Africa’s most respected airline is also its oldest. South African Airways, formed from Union Airways traces services to 1929. Following WWII the airline resumed services to England which took 3 days and had six intermediate stops. South African Airways joined the jetset in 1952. It quickly replaced the unreliable British built Comets with Boeing 707’s from 1958 offering long distance flights to Australia, the US, Brazil and Europe. Jumbo 747’s arrived in 1971 and the airline eventually acquired a staggering 23 of these Boeings. In the 1980’s Apartheid era sanctions began to bite as landing rights were withdrawn. In 1986 the USA and in 1987 Australia cancelled services. The end of Apartheid saw a speedy recovery in the airlines fortunes with resumed flights to the US in 1991 and Australia a year later. In 1997 the airline adopted its distinctive livery inspired by the country’s flag and in 2006 they became the first African carrier to be admitted to Star Alliance.
South African Airways delivers a pleasant on-board experience. Staff are attractivley attired and smile politely rather than actually engage with passengers. The aircraft interiors are nice enough however the experience is noticeably un-African for non-South Africans. If it were not for the pleasant black faces and the dash of colour on their uniform scarf, it would be difficult to identify which part of the world this airline is actually from.
South African Airways provides a reasonable international network to Johannesburg and a comprehensive domestic network within South Africa, however not everyone wants to go to Johannesburg. SAA is beaten on its home turf by airlines like Emirates which fly direct to Durban and Cape Town while Malaysian flies to Cape Town from both Kuala Lumper and Buenos Aires. South African Airways’ codeshare arrangement to Sydney with Qantas simply does not provide the same level of service and it’s difficult to understand why they cooperate so closely with a One World airline anyway.
South African Airways provide competitive fares in its domestic market while being more reliable than its competitors. On its international legs the airline is not exactly cheap especially if Johannesburg is not your final destination. The airline provides an overall average level of worth in the value for money stakes.
Don’t expect to find much local cuisine on board a South African Airways flight. Catering is pretty standard however premium classes will be served a variety of fine South African wines which are amongst the world’s finest. Meals are reasonably generous in composition but are served in aluminium foil and plastic trays in Economy and china and linen in Business or First Class. Shorter distance flight domestic passengers are not forgotten and receive a more than adequate meal or snack.
The airline’s Entertainment product is basic. Longer flights will have in built video monitors on the front seats and fold out entertainment units in premium classes while shorter flights will have no electronic entertainment. The airlines magazine is so uninteresting it is rarely retained as a souvenir. Longer flights have a wide variety of audio channels to choose from.
Ground services in South Africa’s airports are very good in one way but a risk in others. All passengers are treated like premium passengers by pleasant ground staff. South African Airways provide an extremely high level of administrative services by staff. Ticketing and seating issues are dealt with efficiently and pleasantly. But the other side of the coin is the baggage theft which is a real issue at airports throughout Africa, including South Africa. Bags left unclaimed are sitting ducks for thieves. Bag wrapping services do well with South African bound passengers finding it a necessity.
South African Airways provide very mixed premium services. First and Business Class passengers expect and receive good service however newer aircraft are configured better than others. Many of South Africa Airways’ premium passengers are very demanding and try the patience of crew who ‘have seen it all before’. Unfortunately fending off unreasonable passengers affects everyone else who suffers from jaded staff. Crew often has a good reason to be jaded on this airline! Some of South African Airways’ Lounges are excellent while others are a large member only cafe.
Long distance flights in Economy are quite trying and your experience promises to be very average. Holiday makers on Safari will need to wait until they arrive in the country before they really feel like they have reached Africa as South African Airways as more of an ‘International’ feel than an ‘African’ feel. In fact for an airline from a country so rich in culture its amazing how little reaches the airline. But Economy passengers receive a good overall experience from the airline which is above average.
South African Airways frequent flyer scheme is called Voyager which earns points on all Star Alliance flights together with others but the scheme will only be of value to business or very frequent flyers as points are practically worthless. Miles are best used to enjoy an upgrade and many members may have to wait years to enjoy it if they take a modest number of flights.
The problems South Africa experienced with Apartheid still permeate the airline. In the bad old days Whites were promoted and now the airline favours non-Whites. Senior management is stacked with people with the right political connections to the ruling ANC regime while highly qualified White candidates for jobs will be bypassed for darker applicants. The airlines current CEO Siza Mzimela and her predecessor have been accused by South Africa’s Communication Workers Union of nepotism and corruption. Lazy managers in the company behave as if they have inherited a job-for-life and make some extremely poor quality decisions. The company is management top heavy with deadwood in need of a good pruning. Middle managers and those fronting passengers are typically much better than their bosses.
During the Apartheid era, sanctions compelled South African Airways to develop its own engineering and maintenance facilities to repair and keep up its aging fleet which it was largely unable to replace. As a consequence the company developed a highly skilled and imaginative set of skills amongst its engineering staff which it has largely maintained. Consequently South African Airways is the most respected airline in the continent, but nevertheless does not operate without incidence. Aircraft are well maintained and pilots are experienced and devoted.
Africa’s finest airline provides a reliable and efficient, if unmemorable service.
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