One of the most anticipated product launches in the aviation world took place today as SQ unveiled its new cabin products for its A380 aircraft. These products start service on the SIN-SYD route from 18 December and will be retrofitted to the entire A380 fleet by 2020. You’ll also see the business class seats appear on the new A350-900ULR jets that resume non-stop service to New York and other North American gateways.
I’ve taken some time to digest the publicity photos, compare them to real life ones taken by journalists present at the event, and consider how this unveiling measures up to what we’ve come to know and expect of Singapore Airlines. Here’s my summary of the new products:
Etihad and Emirates will sleep well tonight knowing that SQ has played it safe with their new flagship premium products. Although the new Suites offers an unprecedented amount of personal space, it is let down by sterile design and the lack of any true wow factor. Business Class remains category-leading, but SQ disappoints by opting for evolution rather than revolution. Mark this as a missed opportunity.
There’s a lot to analyze, so let’s get right into it.
Suites- more space, less wow
Let’s start with the headline attraction- SQ’s next generation Suites, re-imagined 10 years after their initial introduction shook up the aviation world. As it turns out, leaked photos from yesterday were indeed the genuine article, as SQ unveiled a bigger, more private space for each of the six Suites passengers in the newly-configured A380.
The new Suite has a separate bed and 21 inch swivel chair, which can recline up to 135 degrees. Enjoy this video of a very nervous looking Singapore Girl swiveling in the chair.
There’s also a 32 inch HD video screen at the foot of the bed, but none of SQ’s publicity photos actually show it. In the armrest you’ll find plenty of storage space, a mini-tablet IFE controller and the rest of the seat controls.
Suites 1A/2A and 1F/2F can be converted into a double bed, and if you’ve somehow managed to snag a pair of Suites tickets on the launch route you might want to go and block your seats now because the new seatmap has been uploaded.
Here’s how the new seat map appears on the SQ website.
Where the bathrooms are concerned, Suites has two bathrooms in the nose of the upper deck, where Etihad chose to instead locate The Residence. The larger one has a sit down vanity counter…
…while the smaller one has no such frills. I do like that SQ has finally chosen to go with a basin that protrudes from the countertop instead of a recessed basin.
Now here’s the thing. When I first saw the leaked photos, I was hoping so hard there’d be more to the story. Because what I saw didn’t impress me. And now that all has been revealed, I’m going to go on the record and say I’m flat out disappointed.
It’s true that the amount of personal space that Suites passengers will enjoy is unprecedented in the history of commercial aviation. The new Suites are even larger than Etihad’s current first class apartments, and would not be out of place on a private jet. But having a lot of space is one thing, and actually doing meaningful things with it is another. It’s almost as if SQ made a rod for their own backs by creating so much space that people start looking for what’s missing rather than what’s there. And there’s definitely something missing. As it is, the design of SQ’s new Suite is more likely to evoke memories of a hospital room than a true luxury experience.
Design issues plague this product. For example, consider the situation where you have a couple traveling together. Couple dining has always been a big draw of any First Class set up, but in this arrangement you’ll each be sitting in your own swivel chair, staring at each other awkwardly from across the bed. Why not build the suite in a way that facilitates this? Or suppose you have a visitor to your suite. Where is he/she supposed to sit?
On a more technical level, it appear that the design issues with the double bed that we saw in the first generation Suites remain. The first generation Suites did not so much form a true double bed as they did two singles because of this very, very hard divider in between.
Here’s the publicity photo that SQ released of the double bed. Note how the divider in the middle is strategically covered by the sheets and token white woman.
And then compare it to the leaked image that shows a very visible gap between the seats.
It’s still unclear how this affects the comfort of the double bed. Do the crew simply put blankets on top of it? If so, does this create a funny indentation in the bed? Do the crew have some detachable plug they insert into the gap? Do the beds slide together once the divider is down to eliminate the gap (my guess is no, or some journalist would have made mention of it by now)? I’m sure we will before long get some trip reports that clear this up, but the inquiring mind wants to know.
We all know that another area where SQ lags behind competitors is its ground services, and it’s disappointing that nothing new was announced in this respect. SQ has always wagered that its superior in-air service would make up for lackluster ground services, and to a certain extent that’s true. But if the point was to make the new Suites seem like an experience unlike any other, was it asking too much for the ground experience to be scaled up to match that? Simple things like offering a spa for Suites passengers, or complimentary ground transfer services wouldn’t have gone amiss. No one is asking for an Air France La Premier type experience, but this is clearly a weakness in the overall offering.
The biggest thing that gets me about the new Suites is the lack of any true wow factor. When the A380 cabin products first launched in 2007, the double bed was a big thing as no other airline had it. But SQ has taken the point of view that “space is a wow factor” and declined to do anything further with the product. We already knew that SQ wasn’t going to put showers in their loos, and it was always wishful thinking that they’d build an inflight bar like what some of the ME3 have done.
And I was willing to accept all this conservatism as “just the way SQ does things”, with the understanding that they’d make up for it in some other way. Which simply hasn’t happened here.
So in the papers tomorrow the press will wax lyrical by taking copy from SQ’s press release. “Poltrona Frau leather chair,” they’ll say. “Lalique amenities kit and PJs”. “Boise noise cancelling headsets.” “Wedgwood serviceware”. And I’m sure to the average man in the street, this product will seem out of this world.
But make no mistake, this should go down as nothing other than a missed opportunity for SQ. Will it be a strategic blunder? Nah. The real money is in business class, and SQ has done very well with its new business class product (see below). What’s more, I highly doubt the well-heeled travelers who actually pay money to fly First Class will turn their noses up at the new offerings. However, we all know that First Class is a marketing tool more than anything else, which creates a halo effect on the airline’s other offerings. SQ had an opportunity to seize the narrative and drown out the chatter about Emirates’ upcoming First Class reveal at the Dubai Air Show two weeks from now. They have not decisively done that, and now it’s your move, Emirates.
Business Class- still market leading, but missed opportunity for innovation
SQ has increased the number of business class seats on its A380s from 66 to 78, but the seats occupy the exact same floorspace. Seat pitch has been reduced by 5 inches from the original 55, but the more than proportionate increase in number of seats suggests JPA has designed a more space efficient offering
The seats are 25 inches wide, which is actually smaller than the 2013 business class seat by that appears on refreshed 77Ws and A350s by 3 inches. The 1-2-1 configuration is retained, and there’s an eggshell sort of privacy feature that protects you from the aisle.
It appears that you no longer need to manually flip this seat over to become a bed, which is a radical departure from SQ’s 2006 and 2013 business class design. Instead, this seat “seamlessly reclines into a bed” at the push of a button. I welcome this change, given it gives you a whole range of sleeping angles. I can’t imagine air safety officials were thrilled with the previous design that required passengers to get out of their seats to revert them to landing positions in the event they needed to adopt brace positions, so this makes sense from that angle too.
The x-factor, if you want to call it that (given that Qatar did it already) is that the beds can recline into a double bed arrangement.
First up- the photo is a bit deceiving in that the sheets are covering the divider between the seats. In real life, you have this to contend with, so you won’t be rolling over and Kevin Spacey-ing any one anytime soon.
It seems from reading online that the first reaction people have is “who wants to be so exposed when they sleep”. And that’s understandable, because from this angle it looks like any passerby could just jump into bed with you. But have a look at the photo below and you’ll see it’s slightly different.
It appears that your head will be shielded from the aisle, so there’s that at least. On the whole it’s definitely more exposed than I’d like, but the publicity photo from SQ doesn’t help by making the seat look worse than it is.
Another question people seemed to have is how this would work for non-bulkhead seats, where the seats have foot cubbies. The answer is it doesn’t- only the bulkhead seats 11D/F, 91D/F and 96D/F can be converted into a double bed. The regular seats can have the privacy divider lowered all the way as you see in the pair of seats on the right hand side below, but that’s about it.
One key feature to note is that you will still be sleeping at an angle, at least if you’re the tall sort. The seat folds down completely flat, but you need to sleep sideways and angle your feet into the cubby as this photo shows. This one’s from Mark at The Shutterwhale- he’s got a lot more IRL photos on his site so do check it out.
Where the soft product is concerned, it seems that SQ is still not going with amenities kits in business class despite the teaser they did for the airline’s anniversary.
SQ’s 2013 business class seat was already market leading, and I don’t think this new version does anything to hurt that. Although it’s not quite the “super business class” that Qatar’s QSuites purports to be, this is still a very competitive offering that puts other airlines’ First Class to shame.
The double bed is probably the highlight of the changes, but given that only 8% of the seats have this feature you need to consider the realism of actually snagging the seats, plus the obvious fact that it’s not a true double bed thanks to the divider. If you’re traveling with a companion the more realistic scenario is that you’ll be in one of the two centre seats and can push the divider all the way down so you can stare into each other’s eyes as you fall asleep. I’m told that’s what people do.
I know some people really dislike sleeping at an angle, but unfortunately one necessary consequence of squeezing 78 seats into what formerly took 66 seats means you can’t make concessions like that. This is somewhat made up for by the seat offering a complete range of sleeping positions thanks to no more “get up and flip”.
The biggest criticism you could muster of this seat is that it lacks any real wow factor, just like Suites. However, unlike Suites it’s much more acceptable for business class to lack that, given that they’re looking at grounded and sensible versus the best that money can buy. Although it would have been interesting to see if SQ could really redefine what business class could be, I think this is a solid offering that will coupled with SQ’s amazing service will continue to draw business travelers.
Premium Economy- same same but more
The premium economy story seems simple on the surface, but gets a bit more puzzling upon further thought.
SQ will continue to go with their current-gen premium economy seats on the new A380s. I suspected as much given that the seats were only introduced two years ago, and it wouldn’t make sense to create product fragmentation so quickly (not to mention invest in product redesign). The main change is that the Premium Economy section has been moved to the nose of the A380, which is currently where Suites is located. The same 2-4-2 configuration with 38 inch seat pitch and 19.5 inch width is maintained.
However, what confuses me is that SQ is increasing the current count of premium economy from 36-38 seats up to 44 in total. We know SQ has struggled to fill premium economy, because it’s simply way too expensive. Premium economy prices on SQ can often approach business class prices on less established carriers. Earlier last year, they even launched a bidding system to allow customers in economy to bid for an upgrade to Premium economy, and anecdotally I’ve heard a lot of stories about minimum bids being accepted.
So SQ has decided to
double 120% down on Premium economy, and I don’t know whether this is a kind of hubris or whether they intend to change their pricing structure to bring these seats to an affordable level.
Economy- well, it’s economy
And now, the back of the bus. Economy retains a 3-4-3 configuration with 81cm seat pitch and 15cm seat recline. The seats, designed and built by RECARO, “leverage advanced technology and ergonomics, offering more legroom and back support with a six-way adjustable headset with foldable wings”
The seat back has a whole host of ports including an NFC reader, but surprisingly does away with the IFE controller. It’s always difficult to find exciting things to say about economy, so I’ll leave it at that.
The most interesting thing to me is that SQ has completely removed the IFE handset. I get why they did it- it means less weight and lower production costs. And given that the screen is touch enabled, there’s less of a need for a separate controller. But what does this mean for kids who want to play games? Will it be possible to connect your smart phone as a sort of second screen?
I know some people got excited when they saw the contactless reader in the seat, believing it to be a sign that SQ would start upselling passengers in the economy cabin. I think the real reason is less nefarious, however. The contactless readers make an appearance in other cabins too, and could simply be another way to pay for inflight duty free or pair wireless NFC devices.
This is a mixed bag for me. Although business class continues to be a market leading piece of hardware, the new Suites turned out to be all sound and no fury. I’m definitely still excited to try them out when I visit Sydney in March, but I can’t help but feel this was a missed opportunity for SQ. Expect much more analysis in the days to come and as the first few trip reports for these seats come in.
How did you guys find the seats?