On Wednesday, Singapore Airlines welcomed the first of 49 787-10s to Changi Airport. The airline also unveiled its brand new regional business class product, which by all accounts is head and shoulders above the old seat it’s replacing.
Here’s something to mull over: it’s only a matter of time before every single Singapore Airlines business class flight, from the 45 minute hop to KL to the soon-to-be-launched 18 hour marathon to New York, will have a lie-flat seat with all aisle access. That’s a simply staggering level of consistency, and I can’t think of any other airline that can promise that across their fleet.
The old regional business class seat
To fully appreciate the new seat, it’s necessary to first understand the context. The B787-10 is meant to replace the 22 A330-300s that currently ply regional routes. SQ’s started operating the A330 in March 2009, but this was only ever intended to be a stopgap until the A350s and B787-9s arrived (SQ would later send the 787-9s to Scoot and replace them with orders for the 787-10).
The A330s were acquired on an operating lease, and the airline wasn’t about to go and splash out lots of money outfitting planes it didn’t see as part of its long term plans. That stopgap thinking manifested itself in the resulting business class seat. Singapore Airlines went for a angled flat seat made by Weber (now part of Zodiac Aerospace), described excitingly in the seating catalog as “Weber 7811”.
The publicity photo mockups showed the seat in soothing, classy brown leather tones, but they still couldn’t hide that it was the very definition of underwhelming. Angled flat seats allow airlines to cram more high margin passengers into the business class cabin, but they’re inherently uncomfortable to sleep in. I mean, this dude looks like he’s practically sliding off his seat.
To make matters worse, SQ also deployed the seat on less-than-ideal routes like 6-7 hour red eyes to Seoul and Brisbane. Passengers weren’t loving it, and online forums were flooded with complaints by passengers who got the seat on a last-minute equipment swap.
The good news is that although the old regional business class seat can still be found on ~36 aircraft in the SQ fleet (mostly A330-300s, with a few 777-200s and 777-300s), it will progressively disappear as more 787-10s and regional A350s are delivered. And with that, we can close the door on Singapore Airline’s affair with the angled flat business class seat, which started with the Spacebed and ends with you sliding onto the floor in the middle of the night.
The new regional business class seat
There was rampant speculation as to what SQ’s new regional business class would look like. AusBT and RGN both outed the Stelia Aerospace Opal as the seat of choice, but as it turns out SQ opted to customize the Solstys III platform instead.
The new regional business class seat represents a US$350M investment for the airline (and that’s only to outfit 20 of 49 B787-10s), and it is estimated that that SQ will receive 8 787-10s in total in 2018.
Here’s the new cabin layout. There are 337 seats in total on the new 787-10s, with 36 in business and 301 in economy. The original seatmap is somewhat unhelpful, because it shows a generic 1-2-1 configuration.
The new seatmap uploaded to the site is a lot more useful because it shows which of the side seats are closer to the aisle, as well as which set of D&F center seats are the honeymoon seats and which are the divorce seats. With the exception of row 11 and 12, even numbered rows are honeymoon seats, odd numbered rows are divorce seats.
Of course, nothing beats seeing the seats in real life, which is why I found myself at Changi Airport on a Thursday evening…
PPS Club Event for 787-10 Launch
Every time a new cabin product is launched, Singapore Airlines organizes a special evening out for some of its PPS Club members (it’s always been a puzzlement to me how people are chosen given there are probably more PPS members than slots available; my guess is that those who got invites last time round to the new A380 launch sat this one out but it’s just speculation). The Milelion managed to guilt trip an ex-colleague into bringing him as a +1.
There were two separate events, one on Wednesday (the day the new 787-10 landed in Singapore) and one on Thursday. My ex-colleague landed an invite on Thursday, so we dutifully showed up at 7pm in Terminal 2 for a bus that would take us to the Jetquay CIP terminal for the event proper.
The bus journey was maybe three minutes, tops, and we pulled into the driveway of the CIP terminal. This was actually my first time in Jetquay, and I assume they must have blocked off the entire terminal for the event because if I were someone who had paid a premium for a private terminal experience, I’d be rather cheesed off to find about a hundred people there.
Singapore Girls greeted passengers as they got off the bus and ushered them over to the registration counter. At registration, everyone was given a lanyard with a name tag and the tour group they were assigned to for the aircraft viewing.
Say what you will about SQ, but these guys know how to throw an event. It was a party atmosphere, with the champagne (Piper Heidsieck) flowing freely and everyone having a great time mingling with the Singapore Airlines staff.
In one corner were several static displays showcasing different aspects of the service that customers could expect on the new 787-10.
The economy class meals were….economy class meals.
The business class amenities were of course more interesting- SQ has designed a brand new pillow for this seat, and as you’ll see later it’s really comfortable.
I noted in my Sydney Suites report that SQ had new Penhaligon’s toiletries in business class, and they made an appearance here. The very enthusiastic SQ rep positioned at the display told me that they were indeed getting rid of all the Miller Harris products across the fleet, not just on the new aircraft. Protip: the cologne and cream can be found in Penhaligon’s stores, but the facial mist is a product created specially for Singapore Airlines.
The business class food display featured many much loved items from the Book the Cook menu (no lobster thermidor though, because it probably doesn’t look good in plastic food form).
I had a chance to speak to the head of catering for Europe, and learned some very interesting things about the food served onboard. I was particularly curious about the assorted sushi dish they served- wasn’t serving raw fish on a plane asking for trouble? It turns out the fish isn’t really raw, because no raw food can be served in the cabin. It’s smoked first, and you’ll realise most of the items in the sushi set are cooked (eg the prawns, the egg cake, the squid). We talked at length about the various challenges faced with airline catering, like the eternally bad airline steak (cooked 30% on the ground and the finished on the airplane), the problem with salmon, the need to ensure consistency by securing a large batch of the same produce before offering it etc. These informal chats with SQ insiders were without a doubt a highlight of the evening.
An emcee took to the stage to start proceedings at around 8pm.
First, a video was played to show the journey the 787-10 made from Charleston back to Singapore, as well as the new cabin products within. Fun fact- in all the “flying” scenes, they were very clearly showing 9V-SCB, the second 787-10 that’s due to be delivered on 2 April. The actual aircraft delivered on Wednesday was 9V-SCA.
Then, there was a mercifully short speech…
…after which the curtain was raised on the new cabin products (this part could really have used a smoke machine)
There were actually two static displays- one for economy and one for business. I felt really bad for the Singapore Girls standing with the economy product because hardly anyone paid them any attention (although it meant a much easier night for them). Everyone’s attention was fixated on the new business class product.
I was the first up the dais to get a closer glimpse at the new seats.
The display was furnished with some minor service items like Evian water bottles, an empty teacup with mints and headphones to give it that extra feel of authenticity. There were also a few personal items, and it’s always amusing to see the choice of literature in display units. Why they chose John Naisbitt’s Global Paradox instead of a good ol’ Murakami I’ll never know.
This isn’t the most natural of environments to pass judgment on the new regional business class seat, so I’ll hold off most of the analysis until I show you the actual airplane photos further below. Just a few quick thoughts from me:
More than a few people have remarked that the seat looks awfully narrow. They’re not wrong- it’s 26 inches when the armrests are down, but ~20 inches otherwise as per AusBT. That’s definitely going to be an issue for more portly fliers, although the mitigating factor is that flight times in this seat will be 7-8 hours at the very most.
I mean, here’s me for scale (in the seat, not standing). I’d like to imagine I’m a relatively svelte guy, but it was a snug fit for me.
Privacy when fully reclined is very good, I have to say. That’s my ex-colleague in the seat, but his face is totally hidden from view from the “aisle”. The cocoon around your head is padded with a special material that absorbs sound; indeed, when you speak you can hear your voice echoing a bit. I was surprised by how much of the general din around me was cut out when fully reclined.
While touring the seat displays, I had the privilege to meet and chat with a veteran of the SQ product team who had been with the airline for 41 years. His enthusiasm for the job was infectious and we chatted for easily half an hour about all things SQ- the Skysuites on the 747, the demise of the Spacebed, the phasing out of the old regional business class, the design ethos behind the new one, the trickle down effect of premium cabin features (i.e. how today’s premium economy is business class 15 years ago, and today’s business class is first class 15 years ago) and so many other things.
Some key takeaways:
- Those slits in the door in new Suites are deliberate- it’s so the crew can discreetly check that passengers are wearing their seatbelts during turbulence and also to improve overall air flow
- Management is well aware of the design issues I highlighted with the new suites and are taking steps to address them.
- Where noise and light pollution are concerned, they’re actively instructing crew to relocate as much galley equipment as they can away from the last row of seats
- The overly tight bed belt is being looked at by the manufacturer and hopefully an alternative solution will be reached soon
- They’re working to fix the issue with the seat shuddering and sliding around during turbulence
- The awkwardness of facing the passenger across the aisle while dining has come up repeatedly and they’re thinking of ways to mitigate this
- Management is also aware of the fact that the seat controls in the 2017 business class seat need an inordinate amount of strength to push, and are working to tweak the sensitivity of the buttons
- At one point in time a door was part of the plans for the 2017 business class seat. That later got canned for reasons he was not at liberty to disclose. My all-time desired feature of in-seat lockers has been thought about, and may one day appear in a future seat
- Out of the blue I asked if Silkair would ever see anything other than recliner seats. His response: not impossible, but it would require Silkair to reposition itself towards more business-focused routes, because the leisure markets it leans towards can’t support such a configuration
- Seats go through so much testing that even changing a small feature may require complete recertification. Seats need to withstand 16Gs, they need to be relatively fire resistant and can’t give out too much smoke when burning (which might impair visibility in the event of a crash landing) or emit toxic vapors, they need to allow the crew to check on passenger safety belt compliance (how does Emirates do that in a fully enclosed suite, I wonder?). Every feature in your seat is not there by accident. It’s the product of many years of considered design and testing
The last point makes me wonder exactly to what extent the design issues with the new Suites can be fixed. I’ll do a separate post on this, but more reviews are coming in on the new Suites and I’m not the only one who noticed those problems.
Each attendee was assigned to a group for the aircraft tour. Every 10 minutes or so they’d call a new boarding group, which was a cute concept. I was part of the DEL group, which they decided to combine with BJS (the city code for Beijing- you might know the main international airport as PEK).
While waiting for our tour, I paid a visit to the buffet.
Here’s a sampling of the food on offer. It was decent enough, with a mix of Western, Chinese and Indian options.
There was also an assortment of desserts like cakes, pastries and a full service bar.
When the time came, we exchanged our photo ID for an airport pass and were bused across the tarmac for a short journey to 9V-SCA, parked in a remote bay.
Waiting on board was a set of flight crew (all trained on the new cabin products and ready to deploy to Osaka in May after the familiarization flights to Bangkok and KL in April) and more SQ corporate folks.
Although SQ has opted to go with overhead bins over the middle section as well as the sides (which makes sense because on shorter flights fewer people check their bags), there’s still a lot of vertical clearance which makes the cabin feel pleasantly spacious.
The bulkhead seats are located in row 11 and have more foot space than the rest of the seats. Those with large feet should definitely go for these.
If storage space is a concern, definitely get yourself one of 11A/K, because these seats come with extra storage cubbies. You can’t store items here during TTOL, but otherwise the space is all yours.
Let’s start with the seats in the middle first. As mentioned earlier, your seats are either together (honeymoon) or separated by the center consoles (divorce). Obviously solo travelers will want to go for the divorce seats, assuming all the seats at the side are gone. However, if you end up with a honeymoon seat, it’s not that big a deal because the central privacy divider is up by default for TTOL.
If there are empty middle rows, you can actually take a shortcut to cross over between aisles. It’s quite a squeeze but doable.
With the exception of row 11 and 12, even numbered seats at the side are closer to the aisle and odd numbered seats are closer to the window. Away from the aisle is of course more private, but even if those are gone you at least still have a very big privacy wing.
Coming back to the issue of width: here’s me again in one of the A seats. You can see that I’m just about the right size for the seats, but anyone larger would have to get used to the idea of no armrests in flight. For what it’s worth, I think the comfort of the new seat is spot on- it breathes well, it’s got good lumbar support and would definitely be a comfortable space for working.
The tray table is fairly large, although the side table does tend to get in the way of the crew when serving you. They may have to lean over in a bit of an unglam manner if they’re trying to reach a glass on the far side of the table.
Seat controls are touch sensitive with vibration feedback, just like the new A380. Unlike the new A380, they’re much easier to use, requiring only a light touch to activate.
The design of the seat makes it hard to photograph in full flat position from the aisle, but then again I believe that’s the idea for privacy’s sake. I tried out the seat in bed mode, and it’s quite comfortable. The only issue I’d highlight is that line break in the seat causes an ever so slight bump, which may be annoying to some.
As was the case back in the terminal, hardly anyone visited the economy class section. This gave me an opportunity to take one of the clearest cabin shots I’ve ever had.
Singapore Airlines has gone for 3-3-3 in economy, the same configuration they have on the A350. The B787 is more narrow than the A350, so one concern I had was that the economy seats would be more cramped. The SQ rep told me that they were the same width as on other aircraft, and the space had come from narrowing the aisles (see the above photo: those are indeed very narrow aisles). The internal joke among the crew is that they’re going to get more blue blacks from bumping into the armrests all the time.
Seats are 19 inches wide with 32 inches of pitch. They’re the slimline variety that’s favored by all airlines for lowering overall weight.
The IFE screen is 11.6 inches, and the seatback has a USB outlet, cradle for storing your phone and earphone port that can take any standard 3.5mm set. There’s a rectangular block of plastic where it looks like the NFC terminal should be, but there’s no indication that’s actually been installed. Also note that the ratio of in-seat power to seats is 2:3, although it is unlikely that everyone will need it at the same time (the exception is the bulkhead rows where everyone has their own in-seat power plug).
The IFE screens are touch, and this is a problem if you’re seated in the bulkheads where you can’t reach the screens even if you stretch all the way forward.
It’s for this reason that the bulkhead seats, and bulkhead seats alone have IFE controllers in the armrest (they’re the same IFE controllers you find in the new Suites, interestingly enough). I was surprised there’s no IFE controller in the rest of the economy seats (how do you play games then?) but I assume this has to do with weight reduction.
Only one thing left to do- the usual size comparison photo. Here’s how wide the seat is relative to me.
“Can you look less creepy?” my ex-colleague asked.
I thought about the question for a while and decided no, no I could not.
A final point: the bathrooms are pretty standard, as far as airlines go. There’s a no touch flush and a no touch tap.
Before long we had to return to the terminal, and I realised I was the last man on the plane holding everyone up. One last photo, one last look and I was on the bus headed back to the terminal.
And that was it for the evening. Everyone got a lovely goody bag before departing, which had a pair of headphones, two special edition bears, some TWG tea and a set of bone china cups and saucers.
All in all, it was a fantastic evening out. Width issues aside, the new 787-10 business class looks really impressive, overkill even, for some of the shorter routes it’s going to service. From my conversations on the sidelines with SQ corporate people it looks like the target to phase out the old regional business class seat is 3-4 years, although there are obviously many factors that can affect that.
Matthew’s booked himself a flight to Bangkok where the aircraft will first be flying as part of crew familiarization, so be on the lookout for that report soon.