SAA expected its award-winning business class lie-flat bed, judged the best in the world by independent consultants Skytrax, to give it an edge over competitors and is busy installing it in all long haul flights. But now British Airways, which captured market share from most other airlines by being the first to instal lie-flat beds in business class six years ago - beating Air France to it by one day - has come up with a new version which Willie Walsh, its chief executive, thinks will set the industry standard for the next five years at least.
I was among international aviation reporters invited to admire the new product in London last week and found it was almost a mini-cabin with a screen that can be raised and lowered electronically, made of an innovative material called Lumisty which is opaque to the passenger next to you but transparent to flight attendants standing in the aisle looking to see if you need anything. The lighting for reading is now shoulder height instead of overhead and there is a drawer for storing a laptop, handbag and shoes - a big improvement on the present situation where beds become a sort of nest with your book and handbag stuffed down by your side and your shoes on the floor.
The bed is now 13cm wider at 64cm. The extra 13cm have come from enabling the arms to be lowered to become level with the side of the bed, which is 1.8m long in its flat position but gains an extra 15cm by pressing a button to put it in a "z" position with support for the knees and back. Nasa scientists discovered this was the position the body naturally adopts in zero gravity.
The mattress is softer and blankets have been replaced by a duvet. The entertainment system has also been improved and so have the snacks to which business class passengers can help themselves between meals, to include salads and hot dishes.
BA has discovered that the airline market has polarised, with some passengers choosing the cheapest available flights while an increasing number are prepared to pay more for comfort but have become more demanding. In line with this, BA has increased the number of business class seats in its long haul fleet by eight percent, reducing the number in economy class, and spent £100-million on improvements.
However, SAA's bed takes a lot of beating. It is still the most comfortable I have tried so far (I didn't actually try out the BA bed. One reporter found it so comfortable he stayed in it for a long time). It will take BA 18 months to install their new product throughout their long haul fleet and its routes to the US will be the first to get it. So SAA's bed is likely to remain the best on most routes for at least a few months more. And Walsh pointed out that many of the world's airlines are lagging far behind and don't have lie-flat beds at all.
Incidentally, the new security regulations for passengers flying out of the UK are so strictly enforced that passengers leaving Heathrow are allowed to carry only one bag on board. And, like many such rules, they have their absurdities. I found I had to choose between carrying my handbag or a plastic bag with three books I had bought at the airport. But, on the advice of a helpful security man, I was allowed to keep the handbag if I took the books out of the plastic bag and carried them loose under my arm.
You can, of course, fly with bottles of wine, spirits and perfume and other forbidden articles such as eyebrow tweezers, provided they are in your checked in luggage and not with you on the plane. But then you have to hope they will still be in the bag when you reclaim it. The airlines cannot be blamed for the pilfering from luggage that is commonplace while it is with the baggage handling company, particularly at Johannesburg. But I am told that SAA's free service of wrapping luggage in plastic, available in Johannesburg before checking it in, is effective.