FIRST IMPRESSIONS South African Airways does not allow online check-in for its flights. Its website stipulated a check-in time of two and a half hours for all classes, but I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 1 at 1610 for my 1800 departure to find a queue of only a dozen or so people at Zone N, and was quickly checked in with a minimum of fuss. For travellers flying in business class from the UK, the lounge is between Gates 21 and 23. There is also a first class lounge for passengers with gold card status, although SAA doesn’t offer first class on this Jo’burg route, having replaced its Boeing 747-400s with Airbus A340-600s and the A340-300E in November 2007, offering business and economy on the two-class configured planes.
SAA currently flies twice daily from London Heathrow to Jo’burg: Flight SA235 departing 1800, arriving 0705 using the A340-600, and SA237 departing 2105 arriving 1010, using an A340-200 or A340-300. There are once daily flights to Cape Town with flight SA221 departing 2015, and arriving 1005, using an A340-600 (winter schedules). The summer schedule changes these times meaning flight SA235 departs at 1900 and arrives at 0710, and SA237 departs at 2025 and arrives at 0835, while the Cape Town flight leaves at 2100 and arrives at 0950.
BOARDING Boarding was announced by 1700 but I waited until 1730 before going to the lounge at Gate 27A and walking straight on board. I was seated in the front row of economy, which has slightly more legroom but suffers from being directly behind the toilet.
THE FLIGHT Before take-off we were handed wet paper towels for refreshment, and after a speedy completion to boarding we were airborne by 1815. Drinks were quickly distributed and a dinner choice of chicken or beef was offered. I had the chicken, which was tasty, while my neighbour was equally complimentary about the beef. SAA has a good choice of in-flight entertainment, provided on individual seatbacks in economy (the front row where I was sitting has a monitor which comes out of the arm), with the ability to pause and fast-forward the film.
THE SEAT Economy class has a generous seat pitch of 33 inches and the seatbelts have padding around them, so they are comfortable once in place, although they can make the seat feel a little tight in terms of width. The configuration of the A340-600 is 42 in business and 275 in economy in a 2-4-2 configuration, and since this flight was around three-quarters full in economy, the vacant seats were in the centre of that configuration of four seats. Once the meal service had been concluded, the lights were dimmed and the cabin was quiet until breakfast was served around 90 minutes before landing.
ARRIVAL We arrived on time and were quickly disembarked. Immigration was swift and bags arrived on the carousel within ten minutes.
VERDICT The new planes and seat pitch in economy, along with good flight crew, make this a realistic option for business travellers on a budget.
PRICE A typical return economy class fare from London to Johannesburg costs £624.