Airline review: SA Airlink Embraer E190 economy class, Johannesburg to St Helena Island, St Helena Island

THE ROUTE

Johannesburg to Jamestown (St Helena Island)

THE AIRCRAFT

Embraer E190

THE LOYALTY SCHEME

Airlink is a member of parent company South African Airways' (SAA) Voyager program. SAA code shares with Virgin Australia, allowing the latter's Velocity Frequent Flyer members to earn and redeem miles and status credits on eligible flights. Miles can also be earned and redeemed on eligible flights on other Star Alliance member airlines.

CLASS

Economy

DURATION

Six hours 15 minutes, including a technical stop in Walvis Bay, Namibia. The purpose is to refuel in case of inclement weather at St Helena, which is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, forces the aircraft to return to Johannesburg. The direct return flight (no technical stop necessary) is four hours, 45 minutes.

FREQUENCY

Weekly. In December, January and February – whale shark season in St Helena – an additional weekly flight will be added from Cape Town to Jamestown return.

CHECKING IN

I begin my journey in Perth with SAA, where my luggage is checked through to Jamestown but staff are unable to issue my boarding pass. It's early morning when I arrive at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, so I wait until the transit desk opens and am swiftly checked in and passed through security. We take a bus to our aircraft and have to wait for what feels like an eternity before disembarking and boarding; I use the time to chat to a couple from Cape Town who are on their way back to their workplace on Ascension Island via Jamestown.

THE SEAT

I'm assigned seat 10D. However, the pilot asks four passengers from the front of the aircraft to move towards the back in order to balance the plane's load. I relocate to 22F and score myself a window seat.

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BAGGAGE

One piece of checked baggage up to 20 kilograms and one piece of hand luggage up to 8kg.

COMFORT

This appears to be a new aircraft since it's spotlessly clean; it feels spacious, too, but that could just be because it's not full. The seats are arranged in 2-2 configuration with a pitch of 81 centimetres (32 inches) and a width of 46cm (18.19 inches). There are six seats in business class (in a 1-2 configuration) and 92 in economy.

ENTERTAINMENT

There are no screens on this aircraft but passengers can read the inflight magazine, Skyways. There's also some unexpected entertainment today, when, shortly after take-off, the captain announces that this is a historic flight: on board is the incoming governor of St Helena, Dr Philip Rushbrook, along with his wife, Janis. Dr Rushbrook will be the first governor of this British Overseas Territory (which includes Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha) to arrive by plane, since St Helena's airport was only opened in October 2017. Before now, governors have reached the territory by ship. The news causes passengers to applaud; I put names to the faces I noticed sitting alone in business class as the rest of us filed into economy.

SERVICE

The flight attendant has an air of confidence that makes me feel instantly at ease, despite the uncertain nature of this flight. She's firm and straightforward in that typical South African way when rounding up passengers to move to the back or to remain seated while the plane is being re-fuelled (the latter command is unfortunately ignored by restless passengers).

FOOD

The drinks service comes shortly after take-off with offers of water and soft drinks. The food trolley follows with a choice of a beef or chicken sandwich. I select the latter, which is actually a tasty lemon and fetta chicken wrap. On the second leg of the journey we're offered a choice of spinach and chicken quiche (my choice) or beef quiche served with pasta salad, crackers and a little boxed chocolate. Drinks include beer, wine, coffee and tea.

ONE MORE THING

As we approach Jamestown, the flight attendant warns passengers to prepare for turbulence; the wind-shear which besets the runway here caused a delay in the airport's launch, and precludes larger planes from landing. However, there is only the briefest tremor as we sink beside serrated cliffs; the wheels touch down in what is the perfect landing, causing passengers to applaud once more. We're asked to remain seated while the governor-designate and his wife are escorted off the plane to a cheerful welcome.

VERDICT

Few flights inspire wonder in this way, with its technical stop in the dune-swamped airport at Walvis Bay and the anticipation of landing in one of the world's most remote – and beautiful – destinations.

OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE

4

Catherine Marshall travelled with assistance from Airlink. See flyairlink.com

See also: Airline review: South Africa Airways economy class

See also: Airline review: This business class is more like premium economy

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