Bankrupt South African Airways just debuted its newest plane, the Airbus A350, weeks early despite verging on the brink of collapse

A South African Airways Airbus A350. South African Airways
  • South African Airways recently debuted its newest aircraft, the Airbus A350-900 XWB, on the Johannesburg-New York route.
  • The new A350 is the airline’s first next-generation aircraft that it aims to use to revitalize its ageing fleet.
  • Despite buying four of the aircraft type, South African remains on the brink of financial collapse.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

South African Airways is celebrating the introduction of its newest aircraft on its longest nonstop route.

The airline recently acquired the Airbus A350-900 XWB aircraft, one of the newest aircraft from the European manufacturer, that will replace the quad engine Airbus A340-600. Though the largest in South African’s fleet, the A340 has slowly been retired from the world’s skies in favour of more efficient twin-engine aircraft such as the A350.

The A350 quietly debuted in January. The inaugural flight was initially scheduled for February, travel website The Points Guy reported, though its service was unexpectedly moved up.

The A350 is ideal for the long routes that South African will be deploying it on as it has a better track record of efficiency than its current generation colleagues at the airline.

Airbus also loaded the aircraft with passenger-friendly features such as quieter engines and LED ambient lighting to combat jet lag to aid passengers making the long-haul journey. Most airlines have also opted for exterior cameras accessible through the aircraft’s in-flight entertainment system.

With the aircraft now on the New York route, flight times have lowered and held steady at around 14 hours for the near 7,000 nautical mile route, according to data from flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.

The debut of a new aircraft is typically a positive sign for any airline, but the A350’s induction into South African’s fleet comes at a time when the airline’s future in the skies is in doubt. The state-owned airline has been experienced financial difficulties that put its future in jeopardy as plans to revitalize the airline and make it profitable have failed.

Loans have largely kept the airline afloat, as Reuters reported, but it may not be enough to keep South African flying.

Take a look inside what may be South African Airways’ last new aircraft.

South African Airways stunned onlookers when it announced it would be acquiring the Airbus A350-900 XWB as financial troubles have plagued the airline for quite some time.


Despite rumours of collapse, the airline took delivery of its new flagship in October 2019, with plans to take on a total of four.

A South African Airways Airbus A350 South African Airways

Source: FlightGlobal

Its first two A350s are secondhand, both previously in service with Hainan Airlines and LATAM Brazil, but its final two will come straight from Airbus’s production line in Toulouse, France.

A South African Airways Airbus A350 South African Airways

Sources: FlightGlobal and

The aircraft will replace South African’s ageing and inefficient Airbus A340-600 aircraft that formerly operated the Johannesberg-New York route.

A South African Airways Airbus A340. Bruce Bennett/Getty

Most airlines around the world are retiring their Airbus A340s in favour of aircraft like the A350. Virgin Atlantic, Scandinavian Airlines, and Iberia are among them.

A South African Airways Airbus A340. Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

For a long-haul airline, an efficient plane such as the A350 could help save on fuel and operating costs.

FILE PHOTO: An Airbus A350 takes off at the aircraft builder’s headquarters in Colomiers near Toulouse Reuters

The arrival of the aircraft to South African’s fleet also represents the first step of a fleet revitalization, with the aircraft also wearing a new livery.

A South African Airways Airbus A350. Sumaya Hisham/Reuters

The aircraft is comprised of two sections: business class and economy class. Business class with feature South African’s newest product, a staggered 1-2-1 configuration offering direct aisle access at every seat.

Business class on a South African Airways Airbus A350 South African Airways

The rest of the aircraft consists of economy seats in the standard 3-3-3 configuration as South African hasn’t yet adopted a premium economy section.

Economy class on a South African Airways Airbus A350 South African Airways

The aircraft can seat 339 passengers, 22 more than the aircraft it will be replacing. Operators of the A350 say that the aircraft can hold more passengers and still burn less fuel than the aircraft it is replacing.

Economy class on a South African Airways Airbus A350. South African Airways

The aircraft can currently be seen flying to destinations such as New York, Frankfurt, and Cape Town, according to FlightRadar24.


Though a well-needed boost for a struggling airline, the financial situation of the airline, however, may see the aircraft disappear from the skies just as quickly as it appeared.

South African recently announced it would sell some of its Airbus A340 aircraft to get some well-needed cash, according to FlightGlobal, which may help its current fleet flying a bit longer. A Thursday Bloomberg report, however, stated that the airline was slashing routes to cut back on costs.

While it once operated between South Africa and the US largely without any direct competition, those days are gone. Fellow Star Alliance member United Airlines recently entered the market with a nonstop route between Newark and Cape Town using a Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, offering an alternative.

Source: FlightRadar24