Good Advice Tried and Tested

First look: Singapore Airlines Airbus A350-900

02/03/2016

Singapore Airlines has officially taken delivery of its first Airbus A350-900. The Star Alliance member has a further 66 on order, and expects to take delivery of another 10 this year with seven more to follow by mid-2017 (see here).

Speaking ahead of the delivery ceremony today, SIA chief executive Goh Choon Phong revealed that the airline had a total of three A350 variants on order with Airbus – the standard version, ultra-long range version, and a regional outfit that is optimised for mid-haul operations.

Having taken the keys to its first A350, the SIA chief believes that the new aircraft will represent a “game changer” for the airline and open up new opportunities.

“The addition of the A350-900 exemplifies SIA’s longstanding commitment to operate a young and modern fleet,” said Goh during the delivery ceremony.

“The A350 will be a game-changer for us, allowing for flights to more long-haul destinations on a nonstop basis, which will help us boost our network competitiveness and further develop the important Singapore hub.”

Business Traveller Asia-Pacific flew on the A350 delivery flight from Toulouse to Singapore as a guest of Singapore Airlines. This is our report.

CABINS

Singapore Airlines has outfitted its first A350-900 with a three-class configuration that includes 42 seats in business, 24 in premium economy and 187 in economy. While Goh has confirmed that the airline will never say no to the possibility of installing a first class cabin in the future, the first batch of deliveries will all feature the same configuration mentioned above.

BUSINESS CLASS

The cabin products are near identical to those found in SIA’s newly fitted B777-300ER. Business class seats are arranged in a four-abreast, 1-2-1 configuration and split across two cabins. The first, located at the front, features 26 seats, while the one behind contains a further 16.

Seat dimensions are identical to those on the B777-300ER, with 28 inches of width and a pitch of 55 inches. The product itself can be turned into a full-flat bed but this requires manually flipping the seat over. Automation is limited to the comfortable “lazy-Z” and “sundeck” positions.

In-seat amenities include an 18-inch LCD monitor, vanity mirror, a “business panel” consisting of a full suite of connectivity ports, stowage space and reading light. In-flight wifi is also available, with the A350 debuting a faster connectivity service by Panasonic, instead of the ageing OnAir service seen on SIA’s A380s.

One key point to consider is that there are no overhead storage compartments along the centre aisles of the business class cabins. While this provides plenty of headroom for customers while making the cabin appear larger, customers planning on carrying large baggage should consider the window seats instead.

PREMIUM ECONOMY

Just behind business class is a comparatively small and intimate premium economy cabin, which features just 24 seats, arranged in a 2-4-2 layout across three rows.

Each seat is 18.5-inches, which is once again almost identical to those found on SIA’s B777-300ER. In comparison, the product found on the airline’s A380 has a 19.5 seat width but lacks the touchscreen connectivity found on the A350 and B777-300ER. The seat pitch is 38 inches.

We’ve reviewed this product multiple times before and have always been impressed by the added benefits that premium economy customers enjoy over their counterparts in coach. This includes a 13.3-inch HD touchscreen monitor (billed as the largest in this class of travel), free flow champagne, as well as SIA’s acclaimed “Book the Cook” service.

ECONOMY

SIA has decided to go for a comfortable nine-abreast, 3-3-3 seating arrangement for economy class on the A350, which ensures that each seat is a generous 18-inches wide. This, according to Dr. Kiran Rao, executive vice president of strategy and marketing at Airbus, is one of the competitive advantages that the company has over Boeing – which typically offers seat width of only 17-inches on its aircraft.

While identical in almost every way, the economy class cabin breathes plenty of character, courtesy of its different coloured seats. Adjustable leather headrests, touchscreen IFE monitors and a generous seat pitch help make long-haul flying in coach a fairly comfortable experience on SIA.

One of the new innovations that SIA will be pioneering on its A350 is the “Companion App” feature. Available across all three cabins, the new mobile application provides customers with the ability to choose their in-flight entertainment content prior to their flights in order to create a more personalised experience. Once onboard, passengers may connect their mobile device onto the IFE system, which will sync their preferences onto the screen and automatically play their desired entertainment content throughout the flight.

A350 PASSENGER COMFORTS

The operation economics of the A350 has been widely reported, with Airbus touting its 25 per cent fuel efficiency, as compared to other aircraft types of this size.

In terms of passenger comforts, the A350 boast a higher humidity onboard, equivalent to that found at an altitude of only 6,000 feet. In comparison, the onboard humidity on older generation aircraft are usually similar to those at 8,000 feet. This translates to a much more comfortable in-flight experience, said Rao, who also noted that customers wouldn’t feel as jetlag when travelling on the A350.

The A350 also benefits from quiet cabins, second only to that on the A380. In addition, mood lighting is available, which allows SIA to change the cabin atmosphere throughout flight, in keeping with the switching time zones.

Overhead compartments on the Airbus aircraft are also the largest on a commercial aircraft yet, with an Airbus representative telling Business Traveller Asia-Pacific that passengers would be able to fit up to five hand carry baggage in each compartment.

FLIGHT EXPERIENCE

CHECK IN

The check in process was unique as I arrived at the Airbus delivery centre at 1015. Two dedicated check-in lanes were located at the lobby level of the building and the process was quick.

Following the check-in process, I entered a weighing room, where I was weighed along with my carry-on bags. The reason for this was so that Airbus and SIA could calculate the total weight and test the fuel efficiency of the A350, ensuring that Airbus’ claim of 25 per cent less fuel burn was valid.

BOARDING

Boarding began at 1400, soon after the delivery ceremony of the aircraft had ended. I approached the boarding area, where a security and immigration checkpoint had been set up. Just like checking in, the security and immigration clearance check was quick and I boarded the aircraft at 1405.

THE SEAT

I was assigned seat 17K in business class, next to the window. Fully clad in leather, the first impression of the product leaves a very positive impression. SIA offers some of the widest premium seats in the industry, and its new business class product, with a width of 29 inches, is no different.

Each seat in business class comes with a large, soft cushion that acts as a very comfortable lumbar support. The 18-inch IFE monitor is located within arm’s reach of the seat but noticeably is not touchscreen. Instead, passengers may use the touchscreen controller located on the side of the seat to select their entertainment choices. I found the interface to be intuitive and easy to use.

Two compartments are located at the arm rest area and pop open at a push. The first is for the tray table while the other holds the noise-cancelling headset. The tray table is excellent – large and sturdy – perfect for any business traveller wishing to get some work done in the air.

Seat controls are located on the other side of the seat, and are responsive. Passengers can control everything from their seating position and reading lights. A “Do Not Disturb” button is also available, as well as one to request assistance.

Flanking the sides of the IFE monitor is a coat hanger, vanity mirror as well as a small storage area. Passengers seeking to store larger items can do so under their seat as well as the area next to business panel on the side.

The business panel features a power adaptor, along with two USB ports, HDMI out, and an iPod plugin. A reading light is conveniently located above the panel too. Meanwhile, the magazine rack is located at the front side of the seat, and this came with the latest issue of the Krisworld magazine and a safety card for the A350-900.

THE FLIGHT

Flight SIA8895 pushed back at 1430 to a warm farewell from the ground team at Airbus. The safety video began playing two minutes later with the animations having been updated to feature the new A350 aircraft.

The cabin crew began their pre-departure checks soon after, as the aircraft approached the runway. I was also handed a pair of socks, flip fops and eyeshades. We took off at 1447 and approached our cruising altitude approximately ten minutes later. The seatbelt signs were subsequently turned off and the crew began their in-flight duties.

A round of Bollinger Champagne was served to commemorate the special occasion, along with several canapés consisting of foie gras and smoked salmon. I found both to be excellent, though it should be noted that this isn’t part of SIA’s typical service offering in business class. 

The service standards of the crew for flight SIA8895 has to be commended. I enjoyed the personalised service and the flight attendants were happy to engage in conversation.

Orders for the dinner service were taken at 1555, with the choice of turbot, beef or veal. I opted for the beef, which was served at 1645. This was served alongside a side of salad, foie gras, and lemon tart for dessert.

Unfortunately, the quality of the meal left much to be desired. The salad was bland, though the vinaigrette certainly did help, and the foie gras starter was OK but fell short of my expectation. The beef, on the other hand, was cooked perfectly and amazingly tender – however, the asparagus, mushrooms and baked potatoes were extremely overdone. The best part of the meal had to be the lemon tart, which was both sweet and tangy to taste. Overall, this was the weakest aspect of the flight – perhaps due to the fact that the meals were not prepared by SIA’s regular catering services in France.

Dinner service ended at 1800, and the cabin lights were dimmed accordingly to allow passengers to rest. I took the time to examine SIA’s Krisworld entertainment system, and was very impressed by the content available. Many of the latest movies that have just finished their run in theatres were offered, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Carol, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.

A test of the in-flight wifi service was also in order, and speeds were good. Speedtest measured a download bandwidth of 2.10Mbps while the upload speed was 1.17Mbps – perfectly suitable for light browsing and use of social media/instant messaging platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp.

When I began to get tired, a flight attendant helped me to flip over the seat, and laid the duvet and pillow provided on the bed. I slept peacefully for a good five hours, waking up approximately two hours away from Singapore. The quiet A350 cabin and mood lighting certainly helped with the sleep quality throughout the flight.

Breakfast orders were taken at 0820 local time, with the choice of either scrambled eggs or pancakes – I selected the former, which was served with a plate of fruits, yoghurt, pastry and condiments. The scrambled eggs were cooked to perfection and were amazingly soft and fluffy. The fruits were also excellent though the portion size seemed overly generous. Overall, breakfast service was very good and left little to complain about.

ARRIVAL

Descent was announced at 0918, with an arrival time of 0955. The plane landed in Singapore Changi Airport to a traditional water cannon salute, and approached the gate five minutes later.

VERDICT

SIA has always been renowned for its excellent cabin products and service. It now has a state-of-the-art new aircraft type to boot, and looks set to usher in a new level of air travel to even the most discerning customers.

For more information, visit singaporeair.com

Clement Huang