BACKGROUND: South African Airways has been flying into Lagos (Nigeria) for many years, but recently extended its reach into the country with three weekly flights to the capital, Abuja. The route launch, SAA’s 25th destination, has received much interest and materially strengthens the airline’s position in West Africa. I was aboard the inaugural flight, along with a number of dignitaries from South Africa and the airline. The flight was significantly delayed while routing and permissions were finalised. The delay resulted in a direct flight as opposed to the original plan, which included a one- hour layover in Lagos.
CHECK-IN: I arrived at O.R. Tambo International Airport early for my 23h55 flight and checking in at the SAA counters in Terminal B was hassle-free. The queue was short and moved quickly. My single piece of luggage was under the 23 kilogram allowance and was processed without difficulty. I took my boarding pass to the security gate and was processed through passport control rather speedily.
LOUNGE & BOARDING: An SAA business class ticket allows passengers access to the Baobab Lounge. Given the hour, the lounge was quiet and there was ample available seating. I helped myself to a late dinner of green salad and bobotie and was served a soft drink by the barman. Although free wi-fi was available, I was unable to connect on my iPhone and settled for a bit of light reading instead. I was invited to the Premier Lounge by SAA while we waited out the delay in departure. There was a priority queue for business class passengers when boarding was finally called, and I was directed to an upfront entrance. Once seated, I was offered a beverage and newspaper by attentive cabin crew.
THE SEAT: The A330-200 offers 36 business class seats in six rows of a 2-2-2 configuration. In full-flat mode, only the window seats are without direct aisle access, but there is ample room to manoeuvre when seats are upright. Upholstered in tan leather, my window seat at the front of the aircraft was spacious and comfortable and I was thankful for the ability to recline while waiting on the tarmac for final clearance. The seat stretched to full-flat and the addition of a light mattress fitted by the cabin crew prior to lights out made for a comfortable sleeping flight.
THE FLIGHT: As this was the inaugural flight, there were some delays as the route and permissions were finalised, and we finally took off nearly two hours after the scheduled time of 23h55. Once airborne, I opted for some shuteye over a meal. My bed was made up and I was given a comforter as cover. I woke earlier than most passengers and requested a drink from the cabin attendant. Unfortunately we were flying through a fair bit of turbulence, so coffee was out of the question, but I was able to get a soft drink. Once the seatbelt sign was switched off, a very thoughtful attendant offered me a hot snack, remembering that I had not eaten dinner, so along with a mug of hot coffee, I enjoyed chicken kebabs and meatballs as the rest of the cabin was woken to prepare for landing in Abuja. I didn’t have a chance to check out the onboard entertainment, but I do know the offering from other flights, and the selection of movies, TV, music and radio is good, and updated every month.
ARRIVAL: Our arrival at Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport was met with the traditional water cannon salute as we taxied to the parking bay. The airport building was compact but clean and full of natural light. The officials who checked my passport were friendly despite the early hour and number of passengers queuing for entry into Nigeria – a very good first impression. I collected my luggage from the carousel and left the airport through the arrivals hall, which was teeming with people. Facilities here were limited – a taxi hire desk, a forex kiosk and a small coffee shop – but seemed to satisfy visitors.
VERDICT: Teething problems of an inaugural flight notwithstanding, the flight was a pleasure. The aircraft was modern and comfortable and the onboard facilities more than adequate for the flying time of five-and-a-half hours. The cabin crew was attentive and thoughtful without being overbearing, and the pilot kept passengers updated regarding the delay.