Flight review: South African Airways A330-200 business class

South African Airways A330

CHECK-IN

I arrived at London Heathrow’s new Terminal 2 at 1830, with plenty of time before my 2105 South African Airways (SA237) flight to Durban via Johannesburg. I made the five-minute walk from the Underground station to where I took a lift up to level five Departures.

I had checked in online but wasn’t issued with a boarding pass to print out – I needed to check a bag in anyway so it wasn’t a problem. SAA check-in desks were D22 and D23, both of which had just one person ahead of me.

I was swiftly processed, and my case weighed and tagged, meaning I was heading through the nearby fast-track lane to security in no time. It was also very quiet on the Saturday evening I was travelling. Laptops and liquids came out as usual but no pat-downs or body scans were required.

Once through, I made my way to T2B, where the Maple Leaf business lounge is (it’s shared with Air Canada). My gate, B41, was also in this part of the terminal. Staff recommended allowing 20 minutes to get there (signs say 15 minutes) but I power walked it in ten. There is a free buggy that departs every ten minutes, though, and moving walkways.

THE LOUNGE

Opened last summer, the Maple Leaf lounge is located on level two, accessible by lift. I got there at 1935 and had to wait a few minutes’ to gain entry as a group of people were ahead of me.

The facility has attractive, wood-slatted, curved walls with a dining area to the left, a work area directly ahead behind a wall, and lots of seating along the right-hand side next to floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the parking stands. The interiors are smart with beige and brown furnishings – it doesn’t quite have the glamorous feel of a BA or Virgin facility though. Staff were on hand to take away plates and dirty glasses.

There was free wifi, one shower (you can also use the ones in the United lounge if it’s busy), and one flight information screen (no announcements). The area at the back of the lounge has a shelf with magazines and newspapers (Daily Mail, Business Traveller, Wallpaper and the like), as well as seven tablet computers attached to arms fixed to the walls at a bar.

A room in the middle has a large communal work table with four PCs in the centre (one out of order) and space to work on your laptop. There are also various charging points around the lounge.

In the dining area there is a staffed bar serving free alcohol including four types of beer on draft (Molson Canadian being one), plus Marie Demets champagne, spirits and wine.

There is a self-service counter for coffee, tea and soft drinks. Against another wall is a buffet station with hot and cold food laid out – when I was there, muffins, M&Ms, bread, hummus, potato salad, noodle salad, coleslaw, olives, crudité vegetables, along with chicken curry, sweet pepper gnocchi and tomato macaroni.

BOARDING

I took the lift back down to the main concourse at 2020, walking the five minutes to Gate B41 where my SAA flight to Jo’burg was departing. Most other people had boarded by this time so there was no queue. Two members of staff checked by documentation, one after the other, and I accessed the plane via the B-labelled airbridge (A for economy).

I took my seat (5G) in the second section of business class (there were three rows in the front section and another three here). I hung my jacket on a hook on the back of the seat in front but a short while later a stewardess offered to put it in a wardrobe.

However, no one offered me a drink despite glasses of orange juice and champagne (Taittinger brut reserve, NV) being brought around. Newspapers, headphones and small bottles of water were provided, along with amenity packs containing moisturiser, a hairbrush, an eye mask, earplugs, socks, toothbrush and paste.

THE SEAT

Seats in business are arranged in forward-facing pairs 2-2-2 (A-C, D-G, H-K) across rows one to three in the front cabin and four to six behind. (Click here to see a seat plan.)

They are upholstered in beige, cream and brown leather with fixed-shell surrounds, and recline to create beds. South African Airways describes them as being “fully flat” but in reality they don’t quite go completely horizontal. They are slightly angled and undulate in a gentle S-shape for extra support.

Pillows, thick cotton coverlets and padded under-sheets are provided. However, there was a design flaw – an uncomfortable metal footrest that folds out, hurting backs of your legs when up and your feet when not wearing shoes. Seats are wide (21-24 inches) and have lots of legroom (74 inches). There is a massage function but it didn’t seem to do anything when I pressed it.

There is a shoe cupboard in the back of the seat in front, as well as a handle at the top of each seat to help you climb over the person next to you when they are sleeping (more helpful to those in window seats). Although the IFE screens are touch-sensitive, there is also a remote built into the central armrest.

The monitors come out of the central column in all seats, while tray tables have to be pulled awkwardly out of the side armrest. They are also quite narrow and flimsy, and need needs to rest on the central armrest for support, which seems crude.

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE?

The best seats are probably the central pairs (D-G) as both have direct aisle access. That said, sitting by a windows provides more privacy. I’d avoid the bulkhead rows (one and four), especially the aisle seats, as they are near the galleys so there may be some disturbance. If you are near the front, you get served food and drink quicker. You can’t really go too wrong with any of them though.

THE FLIGHT

The plane pushed back after a safety demo at 2105, taking off not long after. (Note that the IFE can’t be used until after take-off, unlike on some other airlines.) Once airborne, hot towels and menus were handed out.

I watched a film but was disappointed that it had been edited for content – swear words dubbed and scenes cut. Drinks orders were also taken – I had a gin and tonic, and was given an amuse bouche of dried up vegetable sticks and a smear of guacamole.

(This was a special vegetarian option – the standard canapés were: smoked trout and cucumber blini, proscuitto ham and goat’s cheese courgette roll.)

SAA’s website reads: “SAA Business and Economy customers travelling from London can look forward to experiencing gourmet restaurant cuisine.” So I was looking forward to dinner.

The menu listed a choice of two starters: smoked salmon with fennel and pomegranate salad, wasabi mayo and capers; and cream of pumpkin soup. These came with olive ciabatta and a side salad. Despite the fact that I think eating soup on a plane is asking for trouble (one little jolt and you could spill it) I went for the latter but found it was disappointingly thin and watery.

The mains were: braised lamb shank with celeriac mash, grilled asparagus and root vegetables (this looked great); chicken saltimbocca with spinach polenta crespelle, yellow and green zucchini and chicken jus; seafood trio with parsley baby potatoes, sautéed spinach and lemon butter; and pea and watercress rigatoni. I went for the pasta, which was a little overcooked but quite nice if a little bland, with attractive presentation.

There were two whites and two red wines available, all from South Africa. I had a glass of the Plaisir de Merle merlot, 2012, from the Franschhoek Valley, which was pleasant.

For dessert, there was mango panna cotta, a strange-sounding avocado and dark chocolate tart and a cheese plate (Parmesan, Butlers Secret and Brie). This came with crackers, preserves and a glass of South African Cape Tawny.

At midnight, I settled down to sleep. There was a lot of turbulence during the journey so I was woken numerous times. The flat bed was comfortable though and had a good amount of width.

I woke up at 0730 – I wasn’t planning on having breakfast but in the end decided I would try the express option. I had a black coffee, and some fresh fruit, yoghurt, cereal and a banana muffin, which was a bit dense and stale.

For those waking earlier, the menu listed: Spanish scrambled eggs with grilled bacon, toasted cheese sandwich, roasted potato cubs and cherry tomatoes; continental cold meats and cheeses; crepe with sweet curd filling with mixed berry ragout, vanilla sauce and mint.

ARRIVAL

At 0805, there was an announcement saying we were starting our descent, and all baggage had to be stowed and electronic devices turned off. The IFE was also deactivated.

Landing was at 0830 (1030 local time). After taxiing, the captain came on to say we were parked a long way from immigration so be prepared for a walk. It took about ten minutes to get there, with a long queue for passport control taking about 20 minutes.

(Click here to read my review of the Jo’burg-Durban flight.)

VERDICT

This was a decent business class flight, although improvements could be made to the seat design, quality of food (it’s not restaurant quality as SAA claims) and service (crew weren’t overly helpful or friendly). I also found it frustrating that films had been edited for content as this puts me off watching anything I actually want to see. I found the bed comfortable for sleeping (except for the metal footrest) and the new lounge at T2 was good.


FACT FILE

  • SEAT PITCH 74 inches
  • SEAT WIDTH 21-24 inches
  • BED LENGTH 71 inches
  • PRICE Internet rates for a return midweek business class flight from London to Durban via Johannesburg in March ranged between £5,790 and £6,345 depending on flexibility.
  • CONTACT flysaa.com 

 


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