Beginning May 1st 2011, South African Airways is conducting non-stop daily flights between Oliver Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg South Africa and New York John Fitzgerald Kennedy International airport. The new flights are designed to save passengers up to 90 minutes by eliminating the 60 minutes refueling stop in Dakar (Senegal). Observing the outbound flight SAA ‘Springbok’ 204 and inbound flight SAA ‘Springbok’ 203 on Monday May 2nd, 2011 is described below.
SAA 203 departed Oliver Tambo Johannesburg International airport (terminal B) at 2:41 pm EST (8:41 pm local time) and had an Estimated Time of Arrival at JFK airport of 6:49 am EDT the following morning following the 16 hours and 8 minutes inbound flight.
In the meantime the SAA flight 204 had already departed JFK airport at 11:39 am EDT on Monday morning en route for Johannesburg which it would reach after a much shorter 14 hours and 11 minutes arriving at 1:50 am EDT (7:50 am local time). Both Airbus A340-600 ‘Springbok’ cruising at an optimal altitude between flight level FL 390 (39,000 ft) and flight level FL 410 (41,000 ft) at a mach 0.82 speed for most of the 7,986 nm long flight. For years the flights conducted over the greater part of the Atlantic ocean had relied on a refueling stopover in the Cape Verde island and latter in Dakar, particularly the very demanding outbound segment which requires an additional 2 hours of flight duration. The new direct route is now almost entirely conducted flying over water, with only a brief skirting of the westernmost part of the African coastline about midway through the flight.
The entry in service of 9 Airbus A340-600 in the South African Airways long haul fleet between 2002 and 2005 marked the airline shifting decisively away from the Rolls Royce RB-211-powered 747-400 aircraft that had been dominating the route. The new Airbus A340-600 complemented a long haul fleet with already 8 Airbus 340-300 and 6 Airbus 340-200, with each variant undergoing a try out as a potential 747-400 replacement on the route. The airline has now grown fully dependent on the Airbus long haul products. In an effort to fully exploit pilot commonality between types, 6 Airbus A330 were ordered in 2009, with two already entering service earlier this year.
The 9 Airbus A340-600 are rotated by South African Airways on other long range destinations as well, including SAA flight 223 from Sao Paulo, SAA 265 from Munich, SAA 261 from Frankfurt, SAA 234 and 235 to London Heathrow, SAA 260 to Frankfurt, leaving very little margin for network scheduling recovery in the event that major flight disruptions are experienced.
The A340-600 employed by SAA are A340-642, designed to carry 24,000 lbs less fuel than the High Gross Weight A340-642X version operating with airline such as Iberia. Still, the South African Airways version benefits from a fuel capacity increase to 51,751 US gal (195,620 L) from the manufacturer certified 51,516 US gal (195,010 L) allowing a total of 348,900 lbs of fuel on board. Equipped with four RR Trent 556-61 turbofan engines (56,000 lbs thrust each), the aircraft has a Maximum Take Off Weight between 804,687 lbs (365,000 kg) and 811,301 lbs (368,000 kg) identical to a Boeing 747-200 ‘Classic’. As a result the passenger payload is estimated between 144,703 lb (65,636 kg) and 151,316 lbs (68,636 kg). Confirming that the Airbus A340 is a gigantic aircraft are the 208 ft 2 in (63.45 m) wingspan and 247 ft 3 in (75.36 m) overall length surpassing the Super Jumbo A380 length by more than 6 feet! Excessive weight and outsize dimensions have required the addition of a 3rd main landing gear unit, unlike the more nimble A340/-200/-300/-500. But like the A380 Super Jumbo, the A340-600 employs the Latecoere Taxi Air Camera System TACS, a set of cameras providing additional ‘eyes’ to the pilot while maneuvering the large aircraft on the ground.
The A340-600 ability to carry 380 passengers in a traditional 3-class configuration of 12 First class seats, 54 Business and 314 Economy seats has not been retained by South African Airways. Instead the airline has invested on a Business travelers ‘delight’ configuration with 317 seats comprising 42 fully flat Business class seats with width of 23.68 in (60 cm) and pitch of 73 in (185 cm), along with 275 economy-class seats with 33.5 in (85 cm) pitch. With passenger payload reduced to the 66,700 lbs (30,000 kg) threshold, the A340-600 seems in a payload class with the very capable but smaller ‘Ultra Long Range’ Airbus 340-500 (with both aircraft also sharing the same larger, higher aspect ratio aerodynamic wings). The Aircraft payload/range performance charts in fact confirm that the reduced payload can translates into a range improvement of 500 nm, which adds up very well to the aircraft’s 7,500 nm range on that route.
Our follow-up observation of South African Airways flight operation on Tuesday May 3rd indicated the cancellation of the New York bound SAA flight 203 that day. We will attempt to determine further the nature of this latest disruption to SAA flight operation.