Embattled South African Airways (SAA) will be getting two A350-900s in the later half of 2019 to run on its flagship transatlantic Johannesburg – New York route.

According to a report in South Africa’s Eyewitness News, the A350-900s will offer significant savings for SAA on the route. Currently, SAA runs A340-600s to New York. The fuel burn alone should be 20% less.

SAA flies to New York’s John F Kennedy Airport daily. SA203 cruises through the night on its marathon 15½ hour crossing to New York using its two-class A340-600s. The return flight to Johannesburg, SA204, leaves New York just before lunchtime to land in Johannesburg the following morning in time for a full day’s work. With the Atlantic winds pushing it along, this flight is a mere 15 hours.

SAA leases two A350s

One Mile at A Time reports that SAA will be leasing two A350-900s. The initial lease period is for three years. They say that the two aircraft in question are B-304Z and B-305A and that they were originally destined for HNA. There were reports in 2018 that the Chinese Government was dragging their heels on regulatory approval for the A350.

HNA has two different types of business class cabins in their A350s. One type (30 seats in a 2-2-2 reverse herringbone configuration) they prefer to use in their own domestic market. The other (33 seats in a 1-2-1 configuration) they dispatch on international sectors – although this is not a hard and fast rule.

The report in OMAAT suggests that owing to SAA’s keenness to get the A350’s in the air as soon as possible, we’ll be seeing one version or another of the HNA’s business class seats on SAA when it commences using the A350s.

The two A350s will take to the skies in South Africa as soon as they complete South Africa’s regulatory approvals process.

Can SAA be saved?

After years of financial and operational turbulence, SAA went bankrupt in September 2018. Its debts were said to be twice its assets which are never an ideal financial position to be in. Happily, the airline has kept flying.

The airline has received significant cash bailouts from the South African Government (cash strapped itself), and the government has indicated it will not allow the airline to cease operating. While SAA’s problems have been ongoing for several years now, the pressure on management to turn the airline around has ramped up considerably in the last 12 months.

A five-year turnaround plan involves cutting costs and trimming unprofitable routes. The plan revolves around identifying SAA’s problems and issues, implementing changes, stabilizing operations, and promoting growth.

It’s a more coherent strategy than former SAA Chairperson Dudu Myeni managed, blaming the airline’s woes on its pilots having “inconveniently high salaries”. Biz News suggested this was a ludicrous attempt to thwart attention from her own mismanagement.

SAA has had a slew of CEOs in recent years. The most recent, Vuyani Jarana, quit in June after just two years in the job. At the time, he cited a lack of clarity around ongoing funding and too much bureaucracy that was hindering the Board’s ability to turnaround the airline.

Despite this, senior management is saying the airline should return to profitability in three years. Given the issues at SAA, the level of confidence that can be put on this prediction is questionable


No-one likes to see an airline fail. SAA has systemic ingrained problems that require massive financial, operational, and cultural change. Leasing the two A350s and sending them to New York is one step in the transformation process at SAA.

The A350s make a degree of sense. They are being leased on a reasonably short-term lease. The A350 is a more efficient aircraft to operate than the existing A340’s used on the New York route. They will offer an updated cabin utilizing the popular HNA A350 cabin fit-out.

Finally, the New York route needs to be preserved. It is a key link to North America that also carries a reasonably heavy loading of premium business travel between the two cities.

South African Airways should be able to make it work.

African Airlines





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