South African Airways A340-600 Business Class04/10/2012
PLANE TYPE A340-600
SEAT CONFIGURATION 2-2-2
SEAT PITCH 73 inch/185.4cm
SEAT WIDTH 21 inch/53.3cm
SEAT RECLINE Fully lie-flat seating
PRICE Internet rates for a weekday round-trip Business Class flight from New York JFK to Johannesburg OR Tambo in June started at $7,574.
VERDICT New York-Johannesburg is one of the longer flights on anybody’s schedule, so it needs to be done right. South African Airways is a four-star carrier who knows how to carry this off consistently and impeccably.
CHECK-IN Walking in to JFK Terminal 4, it’s not readily apparent (or at least wasn’t to this traveler) which check-in desk is for South African Airways’ premium class. I got in line for an economy queue, but in one of those serendipitous moments, a nattily-attired SAA employee rushed up to me and inquired if I needed help. When I told him what I was looking for, he graciously guided me toward SAA’s stand-alone premium traveler check-in. I asked what prompted him to come to my rescue, and he said, “Oh, you just looked sort of lost.”
So much for blending in. But the incident was a prelude to the kind of attentive service I was to enjoy throughout my journey to Jo’burg.
After check-in, I headed for the SAA lounge, which at JFK it shares with SWISS, Asiana and its other Star Alliance partners. The lounge is pre-security, quiet and reserved, with adequate work areas, comfortable seating and self-service food and drinks. It made a nice respite before tackling the circus that always seems to be awaiting at JFK security lines. Be forewarned; the best policy is to leave the lounge early and cloak yourself in patience.
BOARDING Once through security, who should I meet at the concourse but my genial guide from earlier in the morning. To my surprise, he recognized me and wished me bon voyage. Then on to the boarding gate where I was among the last passengers aboard.
The A340-600’s roomy business class cabin contains seven rows of fully-flat seats 2-2-2 across. Before I could get seated, a flight attendant came by armed with a tufted mat shaped to fit the seat from head to foot, thereby adding an extra layer of padding for the long flight. Once both my seat cushion and I were comfortably situated, a second flight attendant came through offering juice or Champagne, of which I chose the latter.
DEPARTURE We pushed away from the gate right on schedule. One fun feature on this flight: the overhead TV monitors show a shot from a camera mounted on the tail of our own aircraft. We could watch our plane thread its way across the tarmac to the end of the runway. It disappears during takeoff, but then comes back after the wheels are up.
Almost immediately upon reaching altitude, the cabin crew got busy, first serving drinks, then the main meal. For something a bit novel, I picked the Marklew Pinotage 2010, a red indigenous to South Africa. It was light and clean, with enough body to be interesting even at 38,000 feet. The grilled filet of beef had a bleu cheese crust, accompanied by a crisp peppercorn sauce and another glass of the Pinotage.
With 14-plus hours in the air, it was easy to get plenty of work done. I could have wished for the AC outlet to be somewhat more convenient, but was glad it was there to keep me powered up. Wrapping up work, I turned my attention to in-flight entertainment. The fully-electronic seat adjusted to mimic my favorite recliner and I settled in for a long-overdue favorite from the impressive selection of movies, TV shows and games.
The seat was so homey, in fact, that I started to doze (just like I do in front of my own TV), so I skipped the rest of the movie, converted the seat into a 6’ 6” bed and snuggled under the duvet where I spent the better part of the trip.
ARRIVAL A couple of hours outside Jo’burg, the crew began breakfast service: coffee, fresh fruit and a choice of blueberry pancakes or ham and cheese omelet. They’d also put out fresh bottles of water, for which I was especially grateful. After the restful night, the morning start was more energizing than any long-haul flying I can remember. Our touchdown at Tambo was flawless, and immigration went surprisingly smoothly.
— Dan Booth