What, exactly, should a flight experience that costs upwards of $12,000 look like? Services and cuisine; ergonomics and space; indulgences and amenities; and privacy, privacy, privacy: these topics consume the attention of the top brass at airlines on every continent, often to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in research, development and execution. Who will craft the wine list, upholster the seats, design the duvet, create the optimised personal sound system, provide the prestige skincare? And how, above all, to outdo the comp set? They’re the questions that are much on the agenda in commercial aviation, from Doha and Dubai to Seattle and Seoul – and, with particular newsworthiness lately, Singapore.
It was with no small amount of anticipation that travellers awaited the rollout of Singapore Airlines’ new Suites and business class across its A380 fleet. The first plane launched in December, with Sydney as the inaugural destination; February saw select Singapore-to-London flights added, meaning that, with a bit of planning, one of the most daunting long-haul trips Australians contend with – Sydney to London – can now be made in one of SIA’s very sleek new suites (with fares starting, as it happens, just upwards of $12,000).
SIA has long dominated various international Best, It and Hot lists for overall excellence (in the case of global consumer title Travel + Leisure, a whopping 22 consecutive ones, as Best International Airline). It was the first airline to provide free headphones, drink and meal choices in economy class (1970s); the first to install satellite phones on board (early 90s); the first to offer video- and audio-on-demand entertainment, across all classes (2001); and the first to fly the A380.
And clearly its leadership thinks ultra-premium travel is here to stay. “The new cabin products are the culmination of four years of work, involving extensive customer research and close partnerships with our designers and suppliers,” says chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong. “We are confident that the results will genuinely ‘wow’ our customers, and ensure that we continue to provide an unparalleled travel experience.”
“Wow” is indeed the word, particularly for the Suites. Just six are allocated to each plane, three to each side of a centre aisle, at the front of the top deck. They measure just under 5sqm, and feature a tall swivel armchair clad in deep brown Poltrona Frau leather and a separate fold-down, 2m-long bed, dressed with cotton sheets, a down duvet and multiple down pillows; when not in use, this tucks neatly up into the suite’s front wall. The chair rotates up to 270 degrees, and reclines up to 45, via a control panel concealed in one arm. A side-table compartment opens up to a large swivelling dining table/workstation, strategically spotlit by an elegant nickel wall lamp. A 32-inch television, mounted on the wall, also has manual swivel adjustment for optimal viewing from the bed or the chair. In a clever concession to couples, the suites in the second and third rows can be joined via a slide-down wall, allowing the beds to be configured as one double. Adjacent to each suite’s sliding door is a spacious wardrobe, with a separate, dedicated bag compartment built into a storage station under one of the two windows. A tasselled leather case replete with amenities (including, for ladies, a full-sized eau de toilette) by Lalique – which also designed the embroidered bed linens and the crystal service – sits in one recessed compartment; another holds a pair of Bose QC25 noise-cancelling headphones.
With their sumptuous, neutral-toned materials – wood, stone, contrast-stitched piped leather – and lavish allocations of space, the Suites evoke more the experience of private air travel than commercial flying. This is the point, according to Jacques Pierrejean of Pierrejean Design Studio, who was tasked with the Suites redesign. “The Suite customer has bought a room, not a seat, to him or herself,” he says, “and is free to live on board as he or she likes. Everything is designed to respond to this.” Hence the tablet mounted next to the window, from which lighting, TV, air conditioning, and service requests can be touch-controlled; and the multiple USB and multi-adapted prong chargers (I counted three within easy reach of the seat); and the Inmarsat GX Aviation high-speed wifi, said to be up to 100 times faster than the previously available service.
This “your choice” concept is showcased especially impressively at mealtime. SIA’s consulting Culinary Panel is an international All Stars list featuring the likes of Carlo Cracco, Georges Blanc, and Matt Moran of Sydney’s perennially excellent Chiswick. The Suites menu, several pages long, features fine wines (names like Chateau Cos d’Estournel are regulars in the mix). Then there’s the equally impressive Book The Cook service, which allows travellers to pre-order their meals from a comprehensive range of dishes: Western or Indian, Thai or Singaporean, fresh sushi, even a series of low-fat/sugar/salt options grouped under the heading Deliciously Wholesome (example: flaky Chilean sea bass on a bed of kale and quinoa with tomato jelly and almond flakes, created by Alfred Portale of New York’s Gotham Bar & Grill). A stellar Krug 2004 vintage is now the house welcome pour, alongside the 2006 Dom Perignon. And if Tiger isn’t your thing, there’s that finest of English ales, Old Speckled Hen.
Business Class is where SIA has really made its name, however. The 777-300er fleet was given a significant redesign as recently as late 2013 (which then installed across its A350 fleet as well); yet such is the competitive nature of the market that the company allocated a large part of its staggering $1.1 billion overall spend on the A380 rollout to reimagine it yet again. John Tighe of London-based firm JPA has worked on SIA business class designs for 15-odd years. “The SIA remit and business model are to always stay on top of the pile; they’re hyper-aware of the competition,” he says. The 2018 iteration is notably more state-of-the-art, both in look and feel. The monocoque seat – a single, composite carbon-fibre structure with all the parts attached, whose sides fold slightly up and around the seat – is both more sleekly futuristic-looking and more practical in application: the thinner mounting base amounts to quite a bit more leg and storage room for the seat behind. “The seat now lowers electronically within the structure to the full bed length, instead of flipping over. It allows for each seat to be much closer to the one behind it,” says Tighe. “You feel cosseted inside this shell-like structure, with, simultaneously, more room for your legs and your things.” Calming pinkish-violet light suffuses the cabin, reflecting a new palette that incorporates aubergine and bronze in with the requisite browns and neutrals. AC sockets and USB ports are built into a control panel along with entertainment controls and several reading and ambient light options, and a very useful little back-lit vanity mirror. The seat width has decreased from 71cm (in the 2013 redesign) to 64. But space still feels at an utter premium – particularly for couples sharing centre-aisle seats: a retractable wall between them lowers completely, allowing for the widest double-bed configuration in any business class currently flying the long-haul skies. Another innovation in a long and illustrious list, if not quite as sublimely private or luxurious as those adjoining beds up front in Suites – but worth the investment, nonetheless.