Victim of High Expectations: Singapore Airlines' A380 in Business Class From New York to Frankfurt
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="75" ground-experience="5" cabin-seat="23" amens-ife="9" food-bev="19" service="19" pros="Large and comfortable seat, fun fifth-freedom option to cross the Atlantic." cons="Subpar ground experience at JFK, food and service felt very average and not up to Singapore's reputation." /]
Anyone who's a regular TPG reader will have noticed that ahead of launching TPG UK, director of content Nicky Kelvin and I have been taking quite a few trips between Europe and TPG's NYC office. So, we have been flying on a number of carriers, exploiting available mileage seats, trying new airlines and, of course, bringing you our reviews.
The aviation world is a funny one, with some rules and regulations dating back to the 1960s, and though deregulation has led to a lot of competition in the last few decades, typically speaking, airlines are only allowed to fly between their home country and another country. Though airlines may sometimes stop on the way to their final destination, usually they're not allowed to sell tickets between the stopover point and a third, outside destination on such flights.
The exception to this is what's known as fifth-freedom flights, which allow airlines to both operate, market and sell tickets between city pairs that are outside of their home countries. Examples include Emirates' route between New York-JFK and Milan (MXP) (and continuing onto Dubai (DXB)) and Singapore Airlines, which operates JFK to Frankfurt (FRA) to Singapore (SIN) and is able to sell tickets between the Big Apple and Germany's biggest airport.
I had only ever flown Singapore once (on another fifth-freedom flight, actually, between Canberra (CBR) and Wellington (WLG)) in economy and was impressed, so I was excited to try the airline's older business-class product on the A380.
Given that I needed to travel just before Christmas and my schedule was only flexible by a day or two, mileage availability on interesting flight options was thin. However, we got lucky and were able to purchase a one-way ticket from New York (JFK) to Frankfurt (FRA) and then a connection in coach from FRA to London (LHR) for $1,723. We paid for the ticket with the Business Centurion Card from American Express, which offers a 50% rebate on points when redeeming them for paid flights, meaning that we paid 86,170 points for this flight -- not bad for a last-minute flight over the holidays.
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I arrived at 5:45pm at JFK's Terminal 4 for my 8:15pm departure. The SQ check-in area was quiet, and I was seen to straight away. The night before, I had tried to pay for a third bag over the phone, as I couldn't online. The phone agent told me that he couldn't add a third bag because it was a mixed-class booking and that I would have to do it at the check-in counter.
At check-in, the agent tried to persuade me to take my third bag on board as hand luggage, but when I said that was impossible, she told me I'd have to go to the ticket counter to pay. There, her colleague explained that though they would tag the bags all the way to Heathrow, Lufthansa might charge me extra again in Frankfurt, as Singapore couldn't take payment for them. Though this felt odd for two very early members of the Star Alliance (Lufthansa was a founding member, and Singapore joined a few years after), I had no choice and signed for the extra $150 for the third bag.
This was a clumsy process from start to finish. Yes, I was on two separate tickets, but they were issued on the same passenger name record, and both with Star Alliance carriers.
Security was crazy busy and chaotic, and signs advised travelers it would take 25 minutes to clear security. With TSA PreCheck, though, I was through in less than five minutes.
Singapore Airlines uses the Swiss business-class lounge for business-class passengers, with first-class passengers being able to use the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. Though the lounge was acceptable, the food and general ambiance were poor, both for Swiss and even more so for Singapore, which prides itself on its business-class product. The salad offering was limited, and the hot food consisted of just three dishes: rice, broccoli and jerk chicken.
The best part of the lounge was the views over the nearby gates. The flooring, furniture and ambiance sort of resembled that of a deli trying too hard.
I decided to check out the Wingtips Lounge right next door, which I accessed with Priority Pass. The lounge had a similar layout and was even busier, with a similar waiting-room vibe.
The hot food offerings again consisted of three dishes: mashed potatoes, carrots and barbecue chicken. After a few minutes, I decided I was better off waiting back in the Swiss lounge.
Gate A7 was a short walk from the lounges. For an A380 departure, it was pleasantly quiet and calm, too. There were clearly marked lanes for all boarding groups — suites, business and various economy lanes. I asked if I could board early to take pictures of the cabin, and the friendly gate agent indeed allowed me on with other passengers who were preboarding.
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Singapore Airlines is in the process of updating the business-class cabin across its A380 fleet. TPG's Zach Honig reviewed the new product last year, but it hasn't made its way to the JFK route yet. Business class on this version took up the entirety of the aircraft's upper deck, and featured 86 seats spread across three separate cabins in a 1-2-1 configuration.
Even though this was an older product, it's racked up very good reviews over the years, thanks in large part to the sheer size of the seat. And impressive it was. I was immediately struck by how high the seats were, which made them quite private. The seats alternated every few rows between light brown leather and dark brown leather, which kept things visually interesting.
I decided to go for 96A, in the last row on the upper deck, in the name of extra privacy (there was an emergency-exit row just in front of it and a higher wall in front of the seat).
It also had a wider footrest, which was crucial on the relatively short transatlantic redeye.
Overall, I really liked it the seat. It was classy looking, comfortable and incredibly spacious thanks to the generous width of the seat.
One of the quirks of many of Singapore's business-class seats is that the footwells are located at an angle, so you have to orient your body to the side when you're lying flat. Most seats on this version of the A380 are like that, except for for the bulkhead seats and those in the last row, of which I had one. My flight wasn't full, so I could check out both variants.
On balance, I preferred the seat in the last row, as it meant that I didn't have to deal with the odd footwell situation. The galley being right behind that row did mean it was more noisy, so it wasn't an obvious choice. In fact, I'd probably avoid the seat for a night flight in the future.
There was a hole in the seat cover-turned-mattress, which was there because of where the seatbelt was on the wide seat.
There were minor things, though, that I didn't think were great about the seat. Initially, it took me a while to find where to plug the headphones in — there were two options on either side of the seat, but they were hidden when the seat wasn't reclined.
The table was large, stable and it didn't span the whole width of the seat, which made it easier to get up and move around during the meal service.
The seat controls looked and felt somewhat old-school but certainly did the trick. I especially liked the "Do Not Disturb" sign each seat had.
There was plenty of storage space around the seat, as well as in the overhead bins.
The scuffs and scratches all around the seat were a reminder that this in fact was an old product.
Given I was in the back row, the AvGeek in me couldn't resist checking out the big galley behind me.
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Each seat had two pillows, and both a mattress and blanket were provided for sleeping later during the flight. Slippers were on the seat upon boarding, and passengers were given an amenity kit with all the essentials before takeoff.
The inflight-entertainment screen was a decent size, though I found the navigation to be clunky. I had to enter a movie number to watch movies and refer to the KrisWorld guide for channel numbers. Later on, though, I found an easier way for browsing and selecting films. The selection itself was fine — I watched "Crazy Rich Asians" for a while.
Next to the screen was another small storage compartment, presumably for glasses or a phone. It also held USB and power outlets.
Though there was complimentary Wi-Fi for first- and business-class passengers, 30 MB in business class doesn't really allow much, and paid Wi-Fi was expensive and limited, with the maximum plan being for 50 MB and costing $19.99. There was no option to purchase a plan for the duration of the flight.
The lavatories were pretty standard and came with a few amenities. I did like the flower on the wall.
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Shortly after takeoff at 8pm, flight attendants took orders for dinner. It was a Christmas menu and covered both the New York-to-Frankfurt and the Frankfurt-to-Singapore legs. It was extensive and covered wines and other beverages in English and German.
For the NYC-Frankfurt leg, there was only one appetizer on the menu — ginger-coriander cured salmon — but the choice of mains was generous: seared lamb, Thai massaman pork, roast chicken, seafood broth or Singaporean beef with noodles, which I went for. Dessert was a choice of chocolate-truffle ice cream or New York cheesecake, and I went for the latter.
The starter was tasty, though it could have done with a bit more dressing or something else to give it a stronger flavor. When the main course arrived, my initial reaction was that it didn't look impressive, though it tasted good. Again, it could have done with a bit more sauce and better presentation. The cheesecake was relatively bland.
I think part of the problem was high expectations from Singapore and the menu, fare class and service. All in all, it was a good business-class meal but not one that wowed me.
Before landing, we were served the second meal, which was a continental breakfast consisting of fruit and pastries. Again, though perfectly fine, I had expected more given that other airlines, such as British Airways, now offer a hot breakfast even on the short NYC-London route.
There was nothing wrong, per se, with the food and menu, but I did wonder whether this first leg was somewhat of an "afterthought" compared to the much longer FRA-SIN portion -- Singapore has a reputation for superb service and food, and it felt like this flight fell a little short.
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Soon after I had boarded, one of the crew members approached me and suggested that I might like to move to a seat further up front, as being right in front of the toilet might mean a lot of noise. He also persuaded another passenger on the other side in my row to move further forward. I said I'd stay put but might try other seats out of curiosity.
I have never had toilet noise issues on the A380 before and usually bring my own earplugs anyway for sleeping, but as the flight progressed, it happened that there was a lot of noise, but it was coming from the galley rather than the toilet. Some of it was unavoidable service noise, but it could have been reduced had the crew tried to be quieter on a night flight — that included both service handling as well as talking. The curtain to the back galley was never drawn throughout the flight, which meant both noise and light disturbed me in Row 96, so I soon moved forward when trying to sleep.
Many other passengers stayed up throughout the night, working, watching films or chatting with one another. The cabin in general was pretty noisy even in the seat further forward. Neither other passengers nor the crew were particularly quiet when interacting with each other. I imagine passengers who were flying onward to Singapore might have already adjusted their watches to Singapore time and were thus treating this "short" 8pm hop to Frankfurt as the flight to stay up on and the onward flight as the one to sleep on. Though the crew were to swap over in Frankfurt, they also didn't treat this as a night flight in the way that many other crew and airlines treat short transatlantic flights. I therefore slept less -- and worse -- than I had hoped.
Generally speaking, the crew were efficient and friendly enough without being overly charming. My feeling that this wasn't really the main event for them or that they were fielding B-team service and food never let up.
We landed early in Frankfurt, and connecting there was easy. And I didn't hear anything from Lufthansa about the fact that I had three bags checked — they arrived in Heathrow without me paying an additional fee.
I liked this flight -- it was very good overall -- but I didn't love it, even though I wanted to. Maybe that was the problem. The seat was great: big, plush, leather-clad, private and very comfortable both in lounging and sleeping positions. The bed itself was big and comfortable — two pillows and a mattress — despite the off-center footwell.
But, neither the food offering nor the service lived up to the great reputation Singapore has. That doesn't mean food or service were worse than other airlines at all — in fact it was well above average. However, I didn't leave the aircraft feeling "wowed," as I had expected to be. Perhaps this is the danger of having such high expectations.
All photos by the author for The Points Guy