What Happened To South African Airways’ Airbus A350s?

Airbus’s next-generation A350 XWB series is a cornerstone of the movement towards highly efficient widebody designs with just two engines. This is underlined by its presence on ultra-long-haul corridors like New York-Singapore. Airbus has produced more than 400 A350s, of which South African Airways briefly operated four. But what happened to them?

South African A350
SAA flew four A350s from November 2019 to March 2020. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Pride of the fleet

The arrival of the Airbus A350 should have marked the beginning of something special for SAA. Many airlines around the world have come to revere the type for its comfort and efficiency, with JAL already lining it up to be its next flagship. There are also rumors that BA will adorn it with a similar level of status. Regarding the type, the airline stated that:

The arrival of the A350s significantly boosts the SAA fleet with modern, fuel-efficient aircraft. Business and Economy Class customers will enjoy the quieter and more comfortable cabin which contributes to a more relaxing environment during flight.”

SAA also showed great appreciation for the A350’s numerous and significant environmental advantages. The South African flag carrier added that the aircraft:

“… will reduce SAA’s exposure to South Africa’s recently imposed Carbon Tax as it is more environmentally friendly and helps it achieve global emissions offset mechanism targets for international aviation requirements.”

South African A350
SAA hoped the A350 would help it meet climate goals. Photo: TJDarmstadt via Wikimedia Commons

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Onboard SAA’s A350s

According to Planespotters.net, November 2019 saw SAA take delivery of four Airbus A350-900s. It leased two of these from Avolon (ZS-SDC and ZS-SDD) and two from Air Mauritius (ZS-SDE and ZS-SDF). Each lessor provided SAA with a different seating configuration. SeatGuru reports that these cabin layouts consisted of the following setups.

  • Air Mauritius – 28 business class flatbeds (1-2-1 configuration), 298 standard economy class seats.
  • Avolon – 30 business class flatbeds (2-2-2 configuration), 63 economy plus (extra legroom) seats, 246 standard economy class seats.

The end of a rather short era

In March 2020, SAA had to suddenly and prematurely end its relationship with the A350. This came about due to its ongoing financial struggles, combined with the difficulties and uncertainty of the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Air Mauritius A350
SAA had leased two of its A350s from Air Mauritius. Photo: Anna Zvereva via Flickr

As a result, SAA withdrew three of its A350s from use last March, with the fourth and final example (ZS-SDD) holding out until the following month. Over the course of the rest of the year, it returned its four next-generation twinjets to their respective lessors.

The first examples to go were the Avolon-owned aircraft. As reported by Simple Flying at the time, these planes flew to Teruel, Spain, for long-term storage in July 2020. Their Irish lessor will now hope that it can find them a new operator sooner rather than later.

As for the planes leased from Air Mauritius, these made the short hop back across the Indian Ocean to their original operator in August 2020. At the time of writing in May 2021, both aircraft were active. They had most recently flown to Mauritius from London Heathrow (LHR) and Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), according to data from RadarBox.com.

Did you ever manage to fly on one of SAA’s A350s during their short operational period? If so, what was it like? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.


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