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Last week, TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen got to try out Singapore Airlines’ new premium economy on a flight from Singapore to Hong Kong — here’s his review of the experience.
Earlier this spring, Singapore Airlines made news when it announced it would finally be adding a premium economy class to its long-haul fleet. Though Singapore is widely acknowledged to be among the top (if not the top) airlines flying these days, thanks to nicely outfitted cabins and stellar service, it’s been dragging its feet over adding premium economy, which many of its competitors already offer.
However, the airline has now reportedly invested north of $80 million on creating a new premium economy class for its long-haul aircraft, and back in August, started to put it into service.
Despite the commencement of service, there have been some issues with the rollout, including on confirmed bookings on flights through January 2016 (in some cases) from Singapore (SIN) to:
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- New York (JFK)
- Frankfurt (FRA)
- Tokyo (NRT)
- Sydney (SYD)
- London (LHR)
- Zurich (ZRH)
- Paris (CDG)
- New Delhi (DEL)
- Mumbai (BOM)
- Beijing (PEK)
- Shanghai (PVG)
The delay is due mainly to issues with retrofitting A380s, so you’ll find the new class of service just on three of the aircraft flying to Sydney, Hong Kong and London for now. In the meantime, the 777-300ER retrofit is proceeding according to schedule and the airline will also be installing the new class on its A350s; we should see both start flying in 2016.
If you’ve already booked, be sure to confirm your flight, and if your seat has indeed changed, you should be entitled to a voucher of $150-$250 per segment.
I just needed a one-way flight from Singapore (SIN) to Hong Kong (HKG), so I simply searched on Singapore’s own site. Out of about five flights that day, the only one with premium economy was in the afternoon, aboard a 777-300ER.
As you can see from the prices above, the premium economy ticket actually came in at $650 SGD ($465 US), a full $90 SGD ($63 US) below a one-way economy Flexi (full-fare) economy ticket. That’s pretty steep, but it’s because I was booking one-way, within a short period of time and the particular flight was fairly booked in economy. (Interestingly enough, the business-class cabin was almost empty).
As you can see in the example above, if I’d been booking a round-trip ticket rather than one-way, a seat in economy would have cost about $503 SGD ($356 US) — versus a whopping $968 SGD ($680 US) for premium economy.
For now, you can’t redeem KrisFlyer miles for either an outright premium-economy award redemption or an upgrade from economy to premium economy, but hopefully the airline will start allowing these redemptions soon.
Airport and Lounge
Passengers who book premium economy get perks like priority check-in at the airport, priority boarding (along with Star Alliance and KrisFlyer Gold members), a higher luggage allowance of 35 kg (77 pounds) rather than economy’s 30 kg (66 pounds), priority baggage handling and 110% KrisFlyer mileage accrual.
When I got to Singapore Changi (SIN), I had my driver pull up to Door 5 at Terminal 3 where there was a sign for Singapore Airlines business class and premium economy. There were dedicated check-in counters and no line for premium-economy passengers, so I walked right up the counter and got my boarding pass in less than a minute, then made my way though immigration to the main terminal.
On the 777-300ER, which I was flying, the premium-economy cabin is right behind the business-class cabin and in front of economy, and there are 28 seats total. The configuration is 2-4-2, with three rows of the side two-seaters, and four rows of the center foursomes.
That’s compared to the economy cabin on this aircraft, which has nine seats abreast in a 3-3-3 configuration. On the A380, the layout is also in a 2-4-2 pattern, with five rows on each side of the aircraft and four rows in the center — for a total of 36 seats.
The A380 economy cabin, by comparison, has 10 seats abreast in a 3-4-3 configuration.
Though the seats on both aircraft have eight inches of recline (compared with six in economy) and 38 inches in pitch (compared with 32 in economy), the major difference is that the seats on the 777-300ER are narrower at just 18.5 inches, while those on the A380 are 19.5 inches wide.
The seats themselves are pretty nice-looking, with stitched gray leather and orange accents (though that part kind of reminds me of a budget carrier). They were designed by JPA Design and manufactured by Zodiac Aerospace.
As I mentioned, they recline eight inches and there’s a leg rest that pops up, as well as a footrest that descends from the seat in front of you (though in the bulkhead, the footrest comes out of the leg rest).
The tables on all seats come out of the armrest, like bulkhead seats in economy usually have, and once in place, they’re fixed — meaning they don’t slide forward and backward. Beneath the table and the handheld in-flight entertainment remote, there’s a small cubby where you can fit your laptop or tablet for takeoff or landing.
While I wouldn’t want to get stuck in the middle section as a solo traveler, the seats did feel rather spacious, and at 5′ 8,”I was really comfortable and managed to snooze when I was reclined.
I also liked the fact that the armrests on the aisle side of the aisle seats were adjustable, so you could lower them to seat level or raise them to normal armrest level — it’s a thoughtful touch for limited-mobility passengers. It’s worth noting, though, that the other armrests between seats are not adjustable, so if you have an empty row to yourself, you can’t stretch out across it.
One thing I didn’t quite understand, though, was that when I was booking my ticket, only a few seats appeared open. When I checked in 48 hours in advance, all the seats in premium economy appeared taken, so I couldn’t change mine. However, once boarding was completed, it was clear that only two seats in each of the foursomes were taken, and only one of the four bulkhead side seats was taken, so as soon as the cabin door was closed, I moved to the bulkhead and had both seats to myself on one of the sides. I’m not sure if you need elite status in order to book these seats ahead of time — or if they were blocked for some other reason — but this situation was sort of annoying.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
As you might expect from some of the newest seats in the skies, these babies were pretty tricked out. Not only did they have universal adapter plugs in the center console by your legs, but they had two USB outlets, as well — one by the headset outlet in the center armrest behind the seat (by the adjustable reading light), and one underneath the in-flight entertainment monitor.
The monitor was 13.3 inches wide (compared with 10.6 inches in economy), and offered HD quality. You could control the system either with a handheld remote control or by using the touch-screen feature.
I though the selection of movies was pretty extensive and current, with plenty of options to keep me busy had this been a longer flight. The airline also provided basic noise-canceling headsets in a pouch that you could use with the system.
Longer flights should have little amenity kits as well, though none were offered on my three-hour journey from Singapore to Hong Kong.
Like Singapore’s business- and first-class passengers, when you book premium economy, you can actually request your meal in advance with the airline’s “Book the Cook” service.
While making my reservation, I perused the options and decided to make my choice ahead of time, settling on the spiced chicken nasi biryani.
My email confirmation of the reservation even included a note on my meal option!
While that took some of the fun out of waiting to see what would be offered on board, in the end, I was glad I did so because the onboard options were not as exciting.
On my flight, the following dishes were offered:
Appetizer — Marinated seafood with penne pasta salad
Main courses — Beef goulash with sauteed vegetables and pearl couscous; or pan-fried chicken in herb gravy with a vegetable medley and mashed potatoes.
Dessert — Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream (chocolate chip cookie dough, in this case)
Other — Bread roll and butter, coffee and tea
Appetizer — Roast duck Asian slaw with green raddish cabbage slaw and marinated mandarin orange honey dressing
Main courses — Fried fish in garlic oyster sauce with Chinese vegetable and steamed rice
Same desserts — Plus a choice of black or oolong tea
When you order a special meal, the flight attendants bring it out immediately before the regular meal service begins. So while I got to get my lunch out of the way and get down to work (and movie-watching), it was a good 15 minutes between the time I got my food and the time they came around with any beverages — so that felt a little off.
Apart from my chicken selection, the rest of my tray was like the normal menu, including the penne-shrimp starter (not appetizing) and roll. There was supposed to be a choice of rolls, but not for me! The chicken itself was fine, but not very good. I did like the little pickled veggies on the side, though.
I snuck back into the economy cabin during meal service to use the lavatory, and I have to say, their meals looked pretty much the same as the normal premium economy meals, down to the arrangement on the tray. So the differentiation here is that “Book the Cook” option with more choices.
In Singapore Airlines premium economy, don’t expect a pre-flight beverage. Both the website and the flight attendants (!) were clear that the Champagne service was strictly in-flight. However, you even had to ask for it at beverage service; they didn’t stock it on the meal/beverage cart, probably because they used the same cart for both premium economy and economy and didn’t want the passengers in the back of the plane getting any ideas about the bubbly. However, passengers who asked for Champagne were brought individual glasses of it, so don’t be afraid to speak up!
The wine selections were:
Champagne — Ernest Rapeneau Selection Brut from Epernay
Red — Maison du Sud Syrah from the Pays d’Oc
White — Ferrandiere Chardonnay from the Pays d’Oc
They also offered cocktails, such as the signature Singapore Sling, a Bloody Mary and a Screwdriver, as well as spirits, such as Johnnie Walker Red Label, Beefeater Gin, Smirnoff Red Label, Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge and Bailey’s Original Irish Cream.
While I enjoyed the premium economy service and thought the seats were spacious and nice, I’m not sure it’s worth the price — certainly not on the short-haul from Singapore to Hong Kong.
However, if you’re taking those long flights to Sydney or London, the extra room and slightly elevated amenities might well be worth it. I priced out a sample round-trip from Singapore to Sydney in December, and as you can see, regular economy would be $1,603 SGD ($1,127 USD) and premium economy would cost $2,153 SGD ($1,513). The fare difference comes to $550 SGD (this was the standard difference across all the dates I searched in the next two months), or $386 US.
For about 16 hours total of flying time, that’s not so much of a premium to pay for a those extra inches of legroom. That’s the main draw as far as I see it, since the other onboard amenities including the food and the IFE screen size difference were underwhelming.
As with my other premium economy experiences, I sort of feel like airlines are selling you a bunch of cosmetic but unsubstantial “upgrades.” However, I did like the priority check-in and boarding, the extra recline, and the premium economy cabin felt much less cramped than economy. So if I had a lot of flying time in my future, I’d consider the price premium for these seats — but not for another short-haul like my Singapore-Hong Kong flight.
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