Fun fact: apart from Singapore Airlines, no other airline has a First Class lounge in Singapore. Sure, British Airways operates the Conorde Bar (a watered-down version of the Concord Room) at their Terminal 1 lounge, but that’s more an appendix than an aspiration. Space constraints, the general demise of First Class, and Singapore Airlines’ stranglehold on Changi have meant few carriers see the potential for a First Class facility here.
Back in October 2018, Qantas announced it was opening a First Class lounge to complement its existing Business Class facility in Singapore. Work started in April 2019, and barely nine months later, the lounge has officially opened to the public.
I visited the media launch of the lounge yesterday, and while it’s no substitute for an actual “combat situation” review (which I’ll hopefully do in the near future), I have to say that Qantas is really throwing down the gauntlet to Singapore Airlines.
I’ll even go so far as to say that as of right now, Qantas has the best First Class facility at Changi. That sounds improbable, but that’s how good the lounge is. The Private Room may be quiet and refined, like a gentleman’s club of yore, but the Qantas First Lounge boasts stunning design, an incredible menu and individual shower suites, making it the winner for me.
Getting to the Qantas First Lounge
The Qantas First Lounge opens from 2.30 p.m to midnight daily, and is located near the D gates in Terminal 1. This means you’ll be able to access it if you’re flying from Terminals 1, 2 or 3. Terminal 4 passengers (Cathay Pacific) are out of luck.
Once you clear immigration, look for the escalator near the Hermes store and head up one floor.
Get off the escalator, turn right…
…and hello dolly.
Who gets access?
The following passengers get access to the Qantas First Lounge in Singapore. The full rules of Qantas Lounge access eligibility can be found here.
- First Class passengers departing on Qantas, Emirates or oneworld flights
- Qantas Platinum One and Platinum holders departing on a Qantas, Jetstar or oneworld flight
- Emirates Skywards Platinum holders departing on an Emirates flight
- oneworld Emerald passengers departing on oneworld flights
- Passengers arriving on an international long haul (>5 hours) First Class oneworld flight and connecting to another short haul flight, regardless of what cabin the subsequent flight is in
It’s the last point that most travellers (and sadly, some lounge dragons) are unaware of. If I’m flying LHR-SIN-KUL with LHR-SIN in First Class and SIN-KUL in Economy, I should be able to get access to the First Lounge, notwithstanding the fact that my next flight is in Economy. This isn’t how Star Alliance does it (all that matters with them is the departing flight), but it’s the oneworld way.
The Qantas First Lounge measures just over 1,000 sqm, with a capacity for 240 guests. This makes it less than half the size of the Business Lounge (2,200 sqm for 570 guests), albeit with a slightly higher sqm/guest ratio.
As per the press release, the build was designed by David Caon in collaboration with Kelvin Ho of design firm Akin Atelier, and features a number of Singaporean influences across the look and feel of the lounge as well as the food and beverage offering. Materials like Carrara marble and oak are used, and the color tone is kept calm and neutral to minimize any sense of busyness.
The entire lounge is actually one long corridor, broken into relaxation and work spaces in the front, and dining in the rear.
Relaxation and work spaces
For resting and relaxing, you’ll find handsome mustard colored leather sofas interspersed with darker armchairs, situated around coffee tables. These are good for sitting and chatting, but not particularly suited for laptop work.
For those who prefer to be left alone, there are a few dark green semi-private lounge chairs.
Those may not be the most conducive for work, but thankfully Qantas has provided proper areas for that. There’s a long co-working table, with some greenery for additional privacy.
You won’t have any issues charging your device in this lounge, as universal power outlets and USB ports are in plentiful supply. Some may take a bit of hunting to find, but believe me, they’re there.
About halfway down the lounge, you’ll find the main bar. This signals the transition between to the dining area.
Qantas has allocated 157 of the 240 seats in the lounge to dining, with a mixture of two-tops and four-tops.
My concern is how much “wastage” there’ll be when it comes to seats. Most business passengers will be travelling solo, and each of them effectively represents a 50% capacity wastage on a two-top. It wasn’t much of an issue at 4 p.m, but I’d be interested to see how the lounge does crowd control during crunch time.
Perhaps they’ll redirect solo travelers to some of these individual seats located at high top counters in the dining area.
Some of these bar counters even boast a partial view of the open kitchen, where it’s always busy. When I first read “open kitchen”, I thought it meant the kind where the chefs and all their activity are in full view of the guests.
Instead, this is more like a semi-open kitchen. You can see what’s going on through an opening at the pass, but you have to be standing at the right spot and angle to observe things.
The highlight of the lounge, without a doubt, is the dining experience. There is no buffet here- with the exception of a small self-serve counter of fruits and nuts, everything else is dine-on-demand.
The F&B is overseen by Neil Perry of Rockpool Grill fame, who has been consulting for Qantas since 1997. Incidentally, I’ve always wondered why Singapore Airlines partners with celebrity chefs in the air, but not on the ground. After all, people can’t really appreciate good food in a pressurized cabin with a chronic case of dry mouth.
The menu features classic favorites from Qantas’ Sydney, Melbourne and Los Angeles lounges, as well as locally-inspired cuisine created especially for Singapore. It will change seasonally, depending on what produce is available.
After you’re seated, the Sofitel-trained staff bring a cold towel and some olives.
I waited about 10 minutes for my starter, a grilled skate in browned sambal butter with capers and calamansi.
Now, that’s just a fancy way of saying “sambal stingray”. But that’s kind of like saying the Mona Lisa is basically a painting- it doesn’t do justice to the twist the team has put on a Singapore classic. It was crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, the heat in the sambal butter wasn’t “dumbed down”, and the bed of wilted spinach wasn’t just for decoration, it was delicious in its own right.
And how could I say no to the famous salt and pepper squid, loved at Qantas lounges the world over? The green chilli dipping sauce was the highlight of this dish by far- I think they put fish sauce inside, because it reminded me of something you might have in Thailand. It was so good I didn’t even bother touching the aioli.
Another specialty item for lounge in Singapore is the laksa, served with crayfish, rice noodles, bean sprouts and egg. I’ve had the laksa before in the Qantas Business Lounge (it’s served there sans crayfish), but I swear they’ve upgraded the recipe. This broth was much richer and thicker, and the crayfish was fresh and springy.
Grilled barramundi was my other main, with charred lettuce, croutons and caper, anchovy and parsley butter. Just like the stingray, the skin was crispy, the flesh was moist, and while I didn’t know you could char lettuce (Gordon Ramsay has some choice words about that), I can’t argue with the results.
I only had room for one dessert (curse my well-toned stomach), so I went for the chocolate fudge cake with sesame sorbet, pocky sticks and milo. Again, you can see how the team has tried to weave in local influences- and it worked. This was a sensational dessert.
I couldn’t find fault with any of the dishes; they were all outstanding. This wasn’t “good for lounge” food, this was good food.
Here are a few additional photos from the press release:
Be sure not to miss the drinks in this lounge, because they’re top notch too. There are specially crafted drinks like a Calamansi Mojito (white rum, calamansi and mint), a Merlion Blush (vodka, cranberry and grapefruit), and a Gin Spritz (aperol, Rockpool Four Pillars gin, and sparkling wine).
Champagne is of course available, but the focus is really on Australian wines. You’ll find offerings from Clare Valley, Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Barossa Valley, among other regions in Australia.
How does it compare to The Private Room?
The dine-on-demand experience is certain to draw comparisons to Singapore Airlines’ equivalent offering- The Private Room within the First Class lounge at Terminal 3.
Food-wise, there’s no fight at all. The Qantas First Lounge is head and shoulders above The Private Room in terms of quality and creativity.
A simple case study is how they approach local cuisine. Qantas takes the idea and jazzes it up it in an exciting way- their version of sambal stingray was excellent, and they elevated an already good laksa by throwing in crayfish.
Singapore Airlines’ approach feels less like an effort to showcase our rich food heritage and more like an attempt to cut cost. Here’s a prawn mee I had in The Private Room. Note the small, frozen prawns, the tepid broth and fatty strip of pork. This was a disgrace to the prawn mee I know and love. It was something you might expect in a contract lounge, not the flagship lounge of a multi-award winning airline.
Put the Qantas and Private Room menus side-by-side, and the difference becomes even more apparent. The Private Room has one or two “hero dishes”, but beyond that, it’s just a paint-by-numbers approach to food.
When you see a dish on the Qantas menu, you know it’s there for a reason. When you see congee with cheap fish and mass-produced dim sum on the Private Room menu, you get the feeling that some dishes were thrown in just to round it out.
So I’d love it if the refreshed Private Room takes an earnest approach to showing the world what Singapore cuisine can be. Why not a chilli crab pasta? Or a lobster hor fun? Or King prawn hokkien mee? There’s no reason why you can’t keep the local foods we know and love, while elevating them with premium ingredients.
Where The Private Room does have the beating of the Qantas First Lounge is the champagne. You can get Dom Perignon and Piper-Heidsieck Rare Millesime over there, but Qantas has a relatively more pedestrian selection of Joseph Perrier Brut, Tattinger Brut Reserve and Tattinger Prestige Rose, all non-vintage. Those are Business Class champagnes, at best, and not something you’d associate with a First Class lounge.
The Qantas First Lounge has a total of 10 shower suites in the lounge, each with an ensuite toilet. The auntie manning the shower counter told me that the peak period starts from 5 p.m onwards, so plan accordingly.
These bathrooms feature a “skylight”, which Qantas says is meant to replicate natural daylight. This supposedly helps the body clock adjust as guests transition through multiple time zones.
There’s also a huge accessible shower room for handicapped guests. It’s easily the size of two regular shower suites.
Parents traveling with infants will be glad to know there’s a nursing room with a large counter top. This doubles as the handicapped toilet.
All toilets are individual cubicles with full height doors, so no one will hear your secret shame.
In contrast, The Private Room does not have individual shower suites. All showers are located inside the main toilet, and don’t have toilets of their own. Until recently, showers had unbranded soap dispensers with generic sticky labels for “shampoo” and “soap”, the kind you might find in a gym (these have mercifully been replaced by much nicer looking Spa Espirit bottles).
The renovated Private Room will have individual shower suites, but it’s staggering to think this has been the state of affairs since it opened in 2008.
The Qantas First Lounge has a seating area and a dining area. There’s no spa, no slumber rooms, no cabana tubs, no golf simulator, race car track or any of the other frills you might see at other over-the-top lounges. So why on earth did I like it so much?
I think it comes down to the quality of what’s there. The dining experience was one of the best I’d ever had in a lounge (and I ordered my mains after the lounge opened to the general public at 2.30 p.m, so I was getting the same dishes any other traveler would. I think it was even better than the media preview food, which was portioned out into smaller plates, some of which were soggy from sitting out for a while), the decor is gorgeous and the service is impeccable. It’s fantastic for an outstation lounge, and the kind of place I’d come early just to enjoy.
My main concern is the lackluster champagne options and potential overcrowding in the evening (a problem which plagued the Business Lounge). The former can be improved, the latter is what it is. Will the lounge still run smoothly when it’s packed and the kitchen is backed up? Will shower wait times be reasonable? Will the staff be able to maintain their levels of service when juggling multiple requests at once? That’s the key question, and if you’re heading through the lounge at peak period, do let us know what it’s like.
Singapore Airlines is in the midst of a S$50 million revamp of its Terminal 3 lounges which should finish by mid-2021. Will they be better than the Qantas First Lounge? I certainly hope so, but in the meantime, this is the new king of Changi lounges.
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