The question of getting to South Africa from North America using Star Alliance is a challenge if you want to use your miles and fly in business class.
United Airlines does not serve South Africa, and South African rarely makes award space available in business class on its flights from Washington or New York. SA also serves Johannesburg from Munich, Frankfurt, and London, but also releases little award space. Lufthansa flies to JNB from Frankfurt and Cape Town from Munich and releases very little space, though sometimes a day or two before. Turkish used to release quite a lot of space, serving JNB from Istanbul with a tag flight to CPT, but only releases business class space once in a blue moon now. Swiss also rarely releases seats between Zurich and Johannesburg, though Wednesday seems to be a lucky day to find premium cabin space.
Then there are even less direct options if you want to use miles, options that tend to have better space, but require even more travel time. A good option is flying Air Canada or United to Sao Paulo, Brazil, then take SA to JNB, which has extremely good award space. Flying via Hong Kong on SA or via Beijing on Air China are also options, but good luck pricing that if you are using United miles. Singapore doesn’t release space in business between Singapore and JNB to partners.
Going via Perth is ridiculous (would require routing via Auckland) so that leaves connecting options via Africa. Ethiopian and Egypt Air have good award space, but an inferior product. SN Brussels flies to many former Belgian colonies with a nice business class seat, but that requires an extra stop in Europe. TAP Portugal flies to the nearby former Portuguese colony of Maputo, Mozambique, but the business class seat is also uncompetitive.
In other words, options are limited though SkyTeam and oneworld are not any better.
I chose to fly United to Lagos, Nigeria and then book an award ticket on South African from Lagos to Johannesburg. The flight is operated by an A343 with lie-flat seats in business class, but because the flight was under five hours I opted to fly in economy for 17,500 miles as opposed to business class for 35,000 miles. Taxes were $70. I priced out the ticket at more than $700 (and competitor Arik Air, the Nigerian national carrier which also serves JNB from LOS, was even more expensive) so this was a wise use of miles. Of course, United has now suspended its Lagos service so my particular routing is not possible but the LOS-JNB flight still occurs each evening at the same time.
Ok, on to the flight.
First a note. Nothing has changed on South African in the last two years. This report would no different had I taken the flight yesterday. Same airplanes, same seats, same service, same IFE, and same amenities.
South African Airways 61
Lagos (LOS) – Johannesburg (JNB)
Monday, October 06, 2014
Depart: 10:20 PM
Arrive: 5:10 AM+1
Duration: 5hr, 50min
Seat: 62H (Economy Class)
Boarding was totally unorganized, with a haphazard passport and security check at the gate, but once onboard I was welcomed warmly and directed to my seat, an exit row toward the back of the aircraft.
South African seats are old and heavy, but have plenty of padding and are not too bad for medium-haul flight like Lagos to Johannesburg.
AVOD is offered at each seat, but the system is really showing its age…with annoying lag time and extremely poor resolution.
Each seat contained a thin pillow, red fleece blanket, headphones, and an amenity kit. The amenity kit contained socks, an eyeshade, toothbrush, and toothpaste.
The flight was lightly filled, I would estimate by not more than 40%, and I had the seat next to me open for the entire flight.
It can be a bit awkward to sit in the exit row when the crew seat is right across, but I struck up a conversation with a very nice FA who listened to my reason for traveling to her country and then offered some tips on what to see and where to eat. Standard small talk and she was soon out of her seat as the aircraft passed 10,000 feet.
A full meal was offered on the flight and the options were chicken with mashed potatoes or Nigerian fish stew with plantains. I had to try the stew, which was chunks of white fish in rice and peas with a mild red sauce. It was nasty, as were the plantains. The cous cous and chocolate dessert were also nasty, the bread wasn’t fresh, and even the crackers had more chemicals in them than flour.
I know, I know, it is economy class and departing Nigeria, but why not just offer pasta? – that is difficult to mess up. No cracks about me ordering fish…
On a bright note, SA hands out individual bottles of water to each customer and also has some tasty fruit juice.
Sleep did not come after dinner, though I tried hard. When I was in law school, I flew a handful of redeyes in economy class and slept fine, but this was my first one in more than a year and it will take some getting used to again if I am to fly in economy class.
So I tried to sleep for the next few hours, but never really succeeded. I nodded off a few times, but I was exhausted when I landed in Johannesburg the following morning at 5am with eight hours to wait before my wife arrived.
Certainly I was disappointed by the poor meal on this flight, but service was good and the flight was on-time. Traveling within Africa can be quite expensive so using your miles will often make a great deal of sense.
This post is part of my Africa trip report.
> Read More: Introduction: A Month in Africa