Flight Review: Singapore Airlines (A350-900) Business Class from San Francisco to Singapore
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TO THE POINT: Singapore Airlines' new A350-900 makes a great option for nonstop travel from the US to Southeast Asia. The pros: lie-flat seats, a vast entertainment system and friendly flight attendants. The cons: foot room is oddly limited and you need to sit and sleep at a weird angle to get comfy.
I have a confession to make: Until this very moment, I'd never flown in international business class before. I had only been on one premium-cabin flight in my entire life — a short hop on American Airlines from New York to Miami when I covered Fathom's cruise to Cuba — and I enjoyed every minute of it. So when the chance came for me to test out Singapore Airlines' A350-900 on a brand new route starting October 23 from San Francisco (SFO) to Singapore (SIN), I was pumped.
The timing of this inaugural flight worked out extremely well, as it would put me in Singapore just in time for the Aircraft Interiors Expo, as well as APEX and FTE — check back later this week for the latest in aircraft tech and other exciting airline initiatives. It would also be my first trip to Singapore, a place I'd always wanted to visit.
I booked this business-class flight — in cash, for $3,368.90 — with the Premier Rewards Gold card from American Express, which allowed me to earn 3x Amex Membership Rewards points for the purchase. However now that the Amex Platinum Card offers 5x points on airfare, we'll be using that for TPG flights going forward. That's expensive for a one-way ticket, but in this case it was considerably cheaper than a round-trip and our only opportunity to join the inaugural flight in business class, since award redemptions were not available.
I'd arrived in San Francisco the day before and spent the night at the Westin San Francisco Airport, which offers complimentary shuttle service to and from SFO, a perk I took advantage of the morning of this flight. I arrived 15 minutes later and headed to the check-in counter — Singapore Airlines had only let me check in up to a certain point ahead of time and required me to complete the process at the airport desk since it was my first time flying the airline.
The first thing I noticed were the balloons, the sign and people excitedly taking photos of both on their smartphones as they passed by.
I immediately spotted the well-labeled section where business-class passengers are allowed to check in. I'd been worried about facing a large line, but luckily there were only two other guests in front of me. Within about five minutes, the agent came out from behind the desk to greet me and lead me over to the check-in counter.
I mentioned that this was my first-ever SQ flight — and my first time in business class with the carrier — so she took a few minutes to explain that I would have access to the SilverKris Lounge, where to find it and where the gate (G93) was located.
The agent was very friendly and gave me a small envelope to hold my boarding pass, checked baggage receipt and a perk I wasn't expecting: a redemption code for 30 MB of Wi-Fi to use on the plane. Little did I know it would only last me 20 minutes and I'd eventually end up buying the flight-long package. More on that later though.
The other lines for premium economy and economy were more crowded but seemed to be moving at least.
At first glance, the line for security looked rather intimidating, and in fact would have been had I not been traveling in business class today. I was thrilled when the TSA agent pointed me toward the Priority line — I was through in about 20 minutes.
As I left the security area, I noticed a group of Singapore Airlines flight attendants also making their way through. Aren't their uniforms just beautiful?
There was still some time to go before boarding began, so I decided to pop into the SilverKris Lounge and have a look around. It was a little out of the way though, located to the right side after you clear security (Level 3, near the G gates) just past the United Club and down a long hallway near the EVA Air Evergreen Lounge. Just follow the signs and you'll come to the check-in desk.
The lounge itself was pretty small, but not crowded.
Most, if not all, of the seats were located near outlets so you can charge your gadgets on the go. A code for complimentary Wi-Fi was on display at the check-in desk as well.
There were several open seats around the main dining area near the television, and a whole other seating area located on the other side of the buffet.
Speaking of the buffet, there were a number of hot and cold options available.
Buffet items included jam and bread, apples, bananas, oranges, finger sandwiches, potato chips, bagels and pastries...
...as well a build-your-own Laksa station.
For those of you who'd like a little more background on Laksa, here's what it's all about.
I spotted a self-serve bar area, complete with a number of alcohol options and several bottles of wine.
There was also a mini-fridge along the buffet full of small water bottles, sodas, juices and other non-alcoholic mixers, as well as Heineken and Tiger Beer from Singapore.
Coffee and tea more your style? Have at it!
There was one restroom (to be shared by men and women) as well as one unisex shower room, which I asked the lounge attendant to open on my way out so I could take a peek inside.
At 10:30am, I headed over to gate G93, where the new plane was waiting for me.
To celebrate the launch of the A350-900's new SFO-SIN route, there were special festivities happening at the gate, including complimentary coffee, tea and breakfast items for passengers (in any class), remarks by some of the Singapore Airlines team members and a performance by a troupe of traditional lion dancers. (I managed to catch the tail end of it as I'd been in the lounge taking photos all morning for this review).
Members of the media who attended the inaugural flight were invited to board the A350-900 about 15 minutes before general boarding began so we could enjoy a brief tour and take photos before the plane filled up.
After presenting my boarding pass and passport to the gate agent, I was allowed to enter the aircraft. I managed to snap one quick photo of the plane right before that.
A large selection of US and international newspapers and magazine were available to take onto the plane, including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Forbes and Golf Digest, among others publications.
As we wandered the plane taking photos, I could hear the crew testing out the PA system and see them conducting final inspections before more passengers were able to board.
About 15 minutes later, the flight attendants asked us to take our seats as the other passengers began to board. The crew then began making their way through the business-class cabin serving water, orange juice and Champagne.
Shortly before takeoff at 11:40am, the crew came around again to see if we'd like more drinks, double-check our food orders — I'd taken advantage of SQ's "Book the Cook" service, which allows you to select your meals prior to the flight — and see if we needed anything else before it was time to go.
The pilot came over the PA system, welcomed everyone to the inaugural flight and informed us that we'd be in the air for 15 hours and 45 minutes — much shorter than the 16 hours and 55 minutes I'd been bracing myself for. This, I could handle, especially in business class!
Cabin and Seat
In a strange twist of fate, Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig actually got to fly on this exact aircraft last week on the delivery flight from Toulouse, France, to Singapore. He also reviewed and specified the best seats to aim for in business class, premium economy and economy so you can enjoy the ride at the utmost level of comfort.
Unfortunately for me, I'd grabbed seat 20A, which if you've read Zach's piece, is one of the sub-par business-class seats he mentions — bulkhead aisles 11 and 19 are definitely the way to go on this one, folks.
It's all about the foot room, or rather, the strange lack thereof, for seats other than the ones in those two rows. You see, the foot well kind of just ends, leaving you with an awkward stretch to the left (since I was in window seat 20A) either going up or going down.
As you can see below, my seat, 20A, essentially forced me to angle my body diagonal-left in order to spread out or lie down comfortably.
The seat itself, in the upright position with you sitting up straight, is actually quite spacious at 28 inches wide and with 60 full inches of pitch — the bed actually measures 78 inches when fully flat.
It's just when you try to recline or lie flat where things get interesting. Here's a look at the semi-reclined position, for instance.
And that same view, but this time from the side, and just the seat by itself.
So after a while, I ended up like this...
...and eventually like this.
Things got even more awkward when it was time to convert the seat into the lie-flat bed, which is done on this aircraft by pulling the bedding down, rather than reclining your seat all the way back. I'm 5'3" and this is my feet at the point where the bed stops — I'm just sitting up here, not even lying down yet!
Here's what happens when you do lie down all the way — you're forced to slide over and angle your body to the left if you want to stretch out fully as you sleep or lie comfortably on your side without bending your knees too much.
The lie-flat position does seem rather nice at first glance though, especially when I'm used to being squished into an economy seat. The very thought of this is heaven.
If you don't mind swerving a bit while you sleep, it's really not that bad come to think of it. Although I'm probably shorter than most business travelers, so be warned.
Making matters worse, the seat belt was chunkier than usual, apparently because it contained an airbag. It was heavy and kind of a nuisance so I didn't wear it as much as I normally would have. The diagonal seatbelt you have to wear while the seat is in its lie-flat position was a little less irritating, although the feeling of it being there while you're trying to sleep takes some getting used to.
While there are plenty of places to put your things during the flight, during takeoff and landing, everything must be stowed in the overhead bins above the window seats, as there aren't any above the middle aisles. Luckily on my flight, this wasn't an issue, as it seemed like many of us were traveling light on this trip.
This handy little compartment on the top left, for instance, ended up making a great spot to store small items like my iPhone, travel journal and snacks.
After some prodding, I discovered the bottom right one even contained a mirror!
Another space, which you needed to press down on to open, had enough room for the business-class menu and some small items, like the noise-canceling headphones, if they were in the way.
As I kept investigating every nook and cranny of my business-class seat, I found more and more places to put things. This one held magazines...
...while another one held basically everything else, including my laptop and cell phone when I charged them later on during the flight.
There were several plugs and USB ports available to help charge your electronics on this flight, with a universal charger outlet and an iPod charger located just to the left of my head.
There was a spot to plug in your headphones in that same space, as well as another option built into the armrest. I found the one on my left to be more convenient, especially since I could then just hang the headphones near it when I wasn't using them. Here's a look at the one on the armrest, as well as all the seat control buttons, which were fun to play with.
Above the seat were lights but sadly no adjustable air vents, as I'm used to seeing on other aircraft. During some parts of the flight it felt pretty warm, so much so that I didn't even need to use the duvet that came with the bed because it was too hot!
Interestingly, there's no amenity kit — instead, SQ business-class passengers are given noise-canceling headphones, an eye mask, a pair of socks, slippers and a large, square pillow to make the ride as cozy as possible.
Once the bed is pulled out into its lie-flat position, you'll be given a second, smaller-but-firmer pillow (which was comfier to sleep on and not as lumpy as the larger one) and a duvet to keep you warm, even though the temperature throughout this flight was a little on the warmer side anyway.
There were two lavatories for our section to use (one on either side of the galley area) — they weren't really anything to write home about, as they were pretty much your typical airplane bathrooms, complete with a toilet, sink and pull-down baby changing station.
It was nice to see little amenities like hand lotion, perfume face mist and linen hand towels, which helped to make it all feel a little more luxurious.
So what does one do to pass the time on a 16-hour-or-so flight? #1. Drink — the Singapore Sling is delicious and every meal came with an offer of wine, not to mention all the Champagne at the beginning of the flight. #2. Take a nice, long nap (see #1). And #3., watch a crazy amount of movies and TV shows on the giant 18-inch IFE screen.
It's interesting to note that while the screen itself isn't activated by touch, the IFE remote is.
I spent a solid hour just flipping through all the movie and TV show options that were available, with films ranging from New Releases and Stage Performances to award-winning documentaries, Bollywood hits, a wide variety of European, Chinese and international cinema and a Star Trek section titled, "Trekkies Special."
Under TV Shows, I was amazed to see so many BBC favorites, like "Mr. Bean" and "The Graham Norton Show," listed alongside episodes of "Friends" and full seasons of "Sex and the City," "Game of Thrones," "Arrested Development," "Firefly," "24," "Portlandia," "The Americans," "Modern Family" and "How I Met Your Mother," among others.
There were also an impressive number of gaming options, including some old-school options like in-flight Pac Man, Tetris, Battleship, Mahjong, Chess and Sudoku. I also spotted bowling, golf, baseball, billiards and soccer, among dozens of other options.
Singapore Airlines also had a section entitled "Read and Learn," where you could find DK Eyewitness travel guides, a Berlitz World Traveler language-learning tool (the graphics are pretty old-school but the games are fun!) and a selection of read-aloud books for children.
Another section, "Sky Wellness," offered tips for stretching out properly during the flight.
My favorite feature was SQ's extensive music collection, which kept me busy for hours as I wrote up this review. I started with the "Halloween" playlist, which featured spooky hits like "Thriller," "Don't Fear the Reaper," and "Highway to Hell," before working my way through the Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston channels. Other options included separate channels for Beyonce, Adele, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Coldplay, K-Pop, Bollywood hits, Jazz, R&B Classics and Just for Kids, among dozens of others.
Wi-Fi was also available on this flight, for purchase, with prices detailed below. After my freebie inaugural perk of 30 MB of Wi-Fi ran out, I quickly purchased the full-flight plan, just to be safe, then promptly fell asleep for the remainder of the flight (story of my life).
The Wi-Fi speeds seemed to vary as the flight went on. Here's what it was like mid-flight:
Then an hour later:
And finally, an hour after that:
Food and Beverage
It all started with that welcome glass of Champagne I mentioned before, then another about an hour later (this time they said in celebration of our inaugural flight), before we received a trio of canapé. When I asked the flight attendant if she knew what they were (since they weren't on the menu), she said, "Fish!" Well, whatever they were, they were delicious.
Next came a tasty cream of mushroom soup appetizer, which I had with a glass of Riesling, since I was in the mood for something sweet. I have to say I'm not used to having someone put down a white table cloth for me at every meal or using real silverware on the plane, but a girl can sure get used to this!
The cabin crew then came around offering several types of bread to go with our meal. I chose the set of four sweet rolls. The first time the bread came around, it tasted pretty fresh, however, during our second meal of the flight a few hours later, two of the four sweet rolls I'd chosen were so hard I couldn't bite into them.
As I mentioned earlier, I'd chosen my meals ahead of time via "Book the Cook," so my first main dish of the day was prawns and pasta with vegetables. Despite the prawns being a little too spicy for my taste and the pasta being slightly overcooked, it was filling enough to hold me over until the next course would be served several hours later.
For dessert, I chose the coconut panna cotta, which was, in a word, perfect.
A little after half-way through the flight, we received our second meal service. By this point I'd already turned my seat into a bed, so was thrilled to find out I could leave it that way since the tray table actually lifts up a bit, allowing you to have a "breakfast in bed" sort of experience — well, sort of. The catch is the tray table only goes so far, so you'll need to sit criss-crossed with your back to the seat and lean over slightly to reach your food, which is awkward, but gets the job done if you want to slip back into bed after your meal.
For my second "Book the Cook" meal, I opted for mussels served with rice and vegetables, this time a mix of cauliflower and red and yellow peppers.
Lastly, I opted for the plate of fruit and cheese for dessert, a fine way to finish off my meal.
While there wasn't necessarily a snack station, as there are on other international flights, the flight attendants were always quick to ask if I wanted anything to munch on. The one time I said yes, I was given a full-sized Hershey cookies n' cream bar, a bag of Sun Chips and a package of dark chocolate Milano cookies. Yum!
With this being my first time on an international business flight, I'm honestly not sure how often flight attendants usually come around to collect items and check on passengers. There seemed to be a lot of time between checks, although this was likely just to give us the chance to get some shut-eye. My guess is that the flight attendants just wanted to stay out of the way — I did press the call button once (by mistake) and a cheery crew member appeared almost immediately.
Whenever the FAs did come around, they were always smiling and seemed happy to see that I was still awake, especially when I'd pass through the galley and say hello on my way back from the lavatory. Most of the time I ended up coming back to my seat with extra snacks, too, which was nice.
Somehow I managed to fall asleep for the last four hours of the flight despite there being two crying babies nearby, but woke up during a particularly strong bought of turbulence when we were about an hour outside of Singapore. The pilot came over the PA asking everyone to take their seats, and flight attendants went around checking to make sure everyone's seat belts were fastened, even if we were lying down.
30 minutes outside SIN, the lights came on and everyone was asked to return their seats into the upright position. FA's came around and helped us put the bedding away, then prepared the cabin for landing. We ended up being delayed a bit and made our final approach at the gate by 7:20pm instead of our original 7:05pm arrival time.
Before landing, we were asked to fill out immigration forms to hand in with our passports before going through customs. Can you tell they're serious about drugs here?
After a brief check by the immigrations officer, and a 15-minute wait for my checked bag, it was time to head to Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong, just a 15-minute Uber drive from Changi (SIN). Stay tuned for a full review of this insanely cool property, coming soon to TPG.
Considering this was my first-ever international business class experience, I think it certainly beats traveling in economy any day. That being said, it seems this particular seat could use some work, especially since you really do need to sit or lie down at a near-diagonal angle in order to stretch out and be comfortable. At 5'3" I was having some problems with this, so can't even imagine how taller folks would handle a nearly 16-hour flight scrunched up like that. Definitely take a leaf out of Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig's book and aim for a bulkhead seat in rows 11 or 19 if you can, as it's a vastly different experience.
Are you looking forward to flying on Singapore Airlines' A350-900?