I checked in on the morning of my flight (SA237), which was due to depart that night at 2100. I accepted my pre-assigned seat, 46A, completed my advance passenger information and printed my boarding passes (I was transferring in Johannesburg to continue on to Cape Town).
That evening, I arrived at London Heathrow Terminal 1 at 1845, taking a lift from the Underground station to the departure level, where I then made my way a short distance to the SAA bag-drop desks in Zone C. It was fairly quiet so I was able to hand-over my suitcase swiftly – a friendly staff member confirmed my seat assignment and special meal request, and informed me that although my case would be through-checked to Cape Town, I would need to collect it at Jo’burg and then drop it off again after going through security.
At security in LHR, there were plastic bags being handed out for small bottles of liquids, and several snaking lines for screening. It only took ten minutes to get through, though, which wasn't too bad given how many people needed to be processed. Laptops came out and belts off. I was airside by 1910.
The gate (B33) opened at 1930, and boarding began at 2000. From the main part of the terminal, where all the restaurants and retail outlets are, it is a brisk 20-minute walk along corridors and up and down escalators – so you need to allow plenty of time to get there. When I arrived at 2025, most people had already boarded, but the flight wasn't yet on its final call.
I was pleased I had managed to buy a couple of bottles of water at the gate, as they only give you a couple of tiny ones on board and I had forgotten to buy some in the main terminal. Luckily, the vending machines took debit cards, as I didn’t have any cash on me (although at £1.70 for 500ml it’s a last resort). Several members of staff then checked and scanned my documents before ushering me on to the plane.
I was in window seat 46A near the front of the first economy class cabin, which went from 45 to row 54 (55 to 68 in the last section). Seats were configured 2-4-2 (A-C, D-E-F-G, H-K) and were upholstered in finely striped fabric with brown armrests and beige tray tables. The product offers 17-18 inches of width, 31-32 inches of legroom and 5-6 inches of recline.
Each seat came with a red blanket in a cellophane wrapper, a pillow and an amenity kit containing an eyemask, toothbrush, paste and socks. The IFE system was on-demand with a good choice of new releases, touchscreen technology and a decent picture (though not perfect). The bi-fold table folded down and flipped over. There were coat hooks on the seat backs.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE?
The 2-4-2 arrangement is good in that even if you are travelling alone, sitting in one of the pairs of seats feels that bit less claustrophobic than being in a set of three (or four). If you are a couple, you can book A-C or H-K and have complete privacy. Avoid seats E and F altogether as neither offers the benefit of direct aisle access or a view out of a window. Click here to see a seat plan.
I was happy in my window seat just behind the front row as I had a reasonable view out of the widow (the wing didn’t obscure too much of it), and was able to keep my bag under the seat in front during take off and landing (you can’t if you are in a bulkhead seat).
Bassinets can also be attached to the bulkheads so sitting near these mean you may also be near a crying baby. Avoid sitting near row 54 as smell from washroom and people queuing near you can be unpleasant. If you want to be by a window, note that rows 46 to 54 are over the wing.
There was a safety demonstration at 2045, and the aircraft pushed back at 2100, taking off at 2120. The captain came on to wish everyone a good flight and told us that the journey time would be ten hours 45 minutes. The cabin lights were dimmed for take-off, turning back on at 2140. Not long after, a drinks service began from the back of the plane. At 2155 I was offered a selection of alcoholic beverages and encouraged to take an extra one for when the meal came. (In terms of red wine there was a pinotage or a cabernet sauvignon.)
My pre-ordered special vegetarian meal came not long after – before anyone else’s. It was pasta tubes in a rosemary and cheese sauce, which was quite tasty but swimming in oil. Also on the tray was proper metal cutlery, a few balls of mozzarella and some iceberg lettuce and tomato salad, a Dairy Lee triangle with crackers, some cubes of fruit and a square of chocolate.
Standard meals were served at about 1030 with a choice of chicken, beef or another vegetarian pasta. A second drinks service with tea and coffee came around at 1115. Trays were collected at 1145. Not long after, I settled down to get some rest, glad that I'd packed a neck pillow and sleeping pills, which really helped on this long journey.
I woke at 0550 and, shortly after, the cabin lights were turned on and packets of refreshing towels handed out. Business class remained dark for a while longer. My vegetarian breakfast was a kind of burrito stuffed with soggy peppers, and a side of mushrooms and a grilled tomato. My tray also came with some chopped fruit and bread rolls were offered, along with tea, coffee and juice. The standard breakfast was a choice of spinach and cheese frittata, which looked more like scrambled egg, or continental cold cuts and cheese. Trays were collected at 0730, 35 minutes before landing.
Landing was at 0805 (0905 local time), 15 minutes early, with a short taxi to a stand connected to the Johannesburg OR Tambo international terminal. After just ten minutes, I was disembarking from the front through an airbridge. As I was connecting to Cape Town, I followed the signs for domestic transfers in Terminal B and joined a very long snaking queue for passport control, entering the lane for countries that are exempt from visas.
I was through by 1000, and headed for baggage carousel ten to collect my case, which was waiting for me. I then checked it in again at a nearby SAA desk and exited, walking to the domestic terminal, adjacent, where I went through security. (To read my review of the Johannesburg-Cape Town leg, click here.)
It’s not easy to do a long journey like this overnight in economy, but I managed to get some sleep and found the seat as comfortable as any in coach can be. The food could have been better (special meals tend to be inferior) but the drinks service was generous and there was a good choice of films to watch. I also liked the fact that amenity kits were provided. Crew were friendly and the service was on time.
- SEAT PITCH 31-32 inches
- SEAT WIDTH 17-18 inches
- SEAT RECLINE 5-6 inches
- PRICE Internet rates for a return midweek economy class flight from London to Cape Town via Johannesburg in September ranged between £997 and £1,902 depending on flexibility.
- CONTACT flysaa.com