TESTED BY Dan Booth
PLANE TYPE Airbus A330-300
SEAT CONFIGURATION 1-2-1
SEAT PITCH 45 inches
SEAT WIDTH 24 inches
SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees
PRICE Roundtrip starting at $8,167 roundtrip in mid-April
VERDICT: South African Airways consistently tops Business Traveler’s Best in Business Travel Awards as the best airline in Africa and the best business class to Africa. This business class product shows why. It’s everything you’d expect and more – modern décor with a distinctly African aesthetic, plus efficient, friendly service.
BACKGROUND: South African Airways currently flies to six continents, and outside of Africa, North America is the carrier’s largest international region. The airline’s two gateways in the US are New York JFK and Washington Dulles, with onward connections throughout North America by virtue of its Star Alliance partner, United Airlines.
CHECK-IN: If I have to choose between departing from JFK or Dulles, generally speaking I’d choose the latter for its more genteel approach to air travel. As I was a few hours ahead of flight time, there were no lines at the SAA check-in counter, so getting the boarding pass was quick and easy. Security was a different matter; the lines were long and slow and TSA Pre-check was not an option. Once past security, I made my way to the Turkish Airlines lounge which hosts South African Airways guests. The lounge is a two-story affair with a bar tucked around the corner. The food was plentiful and tasty, and at the reception desk there’s a never-ending bowl of Turkish delight.
BOARDING: The boarding process was unremarkable thanks to its efficiency. Once on board, I was met with a friendly South African “sawubona” (hello) and – in keeping with SAA’s commitment to serve South African wines – a glass of sparkling Method Cap Classique.
THE SEAT: Unlike its long-haul counterparts in the rest of the South African Airways fleet, business class aboard the A330-300 that serves the IAD-JNB route is a 1-2-1 arrangement, which allows every business class passenger direct aisle access. (The A340 on the JFK route remains a 2-2-2). The interior design has a contemporary feel, the colors are bright and warm and the amenities around the seat are convenient situated. I found the dual seat controls particularly handy – one set of buttons at shoulder height, the other set available when the bed is fully-flat.
THE FLIGHT: After we were airborne, the cabin crew came around with the drink carts and dinner menus. My wine choice was a 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon from the ancient Welmoed Winery in Stellenbosch, which paired well with the braised beef short ribs served with a sweet and sour sauce. After a dessert of key lime cheesecake, I settled in to watch a first-run movie from the inflight entertainment library on the pleasantly responsive touch screen. The flight is not nonstop; during the hour-long refueling stopover in Dakar we were required to stay on the plane. There was plenty of activity, and I was glad I waited until we took off on the second leg before I tried to sleep. Then I reclined the lie-flat bed and slept quite comfortably almost until our arrival time.