This time we flew the Federal Air Shuttle Service from Johannesburg to the Royal Malewane lodge in the Thornybush Reserve on our arrival and from the Singita Boulders Lodge in the Sabi Sand Reserve back to Johannesburg on our departure. We liked that the airline had its own private area at the Johannesburg airport with a handsome lounge, complimentary amenities, and a streamlined check-in and boarding process.
This method of reaching our reserves meant a more pleasant pre-flight experience, less travel time overall and no driving on unpaved game reserve roads. Although the luggage allowance was less than with commercial carriers or driving the many other advantages more than made up for it. Direct Federal Air flights to the reserves will be our first choice in the future.
Aircraft We flew from Johannesburg in a Beechcraft 1900 (ZS – OHE) to Skukuza inside the Kruger National Park. Within minutes we transferred to a Cessna Grand Caravan for our flight to the Royal Malewane (ZS-OJC). On the return flight from Singita Sabi Sand to Johannesburg, we flew aboard a Beech 1900D.
Handicapped And Special Needs Federal Air provided service to handicapped and special needs guests on request. The airline was able to address dietary, celebrity and personal security needs. According to promotional materials, the company often flies VIPs and offers bespoke travel arrangements.
Owned-Managed Federal Air, owned by Solenta Holdings, Troy Reiser and Nick Taylor, is owner managed. The members of the executive board of directors as of this writing are: Troy Reiser, managing director, Leon van der Mortele, group financial director, and Mark Hurst and Nick Taylor, non executives.
Size The airline employed 30 pilots and 80 employees. There were 13 planes in the South Africa shuttle service: three 1900s, two PC 12s, two Caravans in Johannesburg and two in the lowveld, one Airvan, one C206 and two Baron 58s.
The first leg of our trip was in a larger aircraft to Skukuza in the Kruger National Park, where two smaller planes waited to fly out into the neighboring reserves. The transfer on the tiny landing strip was efficient and speedy. Our bush plane dropped us off very near our lodge. Minutes after landing we were sipping iced tea poolside, settled in comfortably at our lodge.
For the rest of the itinerary we organized land transfers between the lodges in the Thornybush and Sabi Sand reserves. Our last lodge was Singita Boulders in the Sabi Sand Reserve. When it was time to return to Johannesburg for our flight home heavy rains in our area threatened flight cancellations causing our pilot to advise an early departure (an 11 a.m. departure instead of a 2:15 p.m. departure). As soon as the staff at Singita Boulders Lodge notified us of the suggested change we agreed. The drive to the Singita landing strip was a matter of minutes.
We waited in the comfort of a handsomely furnished tent for our plane to land. The wait was so short we did not even have time to accept the cold beverages or fruit on offer. As we departed Singita, slightly elated to return home before the rains closed the airstrip and sad to leave the bush, we thought about the difference the bush flight experience had made on our trip.
Shuttle Services In 1999, the company introduced the Federal Air Shuttle Service in South Africa to supply the exclusive game lodge industry a tailor-made and personalized air service to remote bush strips in the lowveld area of the country. For the Sabi Sand and Kruger Park routes, for the past five years the airline relied on a combination of the Beech 1900’s, Pilatus PC12’s and the Cessna Grand Caravan each offering different features. The 1900 (18 seats) and PC12 (8 seats) are pressurized aircraft and fly at around 25,000 feet above sea level, the Caravan (12 seats) is a non-pressurized aircraft that flies at around 12,000 feet above sea level. Thanks to the relatively slow flying speeds and low altitude the Caravan lends itself well for nostalgic safari flights, allowing travelers to see the landscape when flying across the country and having the opportunity to spot game as the aircraft lands. The pressurized aircraft offer a faster and more executive style experience than the Caravan, making the flight from Johannesburg pass by quickly.
The fleet age averaged between 10 and 20 years depending on the aircraft. Aircraft were maintained per international standards and were regularly refurbished as required. The planes we flew on appeared in good condition.
Federal Air offered many options to the main game reserves. There were three daily return departures from Johannesburg to the Sabi Sand and Kruger National Park area seven days a week; two daily return flights to the Madikwe Private Game Reserve; and daily connecting flights between lodges and reserves, and flights out of Nelspruit, connecting the reserves and lodges. There was also daily scheduled service between Johannesburg and Vilanculos, Mozambique.
Other Airline materials explained that “Federal Air operates a Shuttle Service and is not a Scheduled Carrier for shuttle services. Routings and departure times vary from day to day depending on actual lodge and guest requirements, as well as landing conditions. Flight times are subject to change without notice.” It was possible to book flights as much as 12 months in advance. The airline offered complimentary executive transport from the main terminal to the Federal Air lounge facility and direct aircraft access.
Route And Flights We flew a total of three domestic flights, two flights en route from Johannesburg to the Royal Malewane in the Thornybush Reserve and one from Singita Boulders in the Sabi Sand Reserve back to Johannesburg. We boarded the airplane in Johannesburg via drop down staircase. From the international airport in Johannesburg, South Africa to the Royal Malewane in the Thornybush Reserve it was necessary to change planes in Skukuza in the Kruger National Park. Johan, one of two pilots in the cockpit, welcomed us onboard and shared safety instructions and flight information.
When we arrived at the airport one hour early from our hotel we discovered our departing flight was one hour late (“flight times were flexible,” we had been forewarned). We departed at 1:15 p.m., arriving in Skukuza at 2:25 p.m. By 2:30 p.m. we were departing on a 12-seat plane flown by Dean and Andre. We boarded through the rear of the plane and walked up a narrow aisle to the seats and front up the plane. The plane made one very quick stop to drop off passengers before arriving at the Royal Malewane airstrip.
On the return, from Singita Boulders in the Sabi Sand Reserve to the international airport in Johannesburg, we flew a plane similar to the one we arrived in to Skukuza and boarded via a drop down staircase. Once we boarded the crowded airplane the pilot provided safety and exit aisle instructions and we departed. We made three stops en route to drop off and pick up passengers before heading to Johannesburg. The flights were comfortable and uneventful.
On Board Service The only staff aboard the small aircraft were the pilots. The ground staff made sure we and our luggage made it on board. At the foot of the airplane’s staircase there was a cooler filled with water and soft drinks on offer. Because of the sweltering summer heat we were thankful for the beverages. Before we departed one of the pilots made safety announcements and we departed. On landing he announced the location and those going there deplaned while ground staff pulled their luggage out of the plane.
Airport lounge and ground service Federal Air Shuttle service domestic passengers (international flights departed from the international departures area of the airport) had access to an airport lounge owned by Federal Air in Johannesburg International Airport for the exclusive use of its passengers. For domestic flights check-in, baggage check-in, and security were completed in the Federal Air Lounge prior to boarding a few steps away from the air conditioned lounge. The lounge had indoor and outdoor seating, a boutique, shower and internet facilities for up to 100 passengers. The lounge was staffed by Federal Air employees.
At Singita Boulders our guide and tracker drove us to the landing strip the morning of our departure. We waited in a charming Singita airstrip tent, owned by Singita and operated by a dedicated Singita Guest Relations team. Although we were only there briefly as our plane landed just as we arrived, it looked like a pleasant place to await the arrival of a flight, protected from the elements and with access to refreshments. There was a fruit bowl, books and a cooler with cold beverages.
Reviewers Article by Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Would You Fly With Them Again? Yes