CHECK-IN I arrived at London Heathrow’s Terminal 1 at 1700 for my 1900 departure on SA235 to Johannesburg. The check in area for SAA is Zone C, and I waited a few minutes for a premium desk to become free and quickly checked in, deciding to take my two bags on board since I had packed lightly and was only away for a few days. Later I read that the allowance was only one bag, not weighing more than 8kg, but I assume that is a mistake, not least since I had two large bags, one of which can’t have weighed less than 20kg because of all the magazines in it.
I had not realised that you needed a clean page in the passport for visiting South Africa, but by luck I had one left and this was indicated on my boarding card so there would be no problems later, since I was told it would be checked at the gate. Security was swift, and after a quick walk round the shops I went to the Star Alliance Lounge
THE LOUNGE The lounge was fairly quiet at this time (it was a Bank Holiday Monday evening), though it filled up a little over the 45 minutes I was in there. I had been invited to have a look at the first lounge as well, where there were only a handful of people. At around 1800 I walked to Gate 32, which is a good ten minutes’ walk from the lounge on a new pier at Terminal 1.
BOARDING As I arrived at the gate passengers were being called on board with premium passengers given priority.
I was one of the first on board and as time went on the cabin completely filled. The cabin crew were busy preparing the aircraft, but I was later asked if I would like my jacket hanging and offered a choice of juice, water or sparkling wine. Meanwhile we listened to some quite loud modern African music. Many passengers took out laptops and worked, so I guessed they were experienced and knew there would be plenty of time to kill.
THE SEAT The A340-600 cabin is in a 2-2-2 configuration, AC-DG-HK, with rows from 1-7, a total of 42 business class seats (to see a seatplan, click here). The seats are upholstered in blue leather and are well spaced apart and wide, in fact it can be tight walking down the aisle and certainly pulling a cabin roll-on bag down the aisle was too difficult so I carried it.
Each seat has two storage pockets in the back of the seat in front, the top one large enough to fit a laptop computer in, and a couple of alcoves where the amenity bags for each seat are placed. Within the seat there is also a small alcove under one of the arms where you can put a book, this is also where the in-seat power is located (you need either a US or European plug).
There is a tray table which comes out of the arm. It was firm, but sloped noticeably to one corner. I didn’t use the in-seat power but my neighbour did and had lots of trouble with it before eventually giving up. I offered to let him use my plug but actually he had tripped the power for both seats, so that was the end of him working on his Powerpoint presentation.
The seats fully recline to a flat bed and also have a cradle position for reclined reading or watching the IFE. There was a good choice of films, TV programmes, audio programmes and also cameras from the tail of the aircraft, which I enjoyed watching at various times during the flight (when we were flying in daylight – it’s pretty boring at night).
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? If you want aisle access without being stepped over, then the two centre seats are the ones to go for. I was in a window seat (2K) and found it easy to gain access to the aisle despite my neighbour being tall and reclined (you know what I mean). The seats are well designed for stepping over since they have a strong wide grab rail on the back of each hard shell which surrounds the seat, so you can steady yourself for the large step across into the aisle and then back again.
THE FLIGHT There were no announcements for around 40 minutes until we came close to departure time, when the seatbelt sign was turned on and we were told to watch the safety video. We eventually took off at 1920, and just before doing so the pilot came on to explain there were a couple of aircraft in front of us but we would soon be taking off, and it was a pleasure for him to join us on this flight. I was glad he was there too.
A lot of the overhead lockers were full of blankets, and I noticed that the central overhead lockers had slightly more room than those to the sides. Shortly after take-off the crew came round and emptied these lockers, placing the two blankets for each seat at our feet.
The crew came around with drinks and menus about 30 minutes after we got airborne, and then, later, the meal order was taken.
Canapés: there were three of these but for some reason I wasn’t offered them, but I think one of them was ostrich.
Appetizers: a choice of two to be enjoyed as a light meal or as a starter.
- Duck Liver Delice or soup of the day
- Seasonal salad
- Seared beef fillet served with Maitre de Hotel, accompanied by potato gratin and roasted vegetables
- Chicken Medallion, accompanied by spring onion mashed potatoes, roasted aubergine and red pepper with mustard jus
- Pan fried salmon with orecchiette pasta in creamy pesto sauce, roasted vegetables and pumpkin sauce
- Mushroom Quadrotti pasta in spicy marinara sauce served with roasted red pepper aubergines and courgettes
Cheese plate: Caerphilly, Bishop Stilton and Applewood Wedge Cheese
- White chocolate and blackcurrant bun or
- Chocolate chilli tart
Wines: Taittinger Brut Reserve Non Vintage, Lomond Sugarbush Sauvignon Blanc 2011; Villiera Chenin Blanc 2011, L’Avenir Pinotage 2011, Bosman Special Vineyards Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2007; KWV Dessert Cape Tawny Non-Vintage.
In general service was friendly, but a little haphazard, with drink orders forgotten and sometimes the food. There also seemed to be little rhyme or reason for how we were served, so sometimes it came from the front galley and sometimes from the back, and sometimes perhaps special meals were delivered, so you had no real sense of there being an ordered roll out of service through the cabin.
Once the plates had been cleared I made my bed, which had a short under sheet, slightly padded, which had no securing straps for the seat, so I just put it in the middle section of the sheet and lay on it, and then a duvet. The amenity bag had ear plugs and face mask, as well as flight socks, hair brush and some moisturiser.
Fully reclined the seat wasn’t particularly comfortable, because you could feel where the joins were between the head cushion, back cushion, seat cushion and finally the leg rest, and the padded under sheet didn’t do much to alleviate it, but there was plenty of room, and I slept for five hours.
I had made the mistake of saying I wished to be woken for breakfast without reading the note saying it would be served a full two hours before landing, which with the one hour time difference between the UK and South Africa at this time of year meant a gentle shake of the shoulder from the flight attendant at 0400 UK time.
For breakfast I had fresh fruit, some juice, tea and some cereal, but it was too early to try either the spinach crepe with pork sausage and chunky tomato sauce or the Continental breakfast (bread, pastries and preserves).
ARRIVAL We landed on time at Johannesburg Airport, and were quickly off the aircraft. Immigration was swift, and since I had no bags, I made my way out of the airport.
VERDICT The seat is old, but fully flat so it’s possible to get a reasonable night’s sleep, though it isn’t particularly comfortable. Service is friendly, but can be hit or miss.
DEPARTURE TIME 1700
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 are £3162.65 including taxes.
CONTACT flysaa.com or call 0844 375 9680.