Trip Report: South African Business Class from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg

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Six months in Argentina came to a close, and I started to fly my favorite award I’ve ever booked.

The first flight was from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg on South African Airways’ direct flight in business class. I downsized all my possessions for the two-month trip to one carry on bag (plus one dirty clothes bag, I cheated) and headed for the airport.

I arrived at the airport about three hours before the scheduled 6:10 PM departure, so that I could relax in the lounge and catch up on writing.

How was the flight? If this photo doesn’t get you excited for the trip report, nothing will!

Check in was a breeze, and I quickly made my way to the Star Alliance lounge on the second floor near gate 9.

The lounge is shared by all Star Alliance carriers flying into and out of Buenos Aires. Rookie Alli used it on her United BusinessFirst flight to the US.

Because so many folks have access, when I entered, the lounge was packed. There were a few free seats, but there weren’t any private areas.

I took a look at the food and drinks on offer and was underwhelmed. The choices were very South American with cold cuts of ham and cocktail wienies as some of the main options. The drink selection was superior, featuring a few liquors and some Argentine wines.

I settled in to start writing and boarding for Lufthansa’s daily flight to Frankfurt was soon announced. The flight is flown by a 747 with tons of premium cabin seats, and there were undoubtedly many Lufthansa frequent flyers with Star Alliance Gold in the lounge too, so the lounge basically emptied out at about 4:10 PM as they all left. For the last 75 minutes before my boarding was called, there were fewer than a dozen people in the lounge.

Post-Lufthansa

At about 5:25 PM, 45 minutes before the scheduled departure, South African’s boarding was announced in the lounge. I walked the 100 feet to the gate, but boarding was actually delayed for about 20 more minutes while the crew hung out at the gate with the rest of us.

Eventually boarding began at 5:45 PM, and I excitedly skedaddled down the jet way. I hadn’t read any trip reports of South African business class, and I had high hopes.

South African 227
Buenos Aires (EZE) – Johannesburg (JNB)
Depart: 6:10 PM on Friday, August 9
Arrive: 8:10 AM on Saturday, August 10
Duration: 9hr
Aircraft: Airbus A340-300 (two cabin)
Seat: 16A 4A (Business Class)

At the door, I was not so much greeted by a flight attendant as I was directed by one. I was directed to the right to the mini-cabin of business class behind the galley.

I was in 16A. Image from seatguru.com.

I chose seat 16A for this flight, which was to be my first of two South African business class flights in a week in a half. I wanted one window-seat-in-the-mini-cabin experience and one-middle/aisle-seat-in-the-larger-cabin experience to compare them.

All the seats had a pillow placed on them before boarding.

Window and aisle seat presentation

My first thought on the seat was that while it was comfortable, it was quite narrow. At 20.5″, it is the same width as United’s domestic first class, which is hardly ideal for a bed on a nine-hour flight.

While narrow, there was plenty of legroom in a sitting position. I couldn’t even reach my legs to the seat in front, and I’m 6’4″.

I immediately got to work familiarizing myself with the seat and cabin.

The seat controls were a simple-to-understand diagram, directly to my right.

The television was a very small monitor that came out from under and between the seats. I was disappointed by how small the TV was.

In front of the seat was a seat back pocket and a drink holder that you could not reach sitting down, so it was not convenient.

In front of the seat was a potential storage cavity, but overall there was very little seat storage. Of course there is plenty of overhead bin space, but it is nice to have your things within arm’s reach instead of having to get up.

In the seat back pocket were my headphones. I think South African Airways found the headphones I chucked 15 years ago because these would have been state-of-the-art in the mid-90s.

Between the seats was also a reading light.

My seat was the last row before economy, which didn’t look very comfortable for a nine hour flight. I was glad to be up front.

Fifteen minutes after sitting down, a flight attendant came by to offer me a selection of South African newspapers. I always select one to try to see what’s going on in my destination, but as usual, I didn’t get around to reading the paper.

As boarding continued, only three of the 12 mini-cabin seats had been taken, me and a pair of Argentine women. I was looking forward to such an empty cabin when a flight attendant came around asking us to please move up to the main cabin. No reason was given, but I assume it was to make the flight attendants’ lives slightly easier by not having to cover as much space. I was disappointed to be losing the seat I had selected, but I complied and moved forward to seat 4A, the last row of the main business class cabin.

My new view

Objectively my situation was basically identical. I still had a left window seat with nobody in my aisle seat, but I was disappointed to move. Have you ever been asked to move for a flight attendant’s convenience?

Only 12 of the 24 business class seats in the forward cabin were taken, 12 out of the 36 total, so we had a pretty empty flight and four flight attendants to take care of us.

In quick succession after my seat move, I was offered orange juice or champagne from a tray and then my amenity kit.

The amenity kit contained what I’ve come to expect:

  • toothbrush
  • toothpaste
  • brush/comb
  • socks
  • eye mask
  • ear plugs
  • lotion
  • lip balm

I quickly slipped into the socks as the aircraft door was closed. We taxied out pretty much on time despite the late boarding.

I was disappointed in the pre-departure service. Not once was I greeted, addressed by name, or introduced to any of the flight attendants. I also thought with only 12 passengers a drink order would have been possible instead of just being offered two choices on a tray.

Hazy view of Buenos Aires downtown and Rio de la Plata at sunset

After takeoff, menus were distributed and a refreshing hot towel was offered. The menu read as follows:

A separate wine list was distributed with South African and South American vintages.

As we pondered the menu, the drink service began with carts rumbling down the aisle.

I ordered a water, but I wasn’t given the canapes that everyone else was getting. No explanation was given, but ten minutes later the flight attendant, again without explanation, brought me the canapes.

At this point, our meal orders were taken. I chose the lentil soup and the chicken, but they were out of chicken. I looked at the other choices, and I went with the beef because I don’t eat seafood, and the pasta didn’t sound filling enough. I have never had good beef on a plane (and I am an easy food critic), so I was not looking forward to the main course.

The soup and salad were brought along with a bread basket. I love bread baskets, and I love warm garlic bread. I asked the flight attendant: “Is this the garlic bread?”

“It’s supposed to be, but I don’t see any garlic,” he responded. He was right. There was no garlic on it.

The soup was absolutely delicious, by far my favorite part of the meal. The small pear, walnut, and cheese salad was also quite tasty, and the bread was pretty good with the olive oil/balsamic vinagrette combo given as salad dressing.

The appetizers were cleared and the main course of beef, rice, and veggies was brought. As you can see, the beef does not look appetizing, and it was not.

My streak of never enjoying a steak-based meal on board a plane continued, but I hungrily finished the tasteless plate.

One thing I liked about the meal service was that the flight attendants served each person at his own speed. I am a very fast eater, and my plates were cleared, and my meal moved along. In fact from the appetizer to the dessert, I finished in 29 minutes. I was happy everything was being moved along, so I could get to bed early.

After the meal, I was offered dessert or cheese and chose the cheese plate.

The cheese plate was a fantastic finish to the meal, especially the bleu cheese offered. A final after-dinner chocolate was offered.

During the meal service, I had been watching Life of Pi, but after I finished I turned off the movie halfway through and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and prepare for bed even though it was only 8 PM. (I was exhausted after a week of nightlife in Buenos Aires and an early start to my last day.)

When I got back from the bathroom, the “turndown service” was in progress, which consisted of taking the mattress pad and duvet out of the overhead bin and explaining it to the passengers. “This is the back; this is the front.” Actually making the bed was not offered.

I flattened my seat into a bed. I had read online that the bed should be 180 degrees fully flat, but it most assuredly is not.

As you can see the bed is slight angled with respect to the floor. The head of the bed is higher than the foot rest, which is the most angled part of the bed. As you can imagine, this was not a particularly comfortable bed.

The good news is that I was so exhausted that I immediately fell asleep for five hours and fifteen minutes, waking just before the breakfast service started.

This may be the poker player in me complaining, but just because I slept soundly for over five hours does not mean the bed was OK. The bed was uncomfortable and only because of my exhaustion did I sleep so well. The bed has a bad expected value of sleep even though the outcome of measured sleep wsa very good. But we should be outcome independent and note that the bed is subpar. (To bring it back to the poker reference, getting all in with 97 against AA is really bad even if you win the hand.)

The bed is the most important part of a premium cabin for me. I want to arrive at my destination rested and ready to hit the ground. South African’s bed is not ideal for that. I prefer United‘s, British Airways‘, and any other fully flat bed.

I woke up at 6:35 AM South Africa time, just over two hours before arrival and right before the morning service began. Another refreshing hot towel was offered, followed by a juice tray.

I rebooted Life of Pi to watch the ending as the cabin lights were turned on and the sun rose.

Breakfast began with fruit, cereal, and that delightful liquid yogurt everyone else in the world loves, and we call Go-Gurt.

Another bread basket was also brought around, and I selected a croissant.

There was no choice of the hot portion of breakfast–everyone got the same eggs, potatoes, mushrooms, bacon, and sausage. I very much enjoyed breakfast, certainly more than my steak dinner.

At 7:20 AM South African time, trays were removed and ten minutes later, duvets and blankets were collected. Ten minutes after that, the in flight entertainment was cut off just as Life of Pi ended.

The comfortable cradle position.

I’m not sure why the movies were cut 12 minutes before landing, but I headed to the back of the cabin where there was a selection of magazines and newspapers and selected The Economist to read during the final descent.

We touched down at 7:56 AM, 14 minutes early and taxied for 10 minutes to a remote stand where we took buses to the terminal.

Arrivals Lounge

I gave most of my impressions of O.R. Tambo International Airport here, but I didn’t mention the Arrivals Lounge in that post.

Just past baggage claim is a South African Arrival Lounge for business class passengers.

The lounge had a small selection of food, internet, and a few showers. I was in a hurry to catch a flight to Cape Town, so I didn’t test anything out, but it looked like a good place to refresh if you have to have an early morning arrival.

Overall

Seat: The seat was comfortable for lounging with ample leg room. I was disappointed by the width.

Food: The food was hit and miss. The hits were the soup, the cheese, and the breakfast. The miss was the steak. This was certainly not a highlight of the flight, but not a reason to avoid SAA either.

Service: The service was typical of what you’d get from an American airline. The flight attendants were pleasant, but they certainly don’t strive to make the flight memorable.

Bed: The bed was secretly angled slightly and quite uncomfortable. This was the worst part of the flight.

In Flight Entertainment: The IFE was adequate. I saw a few movies that looked good. Certainly the selection wasn’t as impressive as some airlines, but there was plenty for a nine-hour redeye.

Recommendation: Getting to South Africa is tough with miles, and South African has some key routes that can get you there.

I’m more of a destination-over-flight guy, so I would recommend South African business class if you want to get to South Africa conveniently despite the product’s evident shortcomings.

The day after the flight I was hiking Lion’s Head with this view of Cape Town, so I’m certainly glad I flew the flight!

How I Did It

I booked this flight as part of a four-continent, 40-hours-in-business-class award that cost only 100k US Airways miles! The award relied on US Airways’ very cheap award chart and their agents allowing incredibly out-of-the-way routings like Buenos Aires to Munich via Johannesburg.

My routing was 43% more miles than a direct flight according to gcmap.com

The best way to earn US Airways miles is to get the US Airways Premier World MasterCard with 30,000 US Airways miles after first purchase.

  • Earn up to 40,000 bonus miles on qualifying transactions
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  • Enjoy 2 miles per $1 spent on US Airways purchases
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  • Annual companion certificate good for round-trip travel for up to 2 companions at $99 each, plus taxes and fees
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Application Link: US Airways Premier World MasterCard





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15 COMMENTS

  1. I flew this route in June. I found the service to be much better than what you experienced and a bit better than what United offers in business. I agree with you on the comfort of the bed, but it was due to me not being able to get the lumbar adjusted correctly. Sleeping with a lump in the middle of your back just doesn’t do it for me. I think they angle the bed slightly because planes typically cruise with the nose slightly higher than the tail. If the bed were completely flat relative to the aisle of the plane, then your head would be below your feet, which is not comfortable. Scott, you should have gotten the pumpkin ravioli. It was awesome and plenty filling.

    • It’s from Lion’s Head toward Table Mountain. I totally agree! Of all the cities I’ve ever been to, Cape Town is laid out the most amazingly between-and-among the mountains and ocean.

  2. 1. The new FC LAN lounge looks much better than your lounge.

    2. Was denied boarding w/o yellow fever shot cert in BA for flight to JNB in Mar. But I re routed and ended up flying JFK-JNB & JNB-MUC on SAA. Both flights had the new seats and felt more comfortable than yours. One negative thing is that they still use buses to ferry passengers to/fr terminal.

    3. I see ur still pushing the crappy USAir cc link.

  3. @Lee
    It’s funny you mention that. I went to a lot of trouble to get a yellow fever card out of an abundance of caution even though I couldn’t get any confirmation that I actually needed one. No one ever asked for it. Maybe it was because it was Argentine winter or maybe because I was simply transiting the BA airport.

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