In Memoriam Review: South African Airways Business Class Was Perfectly Mediocre

REVIEW OVERVIEW

Comfort
Service
Value
Convenience
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Review South African Airways business class on A330

Review: South African Airways Business Class on A330-São Paulo to Johannesburg

My “in memoriam” review: South African Airways Business Class on the A330 from São Paulo Guarulhos Airport to Johannesburg, South Africa was entirely mediocre as far as business class products were concerned. As the airline looks to be saying its final goodbyes, I want to look back at their business class between Brazil and South Africa. This review includes the hard product (things you can touch) and soft product (service). Let’s take a look.

Booking process

We booked through United Airlines. The daily South African Airways flight from São Paulo GRU to Johannesburg JNB was an amazing sweet spot in the United Airlines award chart. Just 50,000 MileagePlus miles. We even connected domestically on United’s partner Azul for no extra fees. Unfortunately, South African Airways cut this route (among others) as one of its last-gasp efforts to avoid a 2nd bankruptcy. The COVID-19 pandemic put the final nail in the coffin, despite these measures.

South African Airways business class via United booking on miles

We paid only $38.00 in taxes each. That’s because United Airlines doesn’t add carrier-imposed fees, and Brazil is one of the countries that don’t allow excessive fees/taxes on award bookings. Cash fares on this route average $2500+. The value of my booking was 4.9 cents per point, which I’m very happy with.

How to Get United Miles

Since we’re using United to book, how do you get a bunch of United miles? United is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy (3:1.1 transfer ratio + 5,000 bonus miles for each 60,000 Marriott points you send). The Marriott transfers give a 10% bonus compared to other airlines, due to the agreement with Chase.

United Airlines also has co-branded credit cards from Chase, including some increased welcome offers. The new United Business Card has a welcome offer of up to 100,000 miles after spending $10,000 within 3 months. The United Explorer Card’s welcome offer is for 60,000 miles after $3,000 in purchases within 3 months of account opening. Opening either of these cards and earning the bonus from the welcome offer would give you enough miles for this flight.

Review: Star Alliance Lounge Then Amex Lounge at GRU São Paulo

With our South African Airways business class tickets, we had access to the Star Alliance lounge at São Paulo GRU. This is easily the busiest and most crowded lounge in terminal 3, the international terminal. It’s a Priority Pass lounge, as well as receiving traffic for all of the business and first class passengers from Star Alliance. There were numerous Star Alliance flights around the same time as our flight, plus the Priority Pass visitors, so the lounge was quite packed. This was the least busy room.

Star Alliance Lounge GRU

We left and went across the hall to the American Express lounge. I had access as a perk on the Charles Schwab version of my American Express Platinum Card. My wife entered using her American Express Business Platinum Card. The lounge was much quieter and not as packed.

American Express lounge at Sao Paulo GRU airport

The lounge offers showers for a fee. The food and drinks are all self-service. There are 2 of the exact same buffet set up, which was nice. It kept the food area from getting overcrowded at any time. The food and drink offerings were nothing impressive but had a variety to suit different tastes. There were soups, build-your-own salad options, and a variety of hot dishes. Knowing that we’d eat on the flight, we weren’t too worried about the amount of food available.

Review: South African Airways Business Class on A330

I’ll start with the summary: mediocre.

This same flight was our first award redemption in business class back in the day. For that reason, we had fond memories of it. Now that we’ve flown other products, it simply can’t compare. I’d say this international business class product is only superior to that of Copa Airlines. Copa’s business product on international flights compares to a domestic business class flight inside the U.S.

The South African Airways business class product was a step above that. It did have lie-flat seats, but it is below all other business class products I’ve flown internationally.

Boarding was efficient. Boarding was through separate jetways, with business passengers using the left option while economy passengers used the right jetway.

The A330 offered a 2-class product. There were 8 rows of business class seats (no first class). These 8 rows were broken into 2 mini cabins of 4 rows each. Seating is 2-2-2, because they ran their older product on this route. Thus, each mini cabin had 24 passengers at maximum.

I’m not a fan of 2-2-2 business class. When traveling solo, choosing the window seat (my favorite) means climbing over someone whose bed is laying down when you need to stretch your legs or use the toilet. You can choose an aisle seat to avoid this, but then you can’t look out the window. When everyone is moving away from 2-2-2, this shows the plane was dated. South African Airways was working on upgrading planes to newer layouts, and this may have been part of why they had no money and are saying goodbye.

South African Airways business class Sao Paulo to Johannesburg

Review: South African Airways business class hard product

“Hard product” refers to things that you can touch. The items built into the plane. Seats, controls, plane features, etc. are part of the hard product. Let’s look at those first.

Business class seat

The South African Airways business class seat was a traditional lie-flat product. The hard shell around your seat prevents others from disturbing you, which is nice. The seat is decently comfortable. Nothing outstanding, but it’s comfortable.

Storage space is in the cubbies under the seat in front of you or ample overhead bins above the side and middle seats. The seats also have a massage feature. I like this feature and used it a few times while watching movies.

South African Airways business class A330 massage feature

The seat is a fully lie-flat seat. This is great for sleeping, since the route left Brazil at night and arrived in South Africa in the morning.

Sleeping on SAA flight Sao Paulo to Johannesburg

When you want to sleep, flight attendants can give you a blanket. There were no mattress pad/pajamas/slippers in this business class product. However, the lie-flat seat is moderately comfortable and does its job. You can lie down and sleep well using the seat & pillow found on your seat during boarding. My wife cannot sleep sitting up in economy and wakes up easily during flights. However, she managed to sleep from the time they collected dinner items until they brought breakfast. That’s quality sleep.

There is an overhead light like you’d see in economy. There’s also a reading lamp near your shoulder.

Personal Entertainment System

I found the Personal Entertainment System (PES) strange. It folds out of the armrest like you’d see for tray tables in an exit row.

PES on South African Airways business class A330

This limits the size of the screen considerably. However, a nice feature of the screen being so close is that it’s easy to operate. Rather than difficult remotes, the silver lining here is that the touchscreen is right there. Easy to use, easy to access.

Review: South African Airways Business Class Soft Product

This experience confirms my continued experience with employees you meet in South African service sectors. The men will smile the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. The women will be 50% unbelievably rude and 50% super nice. The flight attendants greeting passengers inside the plane and then during the flight confirmed my recurring experience. (The gate staff were all Brazilian)

Flight attendants handed out headphones after boarding. Some were friendly and some “just doing my job”.

Meals

Meal service was efficient. That’s the best word to describe it. It was nothing special. The male flight attendant who brought dinner was super friendly and aimed for customer service. The female flight attendant who served our breakfast was efficient–nothing more and nothing less. No smiles, just doing the job efficiently.

South African Airways dinner in business class - special vegan meal

Dinner

The dinner presentation was good. The mixed vegetables in a tomato sauce over rice were filling. Food was hot and fresh. This was from our special request for a vegan meal, which also came with a soy “meatloaf”. This was good on flavor but really dry. There was a salad and side of fruit, as well.

South African Airways vegan breakfast in business class is a flop

Breakfast

If dinner was good on service but mediocre on food, breakfast was a flop. First, service wasn’t very good. No smiles at all. Just trying to get things done quickly and efficiently without providing any “customer service”.

The food was a flop. The potatoes lacked flavor, just plain potatoes. The broccoli and mixed greens were the complete definition of “soggy”. Really overcooked and not worth eating, though I did, because I was hungry and loathe food waste. I’m not a real fan of mushrooms, but they were the best part of the meal. That’s simply because they were cooked the right amount of time and had some flavor. The tomato was grilled and became something interesting after I added a little salt & pepper.

Then…there was a block of tofu. I know tofu is a food people love to make fun of, but hear me out. Tofu is AWESOME, because you can do so much with it. You CAN do so much with it. South African Airways (or let’s say their food contractor at GRU airport in São Paulo) did nothing. It was just a block of tofu sitting on a plate. I doused that thing in all the remaining salt & pepper I had, then added some hot sauce. It became tolerable, but the complete lack of imagination/effort/chef skills here was surprising. This is a meal I could spend 5 minutes bumbling together in the kitchen. In 10 minutes, I could personally make a meal 5x better than this, and I’ve never taken a cooking class. This description makes for a pretty poor review of a business class meal.

Final thoughts on South African Airways Business Class

This was a product I was really excited to fly again. I had good memories from flying it the first time. However, I think I remember it through rose-colored lenses. Having never flown a business class product before that experience, everything seemed amazing. We were greeted by name, had lie-flat seats, slept well…remember your first business class experience?

Now that I’ve flown other products, nearly anything is better. Don’t get me wrong: this was a decent product. It was totally mediocre, and mediocre doesn’t mean bad. For 50,000 miles, I had 2 hot meals and a good amount of sleep on a trip over the ocean. That’s a pretty good value.

However, the flight attendants were a mixed bag. Meals started decently then flopped. The product was really dated. A passenger near us with elite status on South African Airways sad he hates visiting Brazil for work, because they used these old planes on this route that are far inferior to others in their arsenal.

Improvements were on the way before the airline ran into major issues financially. Their newer business class product on the A330-300 looked like it would be a much better product. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re saying goodbye to South African Airways before trying the new product.

New South African Airways product in 1-2-1 business class layout

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Ryan S
Travel hacker in 2-player mode, intent on visiting every country in the world, and can say "hello" or "how much does this cost?" in a bunch of different languages.

1 COMMENT

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1 COMMENT

  1. Having flown this route several times on SAA (albeit always in the opposite direction) I can attest to the superiority of the new 1-2-1 seats and much better service in the smaller rear J cabin. I’ll miss SAA but suppose LATAM will be a reasonable STAR partner on this route.

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