REVIEW: South African Airways Economy Class Johannesburg - Cape Town
When I booked my first trip to Africa on a relatively inexpensive ticket to Johannesburg, I knew that I didn't actually want to spend my time there. That isn't to say there aren't worthwhile things to eat, do, and see in Joburg - on the contrary, it seems like quite a lively and vibrant city from what I've heard. I simply knew that for this particular trip I was looking for something a little different. I ended up booking a trip up to Livingstone in Zambia were I did quite a bit of exploring and even crossed the border into Botswana for a bit. I was happy with the time I had set aside for exploring the natural wonders in southern Africa, yet I still felt like getting myself a little taste of city life. When it comes to cities in Africa, very few have a reputation for being as beautiful and vibrant of a city as Cape Town!
In travel there are a lot of choices to be made - which airline to fly, which hostel to stay at, what sites to see. This was one of the few situations where there was clearly no contest - I was going to Cape Town, it has been a dream of mine to visit this city on the African coast for as long as I can remember. No question about it. Case closed.
As I had already figured out my flights from Johannesburg (JNB) to Zambia and back, I now needed to figure out how to get from JNB to Cape Town (CPT). Five airlines operate the route - two full service carriers (British Airways affiliate Comair, South African Airways) and three low cost carriers (Kulula, Safair, and Mango). While looking for airfare I was surprised to see that South African Airways (SA) was offering the lowest price out of all five carriers and had a schedule that worked really well for me. I could arrive from Livingstone on Comair and connect about three and a half hours later onward to Cape Town. Enough padding for a potential delay but not long enough that hanging around an airport would become soul-suckingly boring. I forked over the $80 USD and soon enough I had a ticket in my inbox and was officially headed to CPT!
SA's domestic flights leave from Terminal B at JNB, which meant when I arrived from Livingstone at Terminal A I needed to grab my luggage and march it over to the other terminal to get a boarding pass and check my luggage through to CPT. It goes without question that South African is the biggest, baddest kid on the block at just about any South African airport, so it was a bit of a mine field trying to figure out where I should queue up to get all of the above taken care of in an orderly manner. Check-in desks are listed on electronic boards throughout the terminal, and perhaps it was just a quirk during my trip through, but the flights did not seem to be listed in any type of rational order. Not alphabetically, not by departure time - just randomly thrown on to the board like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Eventually I deciphered the code and found the check-in desks appropriate for my flight. Much like my British Airways operated by Comair flight up to Livingstone, the check-in staff were pretty disinterested in providing anything but the minimal level of service to get my bag tagged and boarding pass in hand. With South African Airways essentially operating a shuttle service between JNB and CPT, I can't say I blame them for being a bit bored with the repetition of it all, though it wouldn't kill them to smile a bit. Getting through security was a breeze and before long I was staking out a spot at my departure gate which was almost at the end of the terminal.
Outside of the terminal windows I could see a light drizzle falling from the sky, and apparently that light drizzle was just the front line of a string of storms coming in from CPT. My flight posted a one hour delay, which elicited a round of groans from passengers. After about 40 minutes we were notified that our flight was now boarding, though no one at our gate had opened the door to the jet bridge or started announcing a boarding order. Everyone stood around for a minute just shaking their heads in confusion before one of the staff members got back on the PA and told us that our flight was now boarding .... from the gate three doors down.
Cue the mad dash of people scrambling to pick up their bags and run down the hallway to get onto the plane.
Having checked my bigger luggage I managed to be one of the first people to arrive at the correct gate and on to the plane.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to secure many pictures during this flight as the delay caused what was already a full flight to go into a bit of chaos. I figured it was best to snap a few photos and sit my ass down so we could pull of the stand and get going, particularly when the flight attendants got on the PA and told us that if we didn't get going soon we might be held again due to the approaching weather.
The aircraft itself seemed a bit ratty and beat up, but certainly kept clean and in working order. The seats were comfortable as they featured full cushioning that had been lovingly worn in by thousands of asses, great and small, prior to the arrival of mine. The slim line seats that are proliferating across the world are hard to deal with, though in the grand scheme of things we will all survive. It's one of the perks of hopping onto an aircraft and seeing it's a bit "vintage" though.
Soon enough my seatmates had arrived and I was able to get a full feel for the seat now that I didn't have the ample room to spread out. The leg room felt a bit tighter to me than I've experienced on other airlines. I'm 5'8" so I'm never bumping my knees into seatbacks, but I had to noticeably pull my legs in a bit compared to other short haul configured aircraft I've flown.
In terms of lateral space (which is the most important aspect of a seat for me since I'm what traditional is called "husky" I believe...), I also felt a bit closed in. Not "taking a 14 hour flight seated next to a 600 lb man" closed in, more of a "sitting on the subway with five people in a space that's really more of a four and a half person venue" kinda way. The guy seated in the middle seat next to me was pretty skinny and while I'm not the thinnest guy on the block, I still fit comfortably into an economy class seat without creeping under the arm rest or needing a seat belt extender. Even so, we ended up doing the "arm rest two step" for the entire 2 hour flight. It was particularly awkward at times when he decided to bring out his laptop and try to get some work done, gesticulating his arm back and forth in our limited space for quite awhile. At times I wasn't sure if he was typing on his key board of hitting on me by typing out "wanna bang" on my elbow in morse code.
Once we were in the air the flight attendants made their way down the aisle offering a beverage and meal service. Even though this was a domestic flight it appears South African hasn't done away with meal service offerings like its US-based cousins. I was in the second to last row of the cabin so by the time they reached me there was only one option left for dining tonight - a lasagna.
The lasagna was paired with a side of vegetables, a salad with a creamy dressing, and an orange sponge cake with icing. The thin layer of grease the coated just about everything was apparently complimentary.
The salad was a bit odd as it didn't feature any lettuce. Maybe that's just my own hang up, but I prefer my salads to have some sort of leafy base. The lasagna itself was just alright. It gave off a lot of elementary school cafeteria entree vibes. The side vegetables were so soggy and mushy that they were essentially inedible. As is often the case with airline meals - the dessert was the only saving grace. Sweet and moist.
Doing a throwback to my British Airways flight operated by Comair, the South African Airways in-flight staff were light years ahead of their ground staff in terms of friendliness and being service-oriented. Lots of smiles and apologies for the delay, even though it was weather-related and there was absolutely no fault that laid with them. My request for both a diet coke and a water were met with a smile.
The remainder of the flight was spent doing the elbow shuffle with my seatmate while watching South African television programs that were being played on the fixed screens hanging from the ceiling. I learned quite a bit about luxury safari lodgings from one of the stars of the South African rugby team as a film crew followed him around several lodges in Kruger National Park. Normally I would have my own toys to keep me entertained, but having just spent quite awhile in the Zambian bush and boating through Botswana, my Kindle and other distractions weren't powered up. Plus, there are worse things in life than being stuck watching a muscled up South African rugby player take a bubble bath in the African savannah.
Soon enough our descent into CPT was announced and the crew prepped the cabin for landing. The captain jumped on the horn and warned us that there were storms around the airport and that we could expect a bumpy ride for the remainder of the flight and proceeded to tell the FAs they needed to be strapped in immediately.
And wow, was he right.
There were a few moments during our descent where I wasn't sure if I was on a plane or inside Nicki Minaj's left ass cheek during the filming of the "Anaconda" music video.
A spectacular light show greeted us as we landed as bolts of lightning lit up the landscape around us on both sides of the plane. It made me slightly nervous but I persevered and maintained my calm, cool demeanor until our wobbly wheels finally touched down at CPT.
We taxied to our gate fairly quickly and were deboarding in no time. It seems we were likely to be the last plane to land that day at CPT for awhile as I heard from staff on our walk to the luggage carousel that they had halted movements into the airport due to the poor weather. The sky outside was pitch black, just like it was in JNB. This was an ominous foreshadowing of the remainder of my time in Cape Town sadly, though I didn't know it at the time.
My luggage was already on the belt when I entered the baggage claim, which officially makes it the only good thing about South African's ground service for this trip. Baggage in hand I sought out a taxi to head to my accommodation for my stay in Cape Town - the Westin. Unlike just about any other airport I've ever visited, there were no marked booths offering prepaid taxis nor a queue outside where one could easily line up for a trip into the city. The airport kiosks and the exterior of the building were essentially deserted. I wandered around the area, sometimes in the pouring rain, desperately searching for a taxi. Finally a man lounging against a closed kiosk inside the arrivals area flagged me down and said that if I needed a taxi he would find one for me. I was extremely skeptical at this point as taxi scams are popular in just about any airport in the world, but sure enough he disappeared for a few minutes into the downpour before rushing back toward the building flailing his arms with a taxi cab behind him. I hopped in and off we went to the hotel, where I paid almost exactly the amount of fare I was told to expect.
If you're out there sir, thank you very much for your kind assistance.
As an aviation geek, I was happy to have flown with South African Airways. I'm constantly looking for ways to fly with new carriers and collect another "flown it" pin for my growing list of airlines. On the service side of things, South African Airways really didn't impress. The ground experience was pretty lacking, the hard product was just uncomfortable enough to be annoying but tolerable, and the soft product variable with good staff attitudes but poor catering and IFE. All in all nothing that would keep me from flying with them again, but not enough to put them on my list of favorite airlines.