Tried & Tested

Flight review: Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class (SQ21)

18 Oct 2018 by Craig Bright
Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR

Background

Having axed its non-stop flights to New York back in 2013, Singapore Airlines relaunched the service last week and in the process has once again claimed the title of world’s longest commercial flight.

The Singaporean carrier had previously flown the route using its Airbus A340-500, though due to the aircraft’s high fuel consumption and rising fuel costs the airline was forced to cut the service until it could find a more cost-efficient means of making the journey. And with the arrival of Airbus’s new A350-900ULR (ultra-long-range) aircraft – a variant of its existing A350-900 specially designed for flights of up to 20 hours – Singapore Airlines seems to have found such a way.

This is a review of my return flight (SQ21) from New York’s Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to Singapore (SIN). Business Traveller was on the inaugural service out of Singapore on October 11, and a full review of that flight can be read here.

Singapore Airlines check-in desk at Newark Liberty International Airport

Check-in

The flight out of Newark Airport has a scheduled departure of 1045, meaning travellers will need to brave the morning rush hour when getting to the airport. In my zeal, I made sure to give myself ample amounts of time and actually arrived at the airport far earlier than I’d expected to, just after 7.50 in the morning. This gave me a full two hours before I needed to board – time that I, thankfully, didn’t end up finding myself requiring.

Singapore Airlines’ check-in desks are located at Zone C on Level 3 of Newark Airport’s Terminal B. Understandably, the queues were non-existent this far ahead of my flight and I headed straight to the counter. Surprisingly, though, the actual check-in process was noticeably less swift and I was standing there for close to eight minutes while a slightly surly young member of staff tried to navigate the check-in system – I remain unsure as to what the issue apparently was.

Nevertheless after a few minutes I was checked-in and the same member of staff gave me directions to the lounge. I passed through security and, as with check-in, this was rather slow and tedious despite the relative lack of other travellers at the time, and I dread to think of how arduous this would be when it actually gets busy. On the plus side, however, this has simply enabled my (perhaps biased) perspective that airports in Asia are wildly superior to those elsewhere in the world to remain in tact.

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, Newark Liberty International Airport

Lounge

Singapore Airlines has enlisted the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse as the de facto lounge for its business class passengers on this flight, located just past security and across from the British Airways Galleries Club Lounge. The choice could well be due to the fact that while fellow Star Alliance members Lufthansa and SAS do operate lounges in Newark’s Terminal B, neither are open until after lunch time.

That being said the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse is a perfectly pleasant facility. Its design is among the most playful that I’ve experienced in a lounge, with a colourful and funky aesthetic, and a comfortably informal ambiance. While it’s not a huge space, at no point did it get excessively full and there was still ample space available even up to when I left to the gate. The lounge offers a number of different seating options – sofas, lounge chairs and small tables, and dining tables – along with a few other nice features including shower facilities and table service for dining, which was enjoyable.

Staff were helpful, though not necessarily sprightly. The lounge “dragon” guarding the entrance did give me a run down of the facilities and even an estimation as to when the announcement would be made for boarding, however, which I don’t often receive when entering a lounge.

A full review of the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at Newark Airport can be read here:

Lounge review: Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, Newark Liberty International Airport

Boarding

The lounge guardian was true to his word and at 10.15 the announcement went to say that boarding had begun. Departure was from Gate B53, which is only a few minutes’ walk away, meaning travellers shouldn’t feel obliged to rush over before they hear the lounge announcement. Boarding had already begun by the time I got to the gate and I was on board within minutes.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

The seat

Singapore Airlines equips these new A350-900ULR aircraft with just two classes – business and premium economy – and its business class cabin uses the same seat as its regular A350-900s, which remain popular among travellers. Seats are laid out in a 1-2-1 configuration, meaning all passengers get direct access to the aisle.

Having flown on one of the centre seats (25D) on my initial flight over to New York, I was in for a different experience on this leg in one of the bulkhead seats – 19K – in the second business class cabin. These notably offer a broader bed space than their non-bulkhead counterparts, and are a good choice for travellers who, such as myself, find themselves in need of more room.

The two major benefits of the bulkhead seat are that the seated pitch is definitely greater, since there isn’t a seat in front entering into your leg space, and that sleeping is more comfortable as you end up with a wide square-shaped bed. One of my qualms with Singapore Airlines’ A350 seat product in general is that it forces you to sleep on your side, as the foot well is off to one side, meaning you can’t stretch out straight while lying down. The bulkhead seat makes this slightly more doable, however, and the breadth of the sleeping area means you have more ability to shift about and find a comfortable sleeping position.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

This was particularly useful in my case, as it turned out that the seat controls in 19K were having an off day and refused to work, meaning I couldn’t recline the back of the seat, raise the leg rest, or use the call for assistance button. Since these seats actually recline manually – you’ll need to get up and pull down the back of the seat to reveal the flat bed with mattress, pillows and bedding – I found I didn’t really need these functions for the large part, though it is perhaps worrisome to see problems with the seats on an aircraft that has yet to be flying commercially for even a full week.

There are some other general drawbacks to the bulkhead seat as well, notably with the reduction of in-seat storage areas, particularly under the seat. The screen, while undeniably large at 18-inches, is also positioned further away when in the front row, and unlike the centre seats, which have no overhead storage bins and therefore more headspace, those at the bulkhead are slightly more constricted by their presence.

However, I also must state that Singapore Airlines has avoided making the bulkhead seats being too disruptive, as both the galley and lavatories are a reasonable distance from row 19 and at no point did I feel disturbed by the crew or other passengers going about their business.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

Which seat to choose?

In my previous review I recommended the window A or K seats in rows 12-15 as they are far from the wings and in the middle of the front cabin, and so equidistant from both galleys and lavatories. I’d now confidently add the bulkhead seats in row 19 to that recommendation, especially the standalone A and K seats, particularly if you’re looking to maximise your space while sleeping, which on a flight of this length is definitely going to be important.

That being said, I also stick to my previous recommendation to avoid one bulkhead seat in particular, 10A, which is a standalone seat on the row at the very front of the cabin, and is positioned such that it is essentially neighbouring the galley. Skip this seat if you want to avoid disruptions.

The flight

Upon boarding I was offered a hot towel as well as a welcome drink comprising three different juices, something I personally found preferable to champagne for a morning departure. I was also asked what post-take-off drink I’d like, and having fallen in love with the Canyon Ranch agave ginger lemonade on the flight over I was distraught to find that it was only available on the Singapore-New York leg. Instead, I opted for the pineapple and coconut juice that is exclusive to the New York-Singapore leg, though I have to say it paled in comparison.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

We took off at 1100, about 15 minutes later than scheduled. After about 20 minutes, I was offered an array of amenities, including ear plugs, lip balm, hand cleanser, a dental kit, and an array of items from The Laundress, including fabric crease release spray and a clothing wash and stain bar. Passengers are given the opportunity to select the items they’d most like and create their own amenity kit using one of the rectangular leather bags provided, which on this leg were brown rather than black as on my previous journey.

While this flight is shorter than the one coming over – the captain estimated a flight time of 17 hours 30 minutes – this is still an incredibly long flight and so figuring out your sleep pattern is important. Having learnt from my previous flight that trying to wait until the latter half of the flight to enjoy one long period of sleep, I instead chose to follow Singapore Airlines’ lead and go for two sleeping sessions – one after the first meal and one after the second meal. This is when the cabin lights are dimmed, and while trying to fall asleep soon after an 1100 departure can be tricky I recommend trying to stick to that schedule.

Having received my amenity kit I was then asked for my order for the first meal service, which takes place between the first one to three hours of the flight. This was a genuinely difficult decision – the food on my flight over to New York was fantastic, and the choices on this the return leg all looked incredibly promising.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

In the end I opted for the sous-vide beef fillet with wild mushroom cream sauce, which tasted phenomenal and was as juicy as a restaurant-cooked meal.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

This also came with a sautéed prawn and quinoa salad starter…

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

…and choice of cherry ice cream, cheese or salted butter caramel cake for dessert (I chose the caramel cake).

At this point I have to mention the quality of the service that Singapore Airlines offers on this flight, which is certainly up to its usual high standards. A number of the cabin staff on my flight were also on the inaugural journey and all remembered me by name. After I asked for a gin and tonic to help lull me to sleep, one particularly attentive member of staff, noticing that I was midway through watching a recent blockbuster film, also brought me a bag of salted caramel-flavoured kettle corn with my drink – a lovely touch.

It was also this same member of the cabin crew that diligently worked to try and get the issues with my seat controls fixed, first resetting the system and then, when that didn’t work, asking if I wished to move to a different seat. Considering I was already settled and for the large part had no need for the leg rest or slight seat recline, I opted to stay put, but it was good to see the cabin crew making real effort to ensure I was comfortable.

After about seven hours I finally managed to settle in for the night, though was informed by a member of the crew that the second meal service would begin in a couple of hours and was asked whether I would want to be woken up for it and what meal I wished to be served. I also learnt from my trip over and packed my own pyjamas for this flight, as this is something Singapore Airlines does not provide – find out why here.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

The second meal service arrived with about seven hours of the flight remaining. The main meal selection was even more diverse and tempting this time around, and I decided to go for the seared lamb loin with Cabernet sauce, part of Singapore Airlines’ collaboration with American chef Alfred Portale. The flavour was delicious, however it did feel somewhat overcooked and was noticeably drier than the beef fillet I was served at dinner.

The main meal also came with a fennel and orange cured salmon trout appetiser as well as a Gotham “pineapple” mousse for dessert.

After the second meal service – which can be had anywhere from three to 16 hours into the flight – the lights in the cabin were once again dimmed and I managed to get a few more hours’ sleep before waking up about 30 minutes before landing.

Arrival

I had just about enough time to change out of my pyjamas and freshen up before we came into land, and by 1635 we were on the tarmac – a whole hour ahead of the scheduled 1730 landing. We arrived at Terminal 2, at which point I made the roughly 15-minute trek and Skytrain ride over to Terminal 3 for my connecting flight onward to Hong Kong.

Verdict

This flight is and feels shorter than the flight out of Singapore, but is still undeniably a long flight. Following the two-part sleep schedule that Singapore Airlines adopts for the flight will put you in good stead, and grabbing one of the bulkhead seats in row 19 will ensure you have a particularly comfortable sleep. Overall, a solid seat product, great food and phenomenal service make this non-stop flight easily worth doing versus one with a stopover.

Fact file

  • Price A return business class fare in mid-November starts at US$7,047 including tax and surcharge.
  • Configuration 1-2-1
  • Seat width 29 inches
  • Seat pitch 78 inches
  • Seat recline 180 degrees fully flat
  • Departure 1045
  • Flight duration 17 hours 30 minutes
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