When, in a June 30 press release, South African Airways (SAA) confirmed it would lease a pair of Airbus A350-900s, very little was detailed about the carrier’s acquisition. Airliner World has since learned that the two jets will be handed over to the airline as part of Air Mauritius’ order for six examples, placed at the 2014 Farnborough International Airshow.
The Indian Ocean carrier has previously deferred the delivery of two A350s, from 2020 to 2023, when it ordered a pair of Airbus A330-900s in February 2017. However, the airline has since reported losses of €21.7m for the year to March 31. This, the arrival of two A330-900s and cabin upgrades for a pair of A340-300s are likely to have prompted the lease agreement with SAA – itself an operator of ageing and increasingly inefficient A340s.
Zukisa Ramasia, SAA’s acting CEO said at the end of June: “The introduction of these state-of-the-art aircraft to our fleet is an important step-change as we continue to make progress to transform our business and return the airline to financial sustainability in the shortest time possible. [They] present an immediate opportunity to offer an improved product.”
The airline has confirmed it will deploy the A350s on routes between Johannesburg/O R Tambo and New York/JFK airports, with the jets seating 246 economy class passengers and an unspecified number of business class travellers. It also stated “the first six rows offering extra legroom to provide a more comfortable experience, especially on longer flights”, hinting at a new premium economy offering, which would be a first for the carrier.
Little is known about SAA’s business class product on the A350. Beyond confirming its existence, the airline has only said it will feature lie-flat beds. Its plans for a 246-seat economy class cabin differs from the current configuration employed by Air Mauritius, which flies its two A350s with a two-class interior accommodating 28 in business class and a further 298 in economy.
The first A350 destined for the South African carrier, F-WZHG (c/n 354), was first seen at Toulouse/Blagnac on August in primer with an Air Mauritius liveried tail and winglets. A second, c/n 365, is currently on the final assembly line and was due to have become 3B-NBS. The way in which Airbus manufacturers airliners means components including the vertical stabiliser, winglets and engine cowlings are painted ahead of an aircraft visiting the paint shop.
While both airlines are struggling financially, the lease hints at a shift in the fortunes of the two airlines. SAA has previously provided assistance to Air Mauritius, selling the carrier a pair of Boeing 707-300s in 1981 before leasing four 747SPs to the carrier three years later.