South African Air's new aircraft offers luxury of sleep

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Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

When your world travels are mostly in coach, nothing spells luxury quite like an upgrade on long-haul flights.

Add in a new plane and you will see seasoned travelers get downright ecstatic.

I mean what, really, could be better than boarding a 16-hour flight after a whirlwind press trip to discover that the very dated and not-so-comfortable plane you had been expecting had been swapped for a new, plusher aircraft with extra personal space, thick-cushioned lie-flat seats, 18-inch television monitors and an all-around luxurious feel?

The travel gods must have been with us, because that's how our small press trip with African Travel ended Sunday night. We were aboard the airline's first flight to New York JFK aboard one of its new Airbus A350-900s.

The flight was not without hiccups. Although the airline has long been planning the introduction of four modern jets for its extra-long-hauls, the actual dates have been fluid while crew completed training.

So the last-minute aircraft switch meant a few things -- including the duty-free cart and some basic service items like tonic water and hand soap (face soap was used a substitute) -- didn't get loaded. And then there was the poor man, nearly 7 feet tall, who discovered upon boarding that his seat was no longer in an exit row.

But those of us lucky enough to be flying in business got comfortable, plush pods with the big, new TV screens on the seatbacks in front of us and above cushions benches that offer generous personal storage space and are much easier to access than the overhead bins.

South African Airways handed out souvenirs Monday morning after its new Airbus 350-900 made its first flight on its nonstop Johannesburg-JFK.
South African Airways handed out souvenirs Monday morning after its new Airbus 350-900 made its first flight on its nonstop Johannesburg-JFK. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jeri Clausing

The plane replaces the less fuel-efficient Airbus A340-600. While the airlines hasn't said what other routes will get the new planes, it's Washington Dulles-Johannesburg service might be one that will benefit.

On the way to Africa, we flew out of Dulles on one of the older aircraft. While that plane also had lie-flat seats, they were narrower, and their cushions were thin. The televisions were the old, small, pull-up variety. And there was only a small cubbyhole for shoe storage.

Besides the bigger, more comfortable seats and personal space, the new planes have larger windows and improved LED lighting and optimized cabin pressure and temperature controls, according to the airline.

It could have been a placebo effect, but the gourmet food and service also seemed to be a notch above my past experiences on South African Airways.

I'm not an airline expert, so I couldn't speculate whether the introduction of the new aircraft on the key route will have any impact on the bankrupt airline's bottom line. SAA is the only airline with a nonstop from JFK to Johannesburg; Delta offers nonstop service from Atlanta, and United recently launched a flight from Newark to Cape Town.

What I do know is that it does offer much improved customer service and comfort.

After all, all three of us writers logged nine hours-plus sleep, the most we'd gotten since leaving home on the Jan 11.  And what greater luxury is there in long-haul travel than a good night's sleep?

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