BACKGROUND I arrived at Johannesburg international airport at 1745 for my 2020 departure on SA236. SAA has two flights leaving within minutes of each other each evening for London but one of these (SA234) had been cancelled and I had been rebooked onto this one.
The Gautrain is extremely quick and convenient, taking me from Park Station in the CBD to Sandton, and then a change of trains onto the Airport Express, with a journey time of less than 30 minutes.
CHECK-IN Once at the airport I was puzzled whether I should head for terminal A or B, but worked out I should go to terminal B, and found my zone for checking in. There was a five minute wait and meanwhile someone checked our passports. I then followed the signs for the A gates, which took me most of the way back to where I had got off the train. The security queue was long, but fast moving. It moved quickly because the check was perfunctory. I forgot to remove my toiletries and my iPad from my bag, but they were waved through.
I then queued again for immigration, where too few gates were open, then finally made my way to the SAA International Departures Baobab Business Class Lounge past all the duty free shops on the mezzanine floor.
THE LOUNGE The premium lounge is situated in the same area as the platinum lounge. It is big, new place, much improved from my previous trip back in 2008, though it was busy I found somewhere to sit and then went to the bar for a drink. There is free wifi in the lounge and I worked until the flight was called (all flights are called, including Star Alliance partners such as Lufthansa).
BOARDING Boarding commenced on time at 1935 from Gate A23. It was very disorganised. There seemed to be no priority boarding, though families with pushchairs and small children managed to get to the front. There was no priority boarding for premium passengers, and no separate queue. There were two desks for checking the boarding cards, but 40 metres in front of this was a mobile station where a passport check took place. This was a slow process, and a long queue snaked away back down the terminal.
After about 15 minutes, without an announcement, it became clear that anyone with a British passport could simply have someone look at their passport, then bypass the other check and walk straight to the gate. I’m not sure how many realised this, but once I had done so I was quickly through. We were then bussed out to the aircraft, which is very unusual for an A340-600 wide body aircraft. We then found there was only one set of steps at the centre of the aircraft, and so there was another long queue as everyone carried their bags onto the aircraft.
At no time during any of this process from the terminal to being on-board was any announcement made, but eventually the pilot welcomed us, apologised for the cancellation of the previous flight and told us the flight time would be 11 hours and 15 minutes.
THE SEAT This A340-600 has 42 business class seats in a 2-2-2 configuration in AC DG HK. My seat was 6K towards the back of the cabin. To see a seat plan, click here. I had flown out on this type of aircraft a few days earlier on the outward leg from London with SAA. To see that review, click here.
The seat has a fair amount of space for storage, with three spaces in the back of the seat in front, with a top pocket large enough for a laptop computer, the middle one good for tucking in a book and the headphones when not in use, and a shoe locker which has a latch on it. In between the seats is another space where the amenity bags can be found. These have flight socks, moisturiser, toothbrush and toothpaste, ear plugs, eye mask, hair brush. There is also a hanger for jackets in between the seats, though the attendants offer to hang these and also offered orange juice or sparkling wine (there was a bottle of water already at the seat).
Each seat has a reading light as well as an overhead light, and a recessed space under the centre seat arm where a book or some other objects can be kept, useful for when working and also for when the seat is reclined fully flat.
BEST SEATS The seats are very wide on these flights and, as a result, the aisles are very narrow. I would avoid an aisle seat for this reason, since I think you get knocked a fair bit during the flight, and certainly when other passengers are boarding and struggling to carry their bags down the aisle.
THE FLIGHT We took off a little late and then the crew moved quite quickly into the meal service.
- Seared ostrich slices with gooseberry chutney, accompanied by baby rocket, red pepper strips with pomegranate dressing or soup of the day
- Seasonal Salad
- Grilled mustard beef medallions served with glazed sweet potato chips, blanched snow peas, baby carrot batons and rosemary and red wine jus
- Grilled chicken supreme with potato and baby marrow rosti, roasted mixed vegetables and creamy peppadew sauce
- Oven roasted Cape Salmon with mustard crust, served with dill mash potatoes, sautéed seasonal vegetables and lemon and dill sauce
- Baked penne pasta with butternut and herbed parmesan creamy sauce topped with pecan nut crumble
- Apricot summer cheesecake
- Almond Tart
Cheese plate: Chevin, Camembert and Blue Rock.
Wines: Taittinger Brut Reserve Non Vintage, Lomond Sugarbush Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Villiera Chenin Blanc 2011, Reds: L’Avenir Pinotage 2011, Bosman Special Vineyards Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, KWV Dessert Cape Tawny Non-Vintage.
I had the main course of salmon which was very dry, tough and flavourless. I did not have the dessert, and instead made my bed using the mattress under blanket and the duvet, and went to sleep for around seven hours. I woke just in time for breakfast when I had a fruit juice, fresh fruit plate and some tea (and then coffee) and some yoghurt and museli. There was also a choice of a cheese omelette or a Continental breakfast or cold meats and cheeses, but I did not go for this since it was still very early.
ARRIVAL We landed on time at Heathrow Terminal 1, and were quickly off the aircraft. It’s a long walk from this pier to the immigration area, but there was no queue and having only my carry on bags I was quickly out of the airport.
VERDICT A good flight, once the mess at Johannesburg had been negotiated. The staff need to communicate more than they presently do, but they are friendly and professional inflight, and the seat was comfortable enough to get plenty of sleep.
DEPARTURE TIME 2020
FLIGHT TIME 11 hours and 15 minutes
PLANE TYPE A340-600
SEAT PITCH 73 inch/185.4cm
SEAT WIDTH 21 inch/53.3cm
SEAT LENGTH 73in
SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees
PRICE Internet rates for a return business class flight from London to Johannesberg in June start at £3166.
CONTACT flysaa.com or call 0844 375 9680