After stepping off my Ethiopian Airlines business class flight from Newark, I found myself within the immigration hall of Abidjan’s Félix-Houphouët-Boigny International Airport. The queue for travellers hoping to enter Côte d’Ivoire was to my left, while the queue for transiting passengers was to my right.
While my original booking had included an eight-hour layover here in the Ivorian capital, a schedule change later shortened that to six hours, and after much deliberation, I decided it’d be better to hang out in the airport lounge instead of venturing into the city and back in such a short window of time. I therefore headed to the right-hand side of the immigration hall, hoping to clear the transit immigration counters and go back to the Departures level.
However, despite having my South African Airways paper boarding pass in hand, the immigration official flat-out refused to let me through, citing the fact that my outbound flight departure was too far ahead of time for me to be allowed to pass.
Faced with the prospect of waiting for several hours in a cramped immigration hall without so much as a wifi connection in sight, I pleaded with the official in both English and French to allow me through; after all, I held a valid same-day boarding pass in hand.
Finally, she relented, but only by summoning an airport employee to escort me through the Côte d’Ivoire border control first, before heading upstairs and then going through exit immigration right after that.
Why couldn’t she just let me go through the normal transit desk? Who knows. But for a brief moment there, I found myself in Côte d’Ivoire territory despite never having obtained a visa to be granted entry. It also means I now have a slightly unusual Côte d’Ivoire exit stamp – with no corresponding entry stamp – to look back on.
Anyway, after clearing the security checkpoint, I found myself within the departure lounge of Abidjan Airport. It’s a pretty modern facility, with a few shops and eateries scattered throughout, and about a dozen departure gates in total.
I headed to the airport’s Business Lounge, but was told that guests are only allowed access up to four hours in advance of their departure, so I passed the time by walking around the terminal and trying to make sense of my first few moments on African soil.
Travelling to Africa had always felt like such a daunting task, but now that I was finally here, my pre-conceived notions were swiftly cast aside and Abidjan Airport felt no different from any other airport in the world.
Finally, when the clock struck 4:25pm, I was granted access to the Abidjan Business Lounge, which is quite a nice facility with a small selection of hot food and several spacious seating areas – it certainly exceeded my (admittedly not very high) expectations.
There was even a fully staffed bar, where guests were entitled to three complimentary beverages. I spent the time working on my laptop, but also enjoyed a beer and a few plates of food from the buffet as well, since I was feeling pretty hungry by this point.
I headed to the boarding gate at around 7:45pm, where I discovered that we’d be boarding from a remote stand. This would be my first time flying South African Airways, and even though it’d only be a one-hour hop across the border to Ghana, I’m always excited at the chance to try out a new airline.
South African Airways | SA57
Aircraft: Airbus A340-300
Cabin: Business class
Route: Abidjan (ABJ) to Accra (ACC)
Date: Thursday, January 24, 2019
Time: Departing 8:25pm and arriving 9:30pm the next day
Duration: 1 hour 5 minutes
A quick drive across the tarmac brought us to the South African Airways Airbus A340-300 parked at the very end of the airport’s taxiways. I can’t recall too many times that I’ve flown onboard the A340, and my first impression of the aircraft was that it looked pretty old and bulky.
Boarding the plane and turning to my left into the business class cabin, I found myself within the South African A340-300 business class cabin, which features 36 business class seats spread across six rows in a 2-2-2 configuration. The forward cabin, where I was seated, featured six rows, while the mini-cabin behind the galley had another two rows.
From the inside, you could clearly tell that this was a rather old airplane indeed, and the general ambience of the cabin felt pretty rough around the edges.
Now, keep in mind that when I had booked this flight, it was actually scheduled to be operated by an Airbus A330, which features South African’s much newer staggered business class seating. Indeed, the airline had blindsided me with a last-minute equipment swap, which I wasn’t happy about at all, but there wasn’t really anything I could do about it either.
I had assigned myself Seat 4D, one of the middle seats in the last row of the forward cabin, and I was happy to see that the seat adjacent to me remained empty. In fact, I had been monitoring the seat map for empty seats, and if anyone had taken the seat next door then I would’ve been prepared to move somewhere else!
There are no entertainment screens on the seat backs in front of you, which is furnished only with the literature pouch, a bottle holder, and a coat hook. While this business class product is very much falling behind the times, the one silver lining is that there’s quite an unbelievable amount of legroom – 73’ of pitch to be exact.
Most of the seat features are concentrated around the seat console between each duo of seats. Here, you’ll find a small countertop, as well as the seat and entertainment controls, both of which… harken back to a bygone era, to put it lightly.
Embedded within the seat console are the tray table…
…as well as the entertainment monitor, which flips outwards from beneath your seat and then rotates into place. It’s not quite an optimal viewing experience, but it’s better than nothing, I guess.
The armrest can be raised with the push of a button to give you some (but not much) privacy between you and your seatmate, should you find yourself seated next to a stranger.
Above that, by your shoulders, is a small metal panel that accomplishes the same thing. The reading lights are also positioned up here.
One more thing to note about the Airbus A340 is that the overhead bins are pretty tiny, as you can see in the below picture. In particular, the bins along the middle are even smaller compared to the ones along the windows, so I had quite a bit of trouble fitting my bulky carry-on bag into the bin above my seat.
In the end, the flight attendant had to move quite a few items around the cabin in order to accommodate my bag.
The flight over to Accra would be just over one hour in duration, so there was nothing in the way of amenity kits, menus, or pajamas for business class passengers. After Accra, the flight would then continue onto Johannesburg, so I ventured a guess that those long-haul amenities would only be distributed after the Accra-bound passengers had disembarked and the Johannesburg-bound passengers had boarded the plane.
(Maybe not pajamas, though. That’s a little ambitious.)
There was also no pre-departure beverage, which was disappointing. Really the only item of note was a set of South African Airways headphones, which was waiting in the seat-back pouch when I boarded the plane.
Business class was almost full, so I counted myself pretty fortunate to have an empty seat next to me. Pretty soon after boarding was complete, the captain came on the PA to welcome us to the flight, although his speech was definitely one of the stranger ones I’ve encountered, including tidbits like “please note that unfortunately passenger access to the flight deck is no longer allowed”, and finishing things off with “attention cabin crew, we have an extremely short taxi”.
I didn’t think Abidjan Airport would be seeing too much traffic at this late hour, so as the captain had indicated, our extremely short taxi to the runway was followed by the initiation of the takeoff roll. At this point, I had already accepted that this would be one of the more oddball flights I’ll ever take, so I wasn’t even surprised when I noticed that half of the overhead luggage bins were still hanging ajar!
The Airbus A340 is a big ol’ monster of a plane, and its four engines raise one hell of a storm upon takeoff as they carry the sheer heft of the rather unwieldy aircraft into the air. The sound of the roaring engines, accompanied by the cacophony of the overhead bin doors slamming around on their hinges, made this quite a pulsating takeoff sequence – and not in a good way!
There wasn’t really much time to do anything on this short one-hour flight, so I set about doing what I could do document various aspects of the South African Airways business class experience. First, I flicked through the Airscape entertainment system to get an idea of what movies or shows I might be able to watch on a longer flight. The selection wasn’t very broad, but at least there was a decent number of new releases to watch.
I also tried to check out South African’s airshow software, but unfortunately the moving map feature wasn’t working at all.
I then decided to put my seat into lie-flat mode just to see what it’s like. That in itself was quite the experience.
Most airlines try to make their seat movements as smooth as possible, allowing the passenger to feel as though they’re gliding from the seated position into the reclining position, and then into lie-flat mode. But here on the South African A340, when I pressed the button, the various components of the seat jerked into motion, making an awful, rickety, creaking noise along the way.
Just from the noise, you could tell that this business class product is badly in need of replacing. Even though these seat controls were probably on par with the industry standard back when they were introduced, nowadays the noise alone made the seat seem like it could fall apart at any second.
In terms of the lie-flat seat itself, it’s angled downwards very slightly and there are a few kinks in the seat cushions. I’d consider it to be not quite lie-flat lie-flat, but pretty close.
I then headed to the business class restroom, hoping that South African Airways could at least get something right…
…only to be let down yet again (but not really) when I discovered this cabinet door that was hanging open and just wouldn’t stay shut.
Back at my seat, the crew had begun the in-flight snack service. I was offered a small plate consisting of a few pieces of charcuterie and a muffin, along with a drink of my choice – I had some cranberry juice. Honestly, this little snack was pretty tasty, and was probably the highlight of the entire flight.
I was also a little surprised when the cabin service manager addressed me as a “young man” when taking my order, as in “What drink can I get for you, young man?” On one hand, there’s no doubt I’m pretty young compared to the average business class clientele, but on the other hand it was also a pretty jarringly casual way to address a business class guest when “sir” is pretty much the industry standard, regardless of age.
The cabin manager was definitely a pretty casual guy overall (he also ended every crew announcement with a “Thanks guys!”), so the service principles here on South African definitely seemed to emphasize being personable over professional.
My hour-long ride on South African Airways soon ambled towards its conclusion as we began descending into the Accra region. I stowed away my veritable slab of an in-flight entertainment monitor, just as the Airbus A340 kicked up another racket as its landing gear fell into place. Time flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it?
What was the best thing about my flight in South African Airways A340 business class? The fact that it was only one hour long, of course. I regret to say that I’m unable to give this flight high marks in virtually any category – the crew didn’t leave a great impression on me, the business class seat was way past its prime, and as for the aircraft itself, well, there’s a reason the A340 is slowly being phased out of every airline’s fleet around the world.
I wouldn’t mind giving the airline another chance on their Airbus A330 with newer business class seats, but I’m also not overly excited by the thought of it after this disappointing experience. I hope to witness a significantly improved offering if I do happen to step onboard South African Airways again.