Tried & Tested

Flight review: Singapore Airlines Airbus A350-900ULR business class

12 Oct 2018 by Craig Bright
Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

Background

Singapore Airlines has reclaimed the title of longest commercial flight in the world with the relaunch of its non-stop service between Singapore and New York (Newark) on October 11, 2018. At 16,700-km and scheduled to take approximately 18 hours and 45 minutes, the flight blows the current titleholder – Qatar Airways’ 17-and-a-half-hour, 14,535-km flights between Doha and Auckland out of the water.

That being said, this is by no means the first time Singapore Airlines has made this route. Indeed, this was the service that enabled it to hold the mantle in years past when it flew non-stop to New York using an older – and far less fuel efficient – aircraft, the Airbus A340, until it was forced to axe the route in 2013 due to it no longer being economically viable.

Enter the A350-900ULR (ultra-long range), an extended-range variant of Airbus’s existing A350-900 aircraft that Singapore Airlines is the first carrier to operate. Designed specifically for flights of up to 20 hours, the aircraft has enabled the relaunch of Singapore Airlines route in a – hopefully – more economically viable manner.

How is Singapore Airlines doing this? For starters, it has completely cut out the economy class cabin, meaning the entire aircraft comprises just 67 business class and 94 in premium economy – roughly a 40-60 per cent split. While the premium economy seats have undergone some minor shifts to make them slightly more efficient for such long-haul travel, the business class seats remain largely unchanged from those on its standard A350-900s.

As such, this review of Singapore Airlines’ inaugural non-stop New York flight will focus predominantly on one question: Has the carrier done enough to make 18+ hours manageable in a single flight?

Check-in

I arrived at Changi Airport Terminal 3 just after 19.40 following a flight from Hong Kong, giving me ample time ahead of the 23.35 departure of flight SQ22 to Newark Liberty International Airport. Check-in at Hong Kong was efficient and my luggage checked through to New York, with boarding pass provided for both my flights.

Having ample time to spare before boarding and the celebrations Singapore Airlines would be holding at the boarding gate (B8), I headed straight to the T3 Silverkris lounge.

Lounge

Typically, business class passengers on this flight will be allowed access to the Silverkris Business Class Lounge, though for the inaugural flight I was permitted to use the Silverkris First Class Lounge located adjacent. I have reviewed the first class lounge previously, which can be viewed here.

The T3 Silverkris Business Class Lounge continues to impress for its size alone, and it’s undeniably a comfortable place to sit and dine. That being said, it could do with a few enhancements. Power outlets are incredibly sparse particularly right by the seats, which are generally limited to just small armchairs rather than a mix of tables and chairs, comfy seats and more private cubicles, and the bar is self-serve rather than manned. Consider that these are all features its lounge in Hong Kong, for example, offers. Indeed, Singapore Airlines appears to be of a similar mind, and has indicated plans to give the facilities at Changi a bit of a sprucing up sometime next year.

Boarding

I headed to the gate at about 22.15, at which point we were given a pre-flight viewing of the aircraft ahead of departure, followed by commemorative speeches, a buffet and a live performance of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

Passengers were each given a goodie bag with two glass Singapore Airlines tumblers, a pen, a small notepad, and a certificate commemorating their journey. Boarding officially began at 11.00, and I was in my seat a few minutes after.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

The seat

As previously mentioned, the actual seat product Singapore Airlines is using for the A350-900ULR is the same as it outfits on its standard A350-900s – a good, spacious seat product that offers ample in-seat storage. This is not the airline’s newest long-haul business class seat product, however – that launched last December on board its new A380 superjumbos. Speaking to representatives from the airline, the reasons for the new A350-900ULR having the same seats as its predecessor were largely to ensure greater consistency across its long-haul products, along with the fact that the A380 business class product was designed with that specific aircraft in mind.

The business class cabin is split across two areas – I was seated in 25D, a centre seat in the middle of the second business class section with direct access to the left aisle, owing to the cabin’s 1-2-1 configuration. The seats are incredibly wide (29 inches) and recline to offer a fully flat seat, though this will need to be done by folding down the back of the seat rather than pushing a recline button.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

Storage space is ample with a multitude of small cubby holes ideal for stashing away small items and devices, including a thin space ideal for stowing a laptop adjacent to the light and power outlet. There is also a large space beneath your seat for small bags, and a retractable divide that can be put up between you and your neighbour.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

For those who have never experienced this seat product before, it does have one particularly noticeable quirk in that the footwell is off to one side rather than directly in front of you. This means it’s necessary to sleep in more of a fetal position on your side rather than stretched out on your back – entirely a matter of preference, though I admit I do tend to prefer being able to stretch my legs. Be sure to ask a member of the cabin crew to help you fold the seat down to reveal the flat bed, mattress cover and blanket, as it can be tricky to do oneself and is not immediately intuitive.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

The tray table is a good size and easily capable of holding even a particularly bulky laptop. The in-flight entertainment (IFE) system, meanwhile, incorporates Singapore Airlines’ new Krisworld system that enables passengers to log into the system using their SIlverkris details and create playlists across different flights and even resume films they didn’t manage to finish on a previous flight.

Screens are very wide, 18 inches and HD, though they aren’t touch screen and the system is navigated instead using a sleek controller that is very intuitive to use. Noise-cancelling headphones are also provided.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

Which seat to choose?

Single seats adjacent to the windows are obviously prime real estate, though there are some that might be worth grabbing over others. Provided you’re not fussed about getting a seat in the bulkhead row, getting a spot in seats A or K in rows 12-15 are a good bet. These are positioned in the middle of the front cabin away from the galley and lavatories, and unlike the second cabin don’t place you over the wings, meaning your journey should be as quiet as possible.

As Singapore Airlines has also opted to go for Airbus’s more spacious cabin design that sees the central overhead storage bins removed, the cabin really opens up on the A350-900ULR. This makes the central two seats much easier to get into and out of, as you’ve not got an overhead obstacle to contend with, so don’t immediately write these seats off either.

Seat 10A is perhaps the last one you’d want to choose, though – it stands alone at the very front of the cabin with the galley directly beside it, meaning you’ll be fighting off disruptions, noise and invasive sources of light throughout the flight.

Other than that, 17D and 17F – the aforementioned centre seats at the very back of the first cabin – are also close to the galley and lavatories that separate the two business class sections, making them also unlikely to offer the most premium experience. For similar reasons, the entire row 29 at the back of the second cabin may be worth giving a miss if you can manage it.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

The flight

With 18 hours to kill, the first thing you may wish to consider is mapping out when you’ll be awake and when you’ll sleep. This flight departs Singapore just before midnight and arrives in New York in the very early morning, so unless you plan on sleeping the entire 18+ hours you’re going to end up having to make a choice: sleep earlier and have an extra-long day when you arrive, or put it off until later in the flight and try to power through the night.

I planned to do the latter and make sure I was well rested upon my arrival in New York, and so I aimed to eat, work and relax for the first eight hours, sleep for the next seven and then wake up for the final three in time for breakfast. This is easier said than done, of course, considering it is akin to staying awake through the night and only settling down to go to sleep at 8am.

After boarding, I was offered a choice of champagne or orange juice from Singapore Airlines’ new wellness-focused culinary partner, Canyon Ranch. Against my better instincts, I eschewed the bubbly (for the time being) and went for the juice, wishing to stay alert for the beginning of the flight. We took off just before midnight and had our meal orders taken slightly after, at 00.20.

Singapore Airlines has gone for flexibility when it comes to meal service times, and passengers are able to select their first meal service one to three hours into the flight, and their second meal service any time from eight to 16 hours into the journey.

Singapore Airlines' Singapore-New York business class menu

This gives you a good degree of flexibility when it comes to choosing how you spend your time on the flight. It’s also possible to pre-select your meals online before the flight using Singapore Airlines’ Book the Cook option. I was asked for my choice of meal for the first service:

  • Pan-seared lion head snapper fillet with red wine viniagrette
  • Beef hor fun
  • Croque monsieur
  • Steamed lobster dumplings in superior soup

I opted for the hor fun noodles – a personal favourite – which came about an hour later and was suitably small, and combined with the fresh fruit that accompanied it was satiating without being excessively filling, exactly what I was looking for.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

Along with being asked for my food order, a member of the cabin crew also came down with a selection of amenities as part of a new “create your own amenity kit” concept unique to this flight.

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

Along with a dental kit, ear plugs, hand cream and lip balm, passengers can also grab a fabric crease release spray, and a wash and stain bar from The Laundress. Socks, eye mask and slippers were provided at the seat prior to boarding.

One thing that is noticeably missing from such a long-haul flight, however, is pyjamas. This is in keeping with Singapore Airlines’ existing practice – only first class passengers are given them, and this flight has no such cabin. However, one would think that on a flight where good sleep is of such importance – so much so that the airline developed a special hydration-focused menu in order to aid with sleep – that something like pyjamas would have also made the cut. As such, be sure to bring your own.

With just over eight hours of the flight gone I seized the opportunity to get a solid seven hours of sleep next and settled in for the night. Unfortunately, Singapore Airlines didn’t quite agree with my planned schedule, and at some point between the eighth and 11th hour, the cabin lights were brought back on, in order to aid with serving the second round of meals. A representative from Singapore Airlines pointed out to me that soft blue lights were used in order to wake passengers,  in contrast to warm amber used at night.

Regardless, I was awake with just over four hours of sleep in the bag – not quite what I’d hoped for, though better than none at all. If, like me, you choose to sleep at less conventional hours during the flight, I’d recommend popping on an eye mask and perhaps some ear plugs just to be sure you aren’t inadvertently disturbed before your intended wake up.

About an hour later cabin crew came around to take my meal order, with a broader array of options of varying portion sizes, including:

  • Beef cheek in red wine sauce (from Australian chef Matt Moran)
  • Braised pork with citrus (from Canyon Ranch)
  • Famous Singapore chicken rice
  • Braised egg noodles with seafood
  • Parsley cheese omelette
  • Selection of dim sum

I felt myself compelled to go for the Singapore chicken rice – yet another personal favourite.

This also came with a selection of chicken and beef satays as an appetizer, which I highly recommend…

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

…as well as a crab salad…

Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR business class

….and a selection of chocolates, cheeses, fruits and desserts. Meals are certainly sizeable and with multiple courses the challenge is definitely keeping oneself from over eating.

If you didn’t manage to get enough sleep, fortunately the lights are once again turned off a few hours prior to landing allowing you to squeeze in a couple extra hours. By this time I’d already converted my bed back to a seat, however I nestled down for a brief nap and managed another hour or so of rest.

When it comes to waking up, I’d certainly recommend getting one of the new, fresh beverages Singapore Airlines has introduced onto this flight, as they are incredibly refreshing and great for perking yourself up. I was partial to the agave and ginger lemonade, as the heat from the ginger and zest from the lemon deliver a pleasant shock to the system.

Throughout the flight, all business class passengers were given a complimentary 24-hour on-board wifi code, allowing me to stay connected. This won’t be standard on the route after the inaugural flight, however, and a comparison of Singapore Airlines’ wifi prices against other carriers can be viewed here. With so many passengers given free access to the network, however, speeds were quite slow with webpages taking about 15 to 20 seconds to load and social media posts even longer, and at times the service dropped out entirely.

Arrival

We landed at Newark airport just before half past five in the morning local time – a great time to get to the airport as the queues at immigration were non-existent and, managing to beat the rest of the premium economy rush, I was through in a matter of minutes. To top it off, a pleasant surprise awaited me in the baggage claim hall as my luggage was already on the belt by the time I got there – not something one can say about every US airport.

Verdict

Singapore Airlines has done an admirable job in making this 18-hour journey comfortable and manageable. The food selection – and flexibility with when you eat – puts a lot of control in passengers’ hands to decide how and when they wish to divvy up their time between working, eating and sleeping.

While personally I do prefer business class seat products that allow one to stretch their legs out rather than lie on their side in a more curled up position, Singapore Airlines’ seats remain highly popular and I have little doubt fans of these products in particular will find them plenty comfortable when applied to ultra-long haul.

Is this flight too long to do in a single go? Ultimately no, though I cannot deny that it did take me by surprise just how much time I found myself having at my disposal. That being said, at no point was the experience unpleasant, even when I wasn’t able to stick to my original sleep schedule.  You’ll definitely want to bring your own pyjamas, and perhaps sticking to two shorter sleep sessions to coincide with the dimming of the lights in the cabin is the best approach to have.

Fact file

Price A return business class fare in mid-November begins at S$8,385 (US$5,267)

  • Configuration 1-2-1
  • Seat width 29 inches
  • Seat pitch 78 inches (when reclined)
  • Seat recline 180 degrees fully flat
  • Departure 2335
  • Flight duration 18 hours 45 minutes
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