Airline review: South African Airways economy class

THE ROUTE

Johannesburg to Sydney via Perth.

THE PLANES

SAA Airbus A340-600 (42 premium and 275 economy seats) and Virgin Australia A330-200 (24 business and 255 economy seats).

LOYALTY SCHEME

Since the codeshare between Virgin Australia and South African Airways was announced in October 2014, passengers can earn points with either Virgin's Velocity or SAA's Voyager scheme (affiliated with Star Alliance).

CLASS

Economy, seat 48C (SAA) and 32C (VA)

DURATION

16 hours 10 minutes (including a 2.5-hour layover in Perth).

FREQUENCY

Daily flights, departing Johannesburg at 21.55pm and arriving into Sydney at 10.10pm the next day.

THE SEAT

The SAA economy configuration is 2-4-2. The seats, which appear a little old, are surprisingly comfortable with more legroom than standard economy and an 85cm (33.5 inch) pitch. The Virgin Australia domestic leg offers leather seats with a 2-4-2 configuration and a 78.7cm (31 inch) pitch and 12.7cm (5 inch) recline. USB connectivity and in-seat power is available on the VA domestic flight.

BAGGAGE

One piece of baggage weighing 23 kilograms, ticketed through to Sydney. Passengers must clear customs and collect baggage at Perth International Airport, however, then deliver luggage to a Virgin Australia transit counter before boarding a shuttle to the domestic airport. A little time consuming, but all fairly seamless, with minimal effort and inconvenience.

ENTERTAINMENT

SAA's touchscreen entertainment system offers an adequate selection of new-releases, golden oldies and African movies, shown on a 17cm (6.8 inch) screen; headphones are over-ear and never fit my tiny head. Virgin Australia's Red touchscreen operates from boarding to landing (hooray!).

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COMFORT

In economy it is a nice surprise to receive SAA's amenities pack of an eye mask, socks and toothbrush, as well as pillows and blankets. I never expect much sleep on an overnight economy flight, but these touches help when you're sleeping upright. While the Virgin Australia plane is newer and prettier, there are no blankets, pillows or amenities, so make sure you pack a jacket for the domestic leg.

SERVICE

SAA has a rule on stowing blankets and pillows on takeoff and landing (even if said blanket is wrapped around you and pillow behind your back); and the cabin staff tend to be a little surly when met with quizzical looks, as if they have explained far too many times why this rule exists. Virgin Australia's service on the domestic leg is courteous and friendly.

FOOD

As a vegetarian who always forgets to place a special meal request, I'm pleased to discover three options available on SAA – chicken, red meat and vegetarian. The vegetarian ravioli with sweet potato mash, vegetables and pesto sauce is surprisingly tasty. Breakfast is uninspired fare of omelette, potatoes and beans, with an unappealing cold croissant wrapped in plastic and undrinkable coffee. A dinner service is served on Virgin Australia's domestic leg; I once again am in luck with a vegetarian option, a tasty enchilada.

ONE MORE THING

After clearing customs at Perth airport, passengers must transfer to the domestic airport, which is a good 10 minutes away. A free shuttle is available, however, which departs every 20 minutes.

THE VERDICT

If you have to fly economy, this codeshare offers reasonable service with decent food and entertainment. While the split journey is a good four hours longer than its rivals' non-stop flight, economy fares on SAA/Virgin Australia codeshare are significantly cheaper, with minimal drama during transfer. I guess it comes down to budget versus convenience.

See flysaa.com and virginaustralia.com

Tested by Julie Miller, who flew courtesy of Bench International and Virgin Australia.

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