Only the longest range private jets can fly nonstop from North America, Europe or Asia to South Africa, making commercial airlines the way 9 in 10 elite travelers make the trip.
With a long history of catering to passengers on ultra-long long haul flights, national airline South African Airways is now building out its regional network as more and more elite travelers visit the Continent to tap into its fast growing economies. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief, Douglas Gollan, spoke with SAA Executive Vice President Todd M. Neuman to get an update.
ET: Can you give us an overview of South African Airways?
Todd M. Neuman: We’re one of the oldest airlines in the world an next year will celebrate our 80th anniversary. We’ve been serving the U.S. market for 45 years. We have the most service to South Africa from the U.S. of any airline with seven nonstop flights a week from New York JFK to Johannesburg and daily flights via Dakar between Washington, D.C. and Johannesburg.
ET: Are there any things that distinguish South African Airways?
Todd M. Neuman: Flying to South Africa is 15 to 17 hours from North America, 12 hours from Europe and 15 hours from China. Most of our intercontinental route network is ultra long-haul, so South African Airways has always been known for having a premium product because you really want to have good service when you are traveling [for such a long flight]. We’ve won many awards and we fly airplanes that are designed for these type of long flights like the [Airbus] A340.
ET: What type of premium class offerings do you have?
Todd M. Neuman: We don’t offer First Class. We have a premium Business Class with seats that go completely lie-flat and horizontal like your bed (not on a slope). We were one of the first airlines to have seats that went 180 degrees flat going back ten years now. You get fitted bedding including a mattress pad, duvet, oversize pillows. There is a huge selection of on demand videos and we have gourmet meals. Our menu options are created by leading South African chefs and our wine cellar in the sky features top South African wines. We’ve been rated by Skytrax as a four-star airline for 11 consecutive years.
ET: Besides the U.S., where does South African Airways fly?
Todd M. Neuman: In Europe we serve London, Frankfurt and Munich. We also opened Johannesburg to Beijing flights in 2012 in addition to Hong Kong, Mumbai, Sydney, Perth and in South America Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires.
ET: Have you seen growth in business travel?
Todd M. Neuman: We’re seeing change in the mix. South Africa was always thought of as a leisure destination but our mix of corporate travel is growing. In the past 18 years South Africa has become the economic engine of the Continent. In fact the economy is so strong they expanded BRIC to BRICS, adding the S for South Africa to Brazil, Russia, India and China. There is strong growth in mining, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, oil and agriculture. In the past 14 months we have launched seven new destinations in Africa from Johannesburg, including Kigali, Abidjan, Brazzaville and Cotonou.
ET: Is Africa going to experience the same type of consolidation and airline mergers we’ve seen in the U.S. and now in Europe?
Todd M. Neuman: Aviation is growing very fast to and within Africa so it is a different situation. Bilateral agreements are restrictive or in some cases non-existent. There’s been talk but nothing imminent.
ET: Is South African Airways looking at a private jet service such as Lufthansa, Korean Air or Qatar Airways that enables travelers to fly long-haul then use private jet services regionally?
Todd M. Neuman: It’s not something we’re planning.