I Survived 18 Hours on the World’s Longest Flight, and Here’s What It Was Like
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From 2004 to 2013, Singapore Airlines operated the longest flight in the world, between Singapore and Newark: flights SQ21 and SQ22. After a nearly five-year hiatus, Singapore Airlines resumed these flights, with the first one taking off from SIN on October 11 and back from EWR the following day. This time the airline is using a brand-new aircraft type that it hopes will operate efficiently enough to make the route profitable. The re-launch of the world's longest flight also marks the first revenue flight of the Airbus A350-900ULR, the "Ultra Long Range" version of the European twinjet.
We at TPG are covering both first flights: I reviewed the flight from Singapore to Newark in premium economy, and Zach Honig is covering the first flight from Newark to Singapore in business class. And, being The Points Guy, we used miles to book both flights. (And if you're wondering about economy class: Singapore Airlines does not have it on the A350-900ULR.)
While inaugural flights are usually in very high demand by fellow AvGeeks, this first flight was bookable with miles when it first went on sale. Deciding whether to pay $2,000+ for the one-way airfare or 70,000 Singapore KrisFlyer miles was easy.
However, the fares in premium economy on this flight have since dropped to the point where it doesn't necessarily make sense to use miles. For instance, if you're able to score a $1,498 round-trip deal — which is available now for travel November 2018-May 2019 — you may not want to spend 140,000 miles plus taxes on an award flight.
We put S$70 (US$51) of taxes/fees on TPG's Business Centurion Card from American Express. If I were booking on my own, I'd choose to put the fees on my Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3x Ultimate Rewards points and get trip delay, baggage delay and other travel protections. Other great cards for travel protection plus points earnings are the Citi Premier® Card (3x ThankYou points) and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x UR points). If we booked the cash fare, the 5x points earnings on The Platinum Card® from American Express would be too tempting to pass up, despite the lack of travel protections.
The flight from Singapore to Newark departs from Terminal 3, one of four terminals at Singapore's spectacular Changi Airport (SIN). This isn't the only terminal that Singapore Airlines departs from, so you'll want to check your flight information carefully.
In the expansive (and nearly empty) Terminal 3 check-in area, I found the Singapore Airlines Premium Economy / Star Alliance Gold check-in desk.
In the interest of covering as much as possible of the pre-flight, I showed up nine hours (you read that right) before departure. The idle agents had no issues checking my bag so much in advance.
A couple of agents circled around the one assisting me, and they seemed to be trying to figure something out. Despite Singapore Airlines' other US routes, it seems that these agents hadn't checked in a passenger for a US flight, so they were reviewing the procedure and questions that needed to be asked. After I passed the security test, the agent shared that I was the first passenger to be checked in for this historic flight.
Singapore exit immigration was quick, thanks to automated gates and fingerprint scanners. Just minutes after leaving the check-in desk, I arrived airside. No security is done at this point; security for each flight is done at the gate.
A Singapore Airlines Premium Economy ticket doesn't grant lounge access. But thankfully there are a whopping 11 Priority Pass lounges available at SIN, including some of the best rated in the 1,200+ lounge system. I took the SkyTrain back to Terminal 2 to join Katie at the SATS Premium Lounge, voted the best Priority Pass lounge in Asia. Stay tuned for a lounge review from that experience.
After I saw Katie off for her much-longer route to New York City, via Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo, I headed toward the lounges in Terminal 3. As I approached the lounge area, I was recognized as a TPG writer by a Singapore Airlines employee who gave me an exclusive tour of the airline's business, first and Private Room lounges.
As tempting as it was to accept the Singapore Airline agent's invitation to hang around the first class lounge until boarding, I wanted to get a genuine experience. And I was only entitled to the Star Alliance Gold lounge via my status through Asiana Flying Club. Unfortunately, the massive and well-appointed Singapore Airlines business class lounge wasn't the Star Alliance Gold lounge. Instead, I had to head down the hall to the KrisFlyer Gold Lounge.
The lounge was fairly small and was crowded for most of my stay.
The lounge had a decent selection of food from a hot buffet and a limited wine, beer and liquor selection.
One of the interesting aspects of this lounge is that about half of the seating area is "outside" in a balcony overlooking a terminal seating area, which was much less crowded.
While this lounge isn't going to win any awards, it checks most of the boxes for what passengers may want from an airport lounge: hot food buffet, decent amount of power outlets, wide-ranging reading materials and some alcohol for those who need a drink.
Celebration and Boarding
As this was the resumption of the world's longest flight, there was sure to be a celebration at the gate. I figured that it would be opened early for this purpose, but I was surprised to find it was already open when I left the lounge an hour and 40 minutes before departure.
And by the time I got to the gate, it seemed like most passengers had already arrived. Celebrations started at the entrance to the gate where passengers on this flight (or not) could snap a photo with Singapore crew.
In order to enter their gate at SIN, passengers have to clear a fairly middle-of-the-road security process. While your liquids and electronics have to be removed from your bag, there's only a simple metal detector and you can keep your shoes and belt on. Singapore's airport impressed even here, with a very logically organized security bin:
From there, your boarding pass is scanned to gain entrance into the gate area.
Inside the gate, Singapore Airlines had set-up a stage and decorations for the big flight:
And, there was plenty of food from a hot buffet with servers offering champagne, apple juice, orange juice and water.
Boarding began with business class... and then broke down from there. With everyone's boarding passes already scanned and with no further checks, passengers seemed to board at will as the DJ played Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York."
Cabin and Seat
For the first-ever revenue flight of the Airbus A350-900ULR, Singapore Airlines utilized its second and newest of the type, with the registration 9V-SGB — a brand-new plane, just two weeks old. The airline needs three A350-900ULR aircraft to reliably operate this 19-hour flight daily, and it currently only has two, which is the reason it isn't operating this route daily until October 18.
TPG's Zach Honig traveled in the opposite direction and shared his in-depth look at the business-class cabin. I got a chance to look around during a media preview of the aircraft, and it looks amazing. My key takeaway: make sure to snag a bulkhead seat for the best legroom and footwell.
The premium economy cabin consists of 13 rows (rows 31-43) of mostly 2-4-2 seating in one large cabin.
At the back of the cabin, rows 40-42 are arranged with 1-4-1 seating, creating six solo window/aisle seats -- which each have their own large storage bin -- that are sure to be in high demand. As a bathroom is directly behind 42H but not behind 42C, you'll want to choose 40C-42C for a more peaceful experience.
Row 43 solely consists of four middle seats. Seat 43G is perhaps the worst seat in the cabin as it's across the aisle from one of the lavatories.
The middle seats in rows 40-43 are also a poor choice since there are no overhead bins above them, due to the crew rest located in the area where the overhead bins would otherwise be.
Tall passengers are going to want to opt for the bulkhead seats in row 31. Although the window seats in emergency exit rows sometimes provide neither extra legroom or a window, that's not an issue on this aircraft. This makes 31A and 31K among the best seats in the premium economy cabin.
That said, the seat pitch for the standard seats isn't bad at 38 inches.
The premium economy seat slides forward when reclined, significantly reducing legroom. A legrest extends from the seat with the push of a button. Shorter passengers will be happy to know that there's a footrest under the seat in front.
The headrest can be adjusted vertically and has wings that can be folded inward to cradle your head or neck when sleeping.
Seats measure 19 inches between armrests. Armrests between the middle seats could be adjusted, but the consoles between seat pairs mean that you can't stretch out if there's an open seat next to you.
Perhaps just for this flight, row 33 seats D-G were blocked for supplemental crew seating during takeoff, landing and meals. I found it peculiar that Singapore Airlines chose the third row of premium economy for this instead of the back row of the cabin, which seems to be standard on other airlines. The upside: as crew didn't sleep in these seats, it meant that no one ever reclined into my seat, 34G.
There's very minimal storage at the seats. Passengers have a small space that could theoretically be used for storage under the outside armrest. But the primary storage consists of two water-bottle-sized pockets in the console in the seat in front of you — which I used to store my camera and other small items when not in use — and a seatback pocket that starts the flight already fairly full.
As I noticed at the unveiling of this modified Singapore Airlines premium economy seat, the tray tables are surprisingly flimsy. The 17-inch wide by 11-inch deep one-piece tray table extends out of the middle armrests. The table doesn't extend all the way over to the opposite armrest, for stability. But, for better or worse, it is low enough that it rested on my thighs, which provided stability. Speaking with other passengers on the flight, a common complaint was the small size and low position of the tray table.
Another annoyance: the cup holders in the console are rendered useless when the tray table is extended.
The premium economy cabin has three lavatories, all of which are in the rear of the aircraft. Two are located on the right side of the cabin with one on the left side. The bathroom directly behind seat 42G measured 30 inches from wall to wall, but just 22 inches at the narrowest point. It feels noticeably less spacious that the two in the rear of the galley, which actually measure a little smaller (29 inches from wall to wall and 21 inches at the narrowest point.)
Each premium economy seat including exit rows and bulkheads has a 13-inch in-flight entertainment screen. For almost all seats, this screen is built into the seatback in front of you. There's a USB power plug next to each screen for charging devices.
Bulkhead seats have their IFE monitor mounted on the wall, and the emergency exit row seats have the monitor on an extendable arm.
The screen tilts substantially to allow you to clearly watch even when the passenger in front of you reclines.
If you have any worries about how you're going to pass almost 19 hours, the good news is that the "KrisWorld" entertainment system is perhaps the most well-stocked IFE system I've encountered. There's an incredible 301 movies, 200 TV shows (including 39 full seasons) and 781 music selections (mostly full albums or hour-long mixes). TV shows begin with either 30 seconds or a minute of advertisements, but you can use the progress bar to skip past these.
One major concern with the IFE system: the system lagged a surprising amount at points -- especially during and shortly after crew announcements. This lagging made trying to listen to music while working too distracting, so I switched to listening to music on my laptop instead. It is quite concerning that this brand new IFE system already has this issue, and hopefully it's something that can be fixed.
A pair of active noise-cancelling over-the-ear headphone were left in the seatback pocket at boarding and weren't collected before arrival, meaning that you can use the IFE system for the entire duration of the flight. The headphones were good quality, but you might want to use your own if you have a high-quality pair.
The three-prong headphone jack is located in the middle seat console behind each passenger's elbow. You don't need an adapter to use your own headphones; stereo sound is produced by just plugging into one of the three plugs. There's another USB charging outlet for each passenger in this same console area.
In addition, there two universal power outlets in the middle console by each passenger's ankle.
Singapore Airlines boasts "high-speed in-flight Wi-Fi service on Singapore Airlines' new A350-900ULR aircraft" using Panasonic. However, I didn't find the "high-speed" part to be accurate. I was able to successfully upload photos to TPG's Instagram Stories and stay in touch through text messages and social media. However, the connection was rarely quick enough for this to be fluid. Instead, the internet connectivity seemed to come in bursts during most of the flight, and I'm not including when we were past the Arctic Circle, when there's understandably no connectivity.
While I was never able to successfully run a speed test, a fellow passenger shared his results: 1.34mbps download and 0.00mbps upload. Another passenger I spoke with later wasn't as lucky, sharing a slew of test results under 0.25mbps download.
Singapore Airlines offers some elites a free 30MB Wi-Fi connection, but most passengers are going to have to pay for Wi-Fi. There were three package options: "Chat" 20MB for US$6, "Pro" 80MB for US$16 and "Premium" 200MB for US$28. Despite the spotty connection, I used up the last of the 200MB package I purchased just before descent, and I was surprised to learn that that much data had been transmitted in the prior 17 hours.
Food and Beverage
For this first flight, all passengers had an opportunity to eat from a hot buffet and drink champagne at the the gate. But for flights going forward, food and beverage are going to start with a tray drink service shortly after the seatbelt sign is turned off. Premium economy passengers have the choice between orange juice, water or champagne -- which was a Moet & Chandon Brut Impérial for this flight -- along with a packaged bag of nuts.
A 10-page menu was left at the seatback pocket at boarding.
The first meal service began about an hour after takeoff, about 1am Singapore time. The menu described the meal choices as:
- Baked Fish Fillet in Dill and Caper Sauce / With vegetables and mashed potatoes
- Oriental Chicken Rice / With black mushrooms, Chinese greens and fragrant rice
- Roasted Caulifower Steak with Tahini Garlic Sauce / Cherry tomatoes, pine nut, red rice Parmesan cheese and pumpkin seed gremolata
I asked for the flight attendant's recommendation, and she suggested the "chicken rice." The dish was served on one tray with a cold bread roll, packaged crackers, cheese and the fudge brownie dessert. The rice dish was a bit spicy even before adding any of the "chicken rice chili" served on the side. A heads up for picky eaters: the chicken was served with skin.
It'd be quite a while before the flight attendants passed back through the cabin to pick up the trays, which was peculiar for just a 13-row cabin.
After dinner, I stepped into the back galley to stretch and began talking with a group of fellow AvGeek passengers. A flight attendant asked if any of us had tried the cauliflower steak. None of us had, so he pulled out an extra meal to show it off. He explained how Singapore Airlines partnered with Canyon Ranch to develop healthy meals for this ultra-long route, and offered the meal up for a taste test. We unanimously found it was really good. The tahini garlic sauce gave this potentially bland meal plenty of flavor.
While the lights were off for 12 hours, flight attendants passed through the aisles every couple of hours with water and orange juice for passengers who were awake and didn't want to visit the back galley, where a full range of drinks wase available upon request at any time. After a few hours of lights out, the flight attendants set up a basket with boxed cold sandwiches and snacks. I tested both of the sandwich options: "croissant with chickpea masala, tomatoes and lettuce" and the "chicken tikka with cucumber raita wrap." Both were heavy on the bread and light on the filling, but were flavorful.
About 10.5 hours into the flight, the flight attendants passed through the aisles to serve the "refreshment." While the lights weren't turned on, the commotion from the snack service seemed to wake everyone in the cabin, including me. The "warmed vegetarian snack" was essentially a cheese focaccia. The pizza-like snack was accompanied by a small cup of mango mousse cake. Drinks were a choice between water and the "agave lemonade," a surprisingly refreshing, lightly carbonated drink that's supposed to be especially good for hydration.
After 12 hours in the dark, the lights were flipped on about three hours before arrival for breakfast. The hot breakfast was a choice between:
- Farmers Egg Casserole / With chicken sausage, tomato and broccoli
- Egg Noodle with Chinese Barbecue Pork and Vegetables
- Apple Pancakes / Served with apple compote and maple syrup
With the delicious cauliflower steak still fresh in my mind, I chose what was introduced by the flight attendant as the healthy meal. However, when I checked the menu later, this option wasn't marked as a "Canyon Ranch" healthy meal. That said, it tasted much more "healthy" (read: unflavorful) than the cauliflower steak. But, perhaps this was just due to my taste buds having been obliterated by the long flight.
After trays were collected, the lights were turned back off for two more hours, resulting in a rather peculiar timing for the breakfast meal.
In case you were worried that you might not have enough to do for 19 hours, Singapore Airlines provided a cart of reading materials at the aircraft door during boarding.
At boarding, each seat was stocked with a large pillow and plastic-wrapped blanket. The pillow proved to be a bit too large to be practical in these recliner seats, but the blanket was nice and warm for when the cabin dropped to 68° during the middle of the flight.
A small and basic amenity kit was handed out shortly after takeoff. The very thin bag contained just a pair of socks and a toothbrush and toothpaste. Separate from the amenity bag, a small bag containing an eye mask was also handed out.
Bathrooms contained a bottle of liquid anti-bacterial soap, mouthwash, facial mist, eau de toilette and a bottle of moisturizing hand lotion.
Overall, these added up to what one might find in a good economy product. The amenity kit in particular falls well short of other premium economy products.
Singapore Airlines reported having 13 flight attendants on-board the flight to service the 67 business class seats and 94 premium economy seats. Usually airlines are able to balance the flight attendant-passenger ratio by having smaller premium cabin(s) and a large economy cabin, allowing the premium cabin(s) to borrow attendants from the back cabin to provide extra service up front.
Unfortunately, that's what happened on this flight too. This flight certainly fell short of what I'd expect from premium economy. It wasn't from lack of trying from the crew, but the cabin was just too large, and there are too many business class seats to serve concurrently, to provide a level of service that I've experienced in premium economy on Cathay Pacific or even American Airlines. In fact, the service was similar to what you'd expect in a good economy product... like Singapore Airlines' economy.
Perhaps this was the result of an especially needy business class cabin, which was full of media representatives whom the airline wanted to keep happy. But, this flight likely was crewed by some of Singapore Airlines' best flight attendants. So, it'd be interesting to see how service is on flights in the future. My guess is that the back cabin will continue to struggle as the airline continues to focus on the front cabin.
The cabin lights were flipped on and flight attendants passed through with a tray of agave lemonade and water. Simultaneously, the pilots made an announcement saying that we were 50 minutes from landing. By the time we landed, we had covered 10,292 miles in 17:25 hours. Indeed the longest flight in the world, and by a good 1,000-mile margin over the former record holder, Qatar Airways' Doha to Auckland.
Once on the ground, I was one of a few passengers excited at the possibility of visiting the flight deck. Thankfully, the exhausted crew was gracious enough to show us around the flight deck of the A350-900ULR. I couldn't spot any differences from the standard A350, which I got the opportunity to tour in April.
When Singapore Airlines operated the Airbus A340-500 on this route, it used six pilots. However, there were just four pilots on board for our flight.
There was no water cannon salute or anything special to mark the occasion of the flight's arrival at Newark Airport.
Ever wary of Deep Vein Thrombosis — particularly after a TPG colleague of mine developed it on a recent flight — I made sure to move often during the flight. Fellow passengers smirked as I ran in place in the back galley area, but I wasn't going to risk it. Checking my FitBit activity as I stepped off of the plane, I found that accumulated over 5,000 steps and over 2.5 miles during the nearly 18 hours:
Being part of this flight overjoyed me as an AvGeek, and Singapore Airlines helped make it special with gate festivities, a special menu and announcements from the flight deck. However, when I take an objective look, I find it's not quite premium economy.
The problem with having such a large premium economy class as the back cabin of the aircraft is that it effectively turns into economy. Service was far too strained by the number of passengers to provide a premium-economy level of service. The meals were good, but not better than what could be served in economy. The amenity kit we were provided on this flight was no better than the amenity kit I received in Singapore Airlines economy.
Besides the seat, indeed a significant improvement over an economy seat, I struggled to find where this flight differentiated itself from Singapore Airlines' excellent economy product.