After a four-year hiatus, South African Airways (SAA) is back in town. It would be an understatement to say that the airline has had its fair share of struggles during COVID-19, but the carrier is steadily rebuilding its transcontinental network. Perth is the second long-haul pin on its revival map after São Paulo.

Point Hacks understands that SAA is working to get its newer Airbus A330s certified for the Perth route, potentially bringing the carrier’s snazziest Business Class cabin to our skies in the near future.

I’ll review SAA’s modern Airbus A330 Business Class separately, but here’s a glimpse of it.

Currently, SAA’s Perth-Johannesburg route is the only scheduled Airbus A340 passenger service into Australia. The jet’s four engines make it a safe choice for this nearly 11-hour overwater voyage. And despite this A340’s blast-from-the-past cabin from the mid-2000s, Business Class features fully lie-flat beds, at least.

Here’s my take on the Perth to Johannesburg flight in Business Class on the Airbus A340 – which you can also book with 78,000 Velocity Points and only A$87 in taxes, with no carrier charges on top.

Watch the video of our experience on Instagram →

South African Airways A340 wing
Getting ready to depart Perth.

Check-in, lounge and boarding

As the ‘inaugural’ flight of this route revival, Perth Airport is abuzz with festivities. Drummers and dancers entertain the travellers waiting to check in. Two priority counters are open for Business Class passengers, so it doesn’t take too long to get my bag through.

My boarding pass says to go to the Air New Zealand lounge, which I’ve previously reviewed. But I know that the new Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge is also an option, as both airlines are part of Star Alliance.

The SilverKris Lounge only opens at 10:10 pm, so be prepared to wait (or visit the Air NZ lounge first) until then. It’s certainly worth the detour – a plate of sizzling char kuey teow and some fried rice hits just right.

Over at the gate, priority boarding lets me hop onto the plane sooner for that obligatory pre-departure glass of Champagne. What can I say? I’m a creature of habit.

Seats and layout

I’ll address the glaring elephant in the room (or, in this case, the cabin) upfront. SAA’s sole Airbus A340 hasn’t had a facelift since it was introduced in 2005. The seats and inflight entertainment system are… retro.

A fellow passenger I chat with thinks that the plane is 30 years old. I know the answer is actually 19 years – I’ve done my research in advance – but offer a friendly ‘oh, I think it’s around 20’ as my ‘guess’. Anyway, just keep your expectations in check. Business Class has 38 seats in a 2-2-2 layout and they do go fully flat.

If you want uninterrupted aisle access, choose a middle pair. Otherwise, if the bed is out, the window passenger will need to step over the aisle passenger. I choose a window seat in the last row of Business Class, 16A, and luck out with a spare seat beside me.

These older-style seats, reminiscent of Qantas’ former SkyBeds, have little privacy. But the upshot is that there’s a lot of space around them. I’ve got essentially unlimited legroom and no footwell to deal with while lying flat. It’s easy to stand up and walk around.

The 73″ (185 cm) seat pitch is so high that I need to unbuckle my seat belt to reach any item stored in front. Those storage areas include a large pocket, a small nook and a shoe cabinet. There’s also a hollowed-out space under the central armrest. Avoid Rows 1 or 15 if possible, as these bulkhead seats have much less storage space.

Finally, the seat is electronically controlled and offers a wide range of customisations, including recline, lumbar support, how far the legrest comes out, and even a massage function.

Food and beverage

During boarding, the cabin crew come around with wide smiles and offer a choice of Champagne or juice before departure, alongside some peanuts. See the carousel below for the complete food menu and wine list.

This flight serves a full dinner and breakfast before arrival. While it’s true that most people won’t eat a big meal around midnight, SA281 departs around 6 pm in Johannesburg. If you want to adjust to the new timezone better, you could skip your usual dinner in Perth and eat onboard instead.

(Clearly, I failed that by pigging out in the SilverKris Lounge).

Overall, the menu is a strong effort from South African Airways. It’s spearheaded by renowned local chefs Reuben Riffel and Benny Masekwameng. A tasty trio of canapés starts the show, followed by an interesting pumpkin and beetroot salad with separate rocket leaves and dressing to add as desired.

The grilled beef fillet is the best-looking steak dish I’ve ever seen on a plane – surrounded with chimichurri sauce and vegetables. Unfortunately, both the broccoli and steak are overcooked, though the chimichurri saves the dish. I’m quite full now, so I forego the cheese plate for a simple tub of ice cream.

Breakfast is served roughly an hour before landing despite the menu saying two hours. I suppose it’s more sleep for everyone.

The poached eggs themselves are quite firm and need lots of salt and pepper. Once again, it’s the sides that redeem the dish. I especially love the chorizo and cannellini bean mix, as well as the steaming hot mug of rooibos tea (when in South Africa, right?).

The drinks menu has a wide range of choices. The Amarula cream tempts me, but I settle for a glass of Moët and Chandon Impérial Brut, followed by an excellent South African cabernet sauvignon by Croydon Vineyards in Stellenbosch. I’d happily drink more if it didn’t put me at risk of waking up with a hangover.

Service and amenities

From the get-go, South African Airways’ crew dazzle with warmth. Passengers are all addressed by name, which is always appreciated. The crew member looking after me keeps trying to upsell me more garlic bread and croissants on the side. So, five stars all around for the service (including on the ground when we land, which I’ll talk about later).

The supplied bedding is excellent – similar to Qantas standards with a mattress pad and a luxuriously plush blanket. The only issue I have with the bed is that it’s a bit too short for me. I sleep with my knees bent initially, but later find that a slight recline in a ‘zero gravity’ position feels much more comfortable.

Like my recent SriLankan Airlines flight, South African Airways also uses Aigner products in its amenity kit. In addition to the moisturiser and lip balm, you’ll also find a toothbrush, eye mask, ear plugs, and socks.

Inside the Airbus A340 lavatories (incidentally, one of the roomiest I’ve experienced in Business Class), there are also Aigner products with an African Protea flower as decoration.

Where SAA’s Airbus A340 lags behind is inflight entertainment. The 30 cm swing-out touchscreen is hardly competitive – both the hardware and software are generations behind. Content-wise, there’s a decent selection of movies and a sparse range of TV shows, alongside some music and games.

I watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory over dinner and leave it on the moving map for the rest of the flight, which I spend sleeping anyway.

There is an AC power port and a USB plug for charging – these work fine with my usual chargers.

Post-flight: baggage and lounge

I don’t normally write a section about the post-flight experience, but two things are worth mentioning here.

After we land in Johannesburg, I need to collect and re-check my bags for the onward connection. I can’t seem to find my bag at the carousel. It’s not until I glance at a red-carpeted area that I see that someone has been removing priority-tagged bags and assembling them in a dedicated area. That’s just good ol’ fashioned service.

SAA also operates an international arrivals lounge for its Business Class passengers. Given that we’ve landed at 4:30 am, it’s a welcome space to rest and freshen up. The lounge itself is quite small, but I appreciate being able to shower before moving on with my connection to Cape Town.

How to book this flight with points

Although there is a fuel surcharge included in cash fares, South African Airways does not currently levy any carrier charges with most partner airlines. You could book this flight in Business Class for:

  • Virgin Australia Velocity: 78,000 Velocity Points + A$87
  • United MileagePlus: 93,500 miles + A$87
  • Air Canada Aeroplan: 80,000 points + CA$116
  • Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer: 101,500 miles + A$353

Great news for our readers – Velocity Points are the best way to book this redemption. Not only is it easy to earn those points, but you don’t have to pay any carrier charges, either.

However, SAA bookings with Velocity Points can only be done over the phone. My suggestion is to look for the seats on United or Air Canada first, then call Velocity to check.

In theory, any SAA seats available to those partners should also be available to Velocity members.

After checking United, I phoned Velocity to confirm these seats can also be booked with Velocity Points.

Our verdict

South African Airways’ Perth route has traditionally been a strong performer, and I hope it can maintain the same momentum. Both cities are resource-rich, and Perth also has a large South African expat community.

The Airbus A340 Business Class is an old product; there’s no denying it. If you’re after the latest suites, inflight Wi-Fi, and modern entertainment screens, then this isn’t for you.

Personally, I’m fine with it for a completely overnight flight such as Perth-Johannesburg. I’m only watching something while eating, then I’m asleep for the rest of the journey.

South African Airways A340 bed view
Settling into my bed for the night.

I rate South African Airways really well in service, convenience, and price. The alternative to flying Perth-Johannesburg nonstop is to go via Singapore, Sydney, Dubai, or Doha – all of which add significant detours and increases in points and carrier charges. With SAA, we can now land in Johannesburg in under 11 hours with a fully flat bed.

Since a Business Class redemption only costs 78,000 Velocity Points + A$87, I would have no issues redeeming my own points for this flight the next time I want to go on safari again. And if SAA’s newer Airbus A330 does make its way over to Perth, then we’ll truly have the best of both worlds.

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Photography by Brandon Loo, who travelled as a guest of South African Airways. All opinions are the author’s own.

South African Airways Airbus A340 Business Class (Perth-Johannesburg) was last modified: May 8th, 2024 by Brandon Loo