Tag Archives: retro

How does a 20th century airline seat hold up today?

Going to Bangkok post-Christmas has become something of a ritual for me. It’s not that Thai food or massages or shopping are particularly good elixirs for an entire month of overeating, but I’m just a creature of habit that way.

The problem with going to Bangkok post-Christmas, however, is that half of Singapore has the same idea. So (unless you’ve booked really far in advance), if you’re hoping to leave Singapore early in the morning and come back in the evening, it shouldn’t surprise you to see prices like this…

It therefore seemed more prudent to look at award flight options. I know it goes against the general principle I preach of not using miles to redeem for short haul economy, but given the very high revenue prices (even on budget airlines), doing so made sense.

Because SQ was unwilling to provide instant confirmation for economy saver awards, I looked at business saver availability which was wide open.  As soon as I clicked through to seat selection something struck me as odd-

No prizes for spotting that the seatmap was showing a 2-3-2 configuration. This was something I hadn’t seen in a while. And by a while, I mean a long, long while. 2-3-2 in J meant that this aircraft was using SQ’s Ultimo seats (There’s some disagreement online whether or not it’s accurate to call these Ultimo seats, as I’ll explain later, but given the similarities in design philosophy we’ll just go with that for now) introduced more than 15 years ago.

As per the fleet list curated by the boffins on SQTalk, there are only 2 aircraft left in SQ’s fleet with such a J arrangement- 9V-SRJ and 9V-SRL. I had evidently just landed one of the two (while we’re on a retro theme there is still one Spacebed equipped 777-200ER, 9V-SVF. I know, right? I thought those had been long put to pasture. Have a read of my SQ through the ages piece to see how the business class products have evolved)

Now here’s where most people would cancel the booking and think of something else. I mean, who wants to spend hard earned miles on a product that’s more than a decade out of date?

Yet, I was intrigued. I had already reviewed SQ’s middling regional J angled-flat product more times than I could care to remember. In fact, I’ve reviewed pretty much every SQ product there is out there (or at least experienced it and been too lazy to write a full report). But the Ultimo seat? The last time I saw an Ultimo seat, I was 10 or 11 years old and flying to San Francisco on a 747 back when Business Class was still called Raffles Class. This seat was so old it even pre-dated the 2002 Spacebed.

Here’s how the 1998 SQ annual report describes the Ultimo seat

SIA’s Raffles Class offers comfort, service and amenities that rival the First Class experience of other airlines. Cabin features and amenities are designed by Givenchy. The new seat on board the B747-400s, dubbed Ultimo, offers an extended seat pitch of 52 inches, the longest business class seat pitch among any major airline offering three classes. The seat also has the industry’s first business class privacy screen. Automated footrests, four-way lumbar support and six-way adjustable headrests are introduced for greater comfort. An individual fibre-optic light is located on the back of the seat for enhanced reading comfort, and there is also an in-seat laptop power supply point.

And that was that. I had to try it, if only for nostalgia’s sake. Besides, the flight was only slightly over 2 hours and it’d make for a great retro trip report. Why not?


SQ972 was set to depart at 940am the day after Christmas, so I showed up at the airport around 815am.

It was nice to see the airport still had its sense of festive cheer, albeit with Pokemon mixed in. Changi Airport has some sort of Pokemon tie up right now.

I never got into the whole Pokemon Go craze (and have very select opinions about those who did) but you’d have to be made of stone not to at least go a little “awww” at this.

I had no spending to do at Changi, but if I did I could have got a pokemon plush toy for about $10. It’s interesting that you need to spend $120 in the transit area to get a plush, but only $60 in the public area. Says a bit about who they’re trying to target perhaps?

I’ve reviewed the J section of the SQ lounge in T2 before so I’m only going to touch on a few points I found interesting during this visit.

SQ’s put up some decorations in the lounge for Christmas, but apart from some gingerbread dioramas

and making all the service crew wear Santa hats, there wasn’t really anything beyond that. I would have much like to see a special Christmas menu in the lounge, but it was the usual assortment of Chinese and Western dishes.

There was a special display of teochew culture and food in the lounge, in line with SQ’s special teochew menu onboard, but as far as I could see there were no special teochew dishes in the lounge either.

I’m not sure if it was an enhancement or just the earliness of the hour but the champagne was tucked away.

In the spirit of festive cheer, SQ had put up this note saying that it was available on request. The charitable side of me believed that they did this so they could store the champagne at its proper temperature and to preserve freshness. The other side believed it was to discourage timid people from asking for champagne at 9am for fear they’d be considered lush.

As you can see, that wasn’t an issue for me. The lounge food was really forgettable, and SQ needs to step up its lounge catering a gear if it wants to stay competitive,

SQ has set up several advertising displays in the lounge recently. Today there was a display for an LG steam clothing care system, something I didn’t know I needed until I saw it.  Presumably SQ earns a little fee from LG in exchange for positioning this advert in a place where a reasonable number of affluent travellers will see it.

I remember seeing a similar pop up display in the lounge before for Singleton Whiskey. I’m not against advertising in the lounge per se, and I think where the product being advertised is something that can be consumed and experienced by passengers first hand then it’s a nice tie up. So things like sponsored alcohol tastings are more than ok in my mind.

I feel a bit differently about static displays such as LG’s, however, given that there’s no actual functionality for passengers. It would be one thing (and a good idea) if there were someone on hand who could offer to press customers’ clothes after a long haul flight, but if the sum total of your display is one unit plus a few brochures, it doesn’t really do anything except take up space.

We were departing from one of the furthest gates in T2 (F42), so I started the hike down early. I wanted to take photos of the cabin before it got too full. By the time I reached, boarding has just started.

Let’s get some technicalities out of the way first. Technically, the seats below are the “true” Ultimo seats. Note the privacy ears and the square headrest. You can’t find these any more as they were on the 747s that have since been retrofitted and retired.

The seats on my flight today have rounded headrests and no privacy ears. The crew refer to these as Ultimo seats but they are technically modified versions. You can call them “old regional J” if you want, or Ultimo Minus as others do. But they’re similar enough to the mainline Ultimo that I’m just going to stick to that naming convention.

Waves of nostalgia hit me the moment I saw the seat. I remembered flying long haul in the days before Krisworld, where the stewardesses endeavored to keep young kids occupied any which way they could. I remembered receiving coloring books, model airplanes, little sets of reversi and playing cards, those “Young Explorer” giveaways and trips to the cockpit to get my log book signed. I remembered how excited I was when they finally introduced Krisworld, playing hours of Super Mario and Super Bonk to while away the flight. I felt like a kid again.

Let’s deal with layout first. The cabin is configured in a 2-3-2 layout. I was in the centre row of 3, but fortunately had an empty seat next to me.

This is what the seats at the side look like. You’re not going to get a whole lot of privacy in this cabin, that’s for sure. Everyone is in each other’s line of site. Privacy is another fascinating feature that has been gradually grafted onto business class seats. A long time ago, no one would really have any issues with such an open concept cabin. But now you can go an entire flight without having to so much as make eye contact with another passenger because of the high walls and privacy screens you find in business class. I of course much prefer the current arrangement, but isn’t it fascinating to think that people used to be ok with less privacy?

These seat controls take me back. They’re not manual, thank goodness (because I have very weak upper body strength), and the motor makes very reassuring loud hum whenever you adjust the seat position.  You can see that you can adjust lumbar support, legrest angle or length and seat recline. There’s also an easy reset button when it comes time to land.

Fortunately the aircraft is not too old to have AVOD.

Does anyone remember those old Krisworld advertisements they used to play on TV about the Wisemen 3000 AVOD system? I can’t find it on YouTube sadly. It’s the one that demonstrates the pause, fast forward and rewind features of the system by pausing, fast forwarding and rewinding the advertisement. I thought that was clever. But then again I was 10.

There is indeed in seat power- but this seat is so ancient you need a special adapter to use it! I saw one passenger request for an adapter, which the crew have on hand. It’s this laptop brick-like device they bring around that has a regular 3 ping plug output.

Remember the days when your tray table used to be found in your armrest and not some other cleverly designed nook?

The table can’t match what we now have in modern day J products for size (or sturdiness). It was clearly designed with the tray approach to dining in J class, not the modern day course by course layout which really needs a larger footprint. Indeed, when the crew served the meals later on they used trays (as, I should note, is the practice on regional flights)

Remember when all the literature you needed was stored in the seatback pocket infront of you?

It’s interesting to see how airline seats have evolved to incorporate more in-seat storage as the number of devices we carry increase. Back in the late 90s when this seat was first conceptualised most people would probably have a laptop and a cellphone. Now we need storage space for tablets, second cellphones, cables, smartwatches and a whole host of what not. Apart from the seatback storage, the Ultimo seat has only a small stowage space under the armrest. More suited to a water bottle than anything else.

The crew came around to take pre-departure drink requests. They brought juice and water, but after more than a few passengers (myself included) requested for adult beverages, they brought champagne around as well.

I was sitting on the left aisle seat, but needed to put my drinks on the middle armrest space because my drinks area was actually sloping to the right at a precarious angle (you can’t really see it here). I’m guessing the plastic warped a bit after so many cycles and was now popping up.

This aircraft has a large projector screen at the front of the cabin where the safety video is played (because the personal video screens need to be stowed during taxi takeoff and landing)

Once airborne the crew started preparing for brunch service. Despite the very nice festive menu cover, they weren’t actually serving any Christmas dishes (or maybe brunch is a difficult meal to cook Christmas dishes for). Interestingly, they were also not serving any dishes from the special teochew menu either.

Brunch started about 20 minutes after the seat belt sign went off.

I had ordered from the BTC menu the Chinese Style Cod with Fried Rice- Served with seasonal oriental vegetables, Chinese black mushrooms and egg fried rice. Designed by Singapore Airlines International Culinary Panel Chef Zhu Jun. Although I’ve had mixed experiences with fish onboard (in particular salmon), I realise that Cod holds up very well in the cabin, maybe because of its higher fat content.

The other great cod dish on the BTC menu is the Steamed Cod Fish Thai Style-  traditional dish of cod steamed with spicy lime sauce, served with shredded white cabbage, carrot julienne, Chinese sliced celery, fried garlic and steamed rice. I’d encourage you to try that one too if you like cod.

As for desert, let’s just say I miss the old days when they just gave out ice cream.

After lunch I flicked on the IFE system. I’ve come to realise that SQ is inconsistent as to what type of noise cancelling headsets they provide in J. Sometimes I get these old ones, and other times I get the Phitek ones (see below)

today’s headphones
IMG_20160123_145749
Phitek headphones. Sometimes available in J, also available in PY

The cover says they’re noise cancelling (and interestingly, also Phitek branded). I actually prefer the old design which goes over the ear rather than the new design which is on ear, but the audiophile in me believes the on ear ones have better sound quality.

The personal video screen is in the armrest. Oh, how savage we used to be.

Because the IFE software is older, the selection of movies is smaller than what you’ll find on SQ’s newest aircraft. It’s still a very decent selection though and featured several recently-in-theater shows like Suicide Squad and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

The main issue with the screen was the contrast was rather poor, and much of the screen got washed out in bright sunlight, the kind of which was streaming  through the cabin windows. Modern IFE screens counter this by having stronger backlighting. I had to bump up the brightness all the way to the maximum and even then I wasn’t able to see everything clearly.

I tried to see how good the seat was for napping. I reclined it all the way and found it maxed out at what was a very comfortable angle. In a way it reminded me of SQ’s premium economy product, not in terms of seat width (PY is definitely a good degree narrower) but in terms of recline angle.

Given the luxury of modern day J products it’s hard to believe that once up on a time this was market leading. I guess there’s a sort of trickle down economics when it comes to cabin products. Business Class 15 years ago is now Premium Economy today, First Class 15 years ago is now Business Class today. Is it too much of a stretch to say that one day, a long time from now, we might see Angled Flat products in Premium Economy? It’s certainly food for thought.

The loo had the usual Miller Harris toiletries. The amenities bin interestingly enough didn’t have any toothbrushes or combs, but I imagine you could request these from the crew.

We landed about 30 mins late at BKK due to heavy air traffic. The crew passed out priority immigration cards prior to arrival. I’m saving up mine because my APEC card allows me to skip the queues anyway.

There’s something to be said about nostalgia. I was more than happy to take this flight because it’s a short one and I really wanted to review this old product, but I imagine if an equipment swap led me to have this aircraft on a red-eye medium haul flight (think Seoul or Bombay) I’d be pretty upset. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before these aging 772s get replaced by the A350s.

Did seeing this bring back memories for anyone else?