economy class on Ethiopian Airways using 27,500 Singapore Airlines miles plus 84 Euro in fees. Unlike Lufthansa and South African Airways, fuels surcharges are not charged for Ethiopian Airways flights.
For about 60 days prior to the flight, I checked united.com to see if any business class award seats opened up. Additionally, I setup seat award alerts using expertflyer.com to let me know when business class award seats became available.
After monitoring this flight segment for a couple months, it appears business class award seats on Lufthansa and South African Airways start to open up 2 weeks prior. Often times, business class seats become available two days prior.
Two days before my flight, business class seats became available on South African Airways. I called Singapore Airlines to change my flight and was told, “If you change your flight, you have to cancel your existing reservation and then you might not be able to book the flight you seek”. I was also told that the flight I was requesting was not available. When I told the Singapore Airlines rep that I could see the flight available on their website, he said, “Well, cancel your flight online and rebook”. This is not possible.
80% of the time when I speak to loyalty reward reps, they don’t know what they are talking about or are too lazy to help, so I often hang up and call again (HUCA). When I spoke to the next rep, she saw the flight available and had my reservation changed in under five minutes.
South African Airways 261 Frankfurt (DOH) to Johannesburg (JNB) Cabin: Business Seat: 5A and 5C Aircraft: A340 Flight Time: 10h 40m
Business class passengers flying on South African Airways are able to use the Lufthansa business class lounge in Frankfurt. Considering this a major airport hub for one of the largest airlines in Europe, this lounge was surprisingly lame. The food options were sparse and the plastic seats were uninspiring. Still better than the free priority pass lounges in Frankfurt I suppose.
Boarding processes these days seems to be getting more and more frustrating. Some airlines seem to let half the airplane board before first and business class. However, to my relief, South African Airways had an unobstructed priority boarding area where business class passengers entered first.
Comedian Bill Burr recently had a hysterical take on this topic a couple of days again on Conan.
Plane Atmosphere (4/5)
Being a large wide body plane, the cabin felt large and spacious. Especially with the insane amount of leg room, which by far was the most amount of leg room I have ever seen. Even though the A340 is not a modern plane like the 787 and A350, the cabin was relatively quiet and smooth most of the journey.
Most newer business class cabins do not have luggage storage above the middle seats which makes the plane feel even more spacious. This plane still had the luggage space, so if you have carry on, no worries about finding storage space.
The cabin temperature was perfect with it being slightly chilled. Nothing worse than a plane that is too hot.
SEAT COMFORT (5/5)
At first glance, these seats do not look impressive and have a 1990s appearance. However, they are actually very comfortable with above average width and length in the lie-flat position. Even in modern planes with fancy lie-flat seats, I still have trouble sleeping. But for this flight, after dinner I passed out for a good 8 hours and woke up to a beautiful sunrise over Botswana.
Many business class seats these days have a tiny cubbyhole for your feet when in the lie-flat position. This is fine if you normally sleep like a mummy. Since these seats have an insane amount of leg room, those of us that sleep like a starfish will be very comfortable. I’m about 6 feet fall and when I was in the lie-flat position, I still had about another 6 inches of room between my feet and the seat in front of me.
The motors on this seat are comically loud. If you play around with the seating positions before the engines are started, the entire cabin can hear what you are doing. The cradle position is quite comfortable and the various seat controls ensure you can find the best position.
The entertainment screen was the worst I have even seen in business class but at least it had a large selection of movies. This turned out to be a good thing since I just ended up passing out instead of getting engrossed into a bunch of movies.
Food was delicious with good seasoning and variety. I never really had South African wine so I took advantage of this opportunity to turn dinner into my own wine tasting, especially when I saw that they offered a cheese plate. All the wine was great and I think I was able to sleep so well due to being a bit drunk.
Service was good with food being served quickly and plates being removed promptly after meals were consumed. Attendants were not super friendly or overly chatty, but they got the job done efficiently, which is all I care about anyway.
I often try to book flights with long layovers in cities I have not visited yet. Since I was transiting Johannesburg on the way to Cape Town, I decided to book a fight with 10 hour layover and tour the area. What’s great about this flight was the arrivals lounge for business class passengers.
Once, passengers clear passport control, business class passengers can stop in the lounge, have a shower, enjoy coffee and a hot breakfast. There is nothing better than getting a full nights rest on the plane and then get to shower before you start touring a city. Well, actually being able to shower on a plane would be better, but those seats are hard to get these days.
In conclusion, while the seats on the A340 business class cabin look a bit outdated with a tiny entertainment screen, the ample legroom and delicious wine on board make the experience well worth using the miles. Since this was a night flight, being able to sleep for a long period of time and then shower at the arrivals lounge makes the long travel experience a breeze.