It was the best of flights, it was the worst of ground service. The seat was good, getting it was miserable.The fare was phenomenal, the extortion was unconscionable. Yes, indeed, my experience flying long-haul on South African Airways was very much a study in contrasts.
The trip was relatively simple, if not entirely too short. I was flying from Washington’s Dulles airport to Johannesburg (via Dakar) on the outbound and returning to New York City‘s JFK (also via Dakar) on the return. For those keeping score at home that’s roughly 36 hours on the airplane total, and that doesn’t include the side-trip to Mauritius which, at only 4 hours each way, is a separate short-haul report. Yeah, I’m crazy.
Putting aside the problems with the ticket, the ground handling at Dulles and Jo’burg was pretty bad. Generally they do not assign the exit row seats in advance of the day of departure. These seats also happen to have unlimited legroom and are rather coveted for the ease of getting in and out without bothering your seatmate and the general comfort provided. Of course I wanted one. So I asked. Actually, first I checked the seat maps to make sure they were still available and then I asked. First I was outright told that they were already assigned. No, they aren’t. Oh, well we can hold your boarding pass and let you know.
I headed off to the lounge (Lufthansa Senator lounge in Dulles – quite nice!) and then back to the gate. Still no seats "available" even though they were still unassigned. And then they assigned one to some other random guy who walked up and asked. Yet I still couldn’t have one?!?! I persisted and got it eventually, but it was rather annoying.
On the return trip it was more of the same, with alternating reports of the seat being assigned, blocked, under airport control, under gate control and otherwise not available to me. Imaging my surprise when half way through the Jo’burg – Dakar segment I walked back and saw the seat open. Thanks for nothing, gate agents.
The crew in-flight, however, was the complete opposite. They were incredibly on the 3 segments I interacted with them (I slept the whole last segment). On one flight my seat-mate and I started chatting about the wonderful South Africa wines and the choices available on the flight. As the FA passed by to take drink orders before dinner I was having trouble making up my mind. When I mentioned my predicament, as well as my concern that the order needed to last all the way through dinner, he simply smiled, reached his hands into the cart and came out with one of everything for me. Yeah, that was nice.
The food on the flights was surprisingly good as well. There aren’t as many meals as I’ve become used to with my US – Europe flights, which is to say there was no breakfast on the eastbound redeye nor a second meal on the northbound JNB-DKR segment. I appreciated that for the first one: no need to wake up extra early when the flight is already barely long enough to get any sleep. On the return I could’ve used a bit more food near the end of the flight but they did have some snacks available in the galley so it wasn’t all bad.
I mostly ordered the lamb rather than the chicken or fish options. Seemed somewhat a safer bet. The meat was moist, not over-cooked and actually had flavor to it. I was quite surprised. Sure, it looks like most every other coach airline meal I’ve ever photographed, but it was surprisingly tasty.
The breakfasts offered (one on the DKR-JNB route and one just before arrival into JFK) were OK, too. Definitely slightly different flavors – like why were the apple-filled "pancakes" in a strawberry sauce – but overall quite reasonable. Even better is that they actually came with sides, like a yogurt, fresh fruit and a croissant. They were much more filling than I’m used to for a redeye breakfast.
The in-flight entertainment system is pretty nice, though it was also out of service on one of the segments. Rather than ads on their in-flight map they show tips about staying healthy during the trip using animations similar to the awesome guy they have in the safety demo video. When the AVOD is working the selection is rather impressive and the functionality is pretty sweet. And they have a handset controller so no one is tapping the back of your seat all flight long.
Overall I’m reasonably convinced that the good outweighed the bad, but there will always be a little worry in the back of my mind wondering if it is worth the risk to book with them; after all, paying hundreds of dollars more than expected at the departure airport isn’t high on my list of acceptable travel surprises. But in the end they’re the most direct path to Southern Africa and beyond and the in-flight experience is pretty solid.
Now about that $305 they owe me….
- South African Airways extorts additional fare at departure
- Bring back the classic in-flight map, please!