Singapore Airlines’ B777-9 new cabin products: Some hints, few revelations

SIA's B777-9s are still a few years away, but designs for the new cabin products have already been locked in. Here's what we might see.

A Boeing 777-9 was in town last week for the Singapore Airshow, one of four prototype B777X aircraft that Boeing hopes will form the backbone of long-haul fleets for decades to come. 

N779XW has since flown back to Boeing Field International, but I had an opportunity to tour it before the airshow began, and it’s an exciting vision of the future of aviation. 

B777X parked at Changi
Inside the B777X

Also present at the media event was Singapore Airlines, who have 31 Boeing 777-9 aircraft on order: 20 initially, and the remaining 11 from a conversion of outstanding B787-10 orders.

While certification delays mean the B777-9 can only realistically be expected to join the SIA fleet in mid-2024 (and possibly as late as 2025), Singapore Airlines has already locked in the design for the new First and Business Class seats, with manufacturing to start in due course. 

Of course, they’re notoriously tight-lipped about such things. The handful of VIP customers consulted during the design process have signed watertight NDAs, and spokespeople have given away very little in the way of details. Most of what we think we know is based on educated guesses, given Singapore Airlines’ design philosophy, its existing products, and what competitors in the market are doing. 

I suppose it’s now my turn to speculate, having talked to Ng Yung Han, Singapore Airlines’ Vice President for Product Innovation, on the sidelines of the Boeing media event. 

I’ve met Yung Han at a few of these events, and he’s nothing if not careful with his words. We both appreciate the situation well enough to know there’s a certain dance to this. There are some questions I just have to ask (doors in Business Class?), and there are some questions he just can’t answer (we look at all the options when designing our Business Class seats).

It means you need to read between the lines with many of the responses, and my reading may or may not be correct. Take this with a liberal pinch of salt, I suppose is my point. 

Singapore Airlines B777-9 cabin products: Overall pointers

As close as you’ll get to seeing SIA colours on a B777-9 for the moment

Singapore Airlines is adopting a surprisingly sanguine attitude (at least publicly) towards the B777X programme delays, given how they originally expected to receive their first aircraft in 2021.

Yung Han portrays the delays as a mixed blessing, providing additional time for the airline to research and experiment with different concepts, materials and technologies.

That’s all good and well, but given the design for the new First and Business Class seats has already been locked in, one worries that the product now enters a 2-3 year limbo while waiting for the aircraft to be ready. A lot can happen in that time, and the last thing you’d want is to launch with a seat that’s already a couple of years behind. 

With COVID bringing hygiene concerns to the forefront, much thought has been given to adopting easier-to-clean materials with antibacterial properties. A lot of ideas have been thrown about, from one-time use trays, to seat fabrics with photochromic and thermochromic inks which change colour to indicate they’ve been cleaned, even far-UVC light to kill virus particles in the cabin.

Yung Han wouldn’t go into details on what specifically Singapore Airlines was looking at, but I’d fully expect to see these features emphasised when the final products are unveiled.

Singapore Airlines B777-9: First Class

Singapore Airlines is certainly not sparing the superlatives with its new First Class, with its CEO describing the product as a “quantum leap” from today’s offering. 

Yung Han stated numerous times that the focus for the new First Class is companion travel. That’s good to hear, because Singapore Airlines’ current Suites and First Class seats don’t exactly deliver on that front.

Take the First Class on the B777-300ER, for example. I like the seat, sure, but it’s very much a solo experience. Look at those privacy ears in the middle. It means you need to lean forward to talk to each other, and once your seat is in bed mode, you can forget about seeing your companion altogether. 

Singapore Airlines First Class on B777-300ER

In terms of design, I much prefer what ANA has done with its new First Class. Notice how there’s no privacy ears in the middle, meaning you can easily talk to each other. Don’t know your seatmate? No problem- raise the privacy divider all the way to the top. 

ANA THE Suite First Class on B777-300ER

Companion travel is also somewhat lacking on the A380 Suites. Yes, there’s a double bed, but dining is a distinctly solo experience. Why? Look at the dining setup- you’re both facing forward, so you’ll need to turn sideways to talk, and even then from across the bed. 

A380 Suites

Heck, you’d have a better conversion with the person across the aisle, because the design of the existing suite forces you to ogle them throughout the meal. 

A380 suites dining awkwardness
A380 Suites dining awkwardness

According to Yung Han, even though there will be “suite-like features” in the new First Class, the Suites are still a unique product for the A380.

I take that to mean there’ll be no separate seat/bed design for the B777-9, though it will incorporate double beds. This will keep the Suite as a unique “room in the sky” concept. 

It was also mentioned that companion travel in first class will be developed to go beyond just couple-seating and double beds.

That’s…intriguing. What else could enhance the companion travel experience? Dual output audio, allowing two passengers to watch the same movie at once? The option to combine two IFE displays into one bigger picture? A small space to…play Monopoly Deal?

Yung Han added that they won’t forget about the solo traveller’s need for privacy should he/she wish. 

I don’t think you can read that as anything other than a confirmation that the new First Class will have doors. Yup, I’m calling it right now. The main question I have is: will those doors be full height, stretching from floor to ceiling? That would give an unprecedented level of privacy, which only Emirates offers right now. Combine those with double beds, and the Monopoly Deal question gets a lot more pertinent. 

Door on the A380. Notice the gap at the top and bottom, and the slits

I asked if Singapore Airlines was planning to continue with a 4-seater First Class cabin, and though he wouldn’t confirm it, I just can’t see them going with two rows of 1-1-1 like what Emirates has done on their B777-300ERs, namely because it would mean giving up the double beds. And I don’t see them going back to an 8-seater cabin, because as large as the B777-9 is, it’d be hard to justify giving up precious Business Class real estate. 

Singapore Airlines B777-9: Business Class

While First Class will always grab the headlines, I’m much more interested to see what SIA has in store for Business Class. In particular, I want to see how close they’re willing to take the hard product to First Class, because the current comfort differential between the two products is marginal. A flat bed can’t get any flatter, after all. 

Singapore Airlines’ B777-300ER First and Business Class seats- show them to the layperson, and they’d have a hard time guessing which is which

When British Airways introduced the world’s first flatbed Business Class seat, the concern at the time was that it would start cannibalising First Class, and in a way, it has. Many airlines have made Business Class their flagship product, and those who have retained First Class have cut capacity significantly (witness SIA going from 8 to 4 seats on the B777-300ER, or 12 to 6 seats on the A380). 

Singapore Airlines 2017 Business Class seat- only available on the A380

But now we’ve settled into a state where First Class has found its own niche, for the super rich, celebrities, CEOs and ministers (when they don’t fly private, of course), as well as for people redeeming miles like you and me. To put it another way, whoever could be cannibalised has probably already been cannibalised, and while there will always be some kind of hard product gap between First and Business, I don’t think airlines are as concerned about pushing the envelope with Business as they were before.

Yung Han says that the new Business Class seat will have a refreshing, ultra modern design. That doesn’t exactly reveal much, but he also said the three areas of focus would be comfort, convenience and privacy. 

2013 Business Class seat in bed mode (flipped over)

Does comfort mean we’ve seen the last of flip-over seats? While he wouldn’t confirm this, I think the evidence speaks for itself. The last flip-over seat Singapore Airlines introduced was in 2013; subsequent models like the 2017 Business Class, 2018 Regional Business Class, and 2021 Regional Business Class all recline to flat.

2018 Regional Business Class seat in bed mode (recline to flat)

Customers have been quite clear on what they want. Even though flip-over seats provide a uniform sleeping service (versus reclining seats where there’ll be crevices where the parts join), it’s just not a popular form factor given you need to stand up to convert it, and the limited number of lounging positions. 

Does convenience mean improved connectivity? I believe so. There’s already a trend towards BYOD on aircraft, and while I’m certain SIA won’t eliminate IFE screens in favour of streaming content, they’re likely to make it easier for passengers to integrate their personal devices with the IFE system. You can already use your phone as a controller for KrisWorld, and the next step would be for features like NFC pairing and bluetooth streaming, allowing passengers to use their own wireless headphones. 

I’m also confident we’ll see inductive charging pads added to support wireless charging, getting rid of messy cables which can topple drinks and tangle with seatbelts. 

Does privacy mean doors? Of course he wouldn’t answer the question, but I think they’ll pretty much have to. Customers like doors, and so many of SIA’s rivals have made the leap– ANA, British Airways, Delta, and Qatar to name a few. If this is the seat that’s going to anchor SIA for the next decade, they’ll need to future proof it, and doors are the future. 

THE Room, ANA’s excellent new Business Class on the B777-300ER. Note the doors.

Doors may add a whole layer of certification complication, but hey, it’s not like they don’t have the time. 

Double bed on A380 Business Class

Singapore Airlines first experimented with a Business Class double bed on the A380, but it’s only available to 6 out of 78 passengers. From what I hear, the response has been positive, so I believe this will be a more prominent feature in the new B777-9 as well.

Singapore Airlines B777-9: Premium Economy Class

Yung Han told me that Singapore Airlines has always viewed Premium Economy as Economy plus, not Business minus (that is, closer to Economy than Business). I think that means you shouldn’t expect even angled flat seats in the near future. 

That said, he still believes there’s room for innovation in Premium Economy. If I had to guess, I’d say privacy is the next frontier. Existing Premium Economy seats, SIA’s included, don’t offer much in the way of privacy. 

Singapore Airlines A350-900 Premium Economy

Passengers are very exposed, and when you stand up, you can see practically the whole cabin (try standing up in Business Class, and all you’ll see is walls). I’m going to be doing a lot of nasty stuff on the plane- chewing, blowing my nose, sleeping with my mouth wide open. I don’t want anyone seeing that.

Moreover, with the post-COVID hypochondriac world we live in, you can’t overstate the psychological benefit of visual separation from your seatmates (even if you’re all breathing the same recycled air).

There’s a definite trend towards greater privacy in Premium Economy. Witness the Lufthansa Group’s proposed seat for their B747-8s, B777s and A340s, in particular the privacy wings around the headrest area.

Lufthansa’s proposed new Premium Economy seat

But the real quantum leap will come when we have wraparound privacy wings and staggered seating, the type the Haeco Eclipse was meant to offer. It was rumoured that Emirates was selecting this as their Premium Economy product, but as it turns out, it’s flydubai who will debut the seat as a sort of regional Business Class. 

Haeco Eclipse

This is a seat I could definitely see myself on for daytime flights where being productive is the main goal.

Singapore Airlines B777-9: Economy Class

Well, not for long…

Singapore Airlines deserves credit for sticking to 9-across Economy on its B777-300ERs at a time when most of its competitors were cramming in an extra seat, but if you ask me, 10-across on the B777-9 is all but inevitable.

Yung Han simply said that “Boeing’s standard configuration is 10 abreast for this aircraft”, which is pretty much all you need to know. 

After all, the average Economy Class passenger doesn’t know about 9 or 10-across when making a booking, he/she is more likely to look at fares. If 10-across enables lower fares, that’s what’s going to win the day. 

While the B777-9 cabin is four inches wider than a B777-300ER, that’s not going to offset the loss in individual seat width from adding an additional seat. SIA’s current Economy Class seats on the B777-300ER are 19 inches wide, so we’ll probably see a reduction to around 17 inches in a 3-4-3 configuration. 

Qatar Airways B777-300ER Economy Class: 10 across

That’s unlikely to be a competitive disadvantage, mind you, given that Emirates, Etihad and Qatar already do 10-across on their B777-300ERs. Singapore Airlines can still win on schedule and service, though it will mark the end of an era in some ways. 

Yung Han added that KrisWorld would evolve to be more than just a platform for movies and games, incorporating greater connectivity and integration with onboard services.

What this means exactly, I’m not quite sure (no, I think a gaming chair with haptic feedback might be a bit much to ask). It could just mean more support for BYOD, as I covered earlier, but it could also mean the seat controls go digital.

I find that hard to imagine though, since motorised seat controls would add extra weight, and you don’t really need them in Economy where the seats are relatively simpler. There’s a reason why the manual recline button has remained an evergreen fixture. 

Conclusion

In a best case scenario, Singapore Airlines will take delivery of its first B777-9 in 2024, three years behind schedule. It means the B777-300ERs will have to serve a little longer than intended, and while their premium cabin seats are still competitive enough, anything that’s a decade old is going to show some kind of tiredness. 

Even though Singapore Airlines has a historical bias for conservatism (so anyone hoping for showers and onboard bars is going to be disappointed), I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us. 

What are your predictions for Singapore Airlines’ B777-9 cabin products?

Aaron Wong
Aaron Wong
Aaron founded The Milelion to help people travel better for less and impress chiobu. He was 50% successful.

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SQ Flyer

So the next-gen F seat might have doors, companion seating for meals, enough privacy for solo travellers, and the option of being converted into a double bed. Why does that sound like the 2006 Suites?

Solo

According to SQ, it will go beyond what they have and had – more than just couple seating and double bed. So I assume it will be more than their previous 2006 Suites. But this is the new First Class.

Paul

A flat bed can’t get any flatter indeed, but the current products (particularly in the Suites current and old) can certainly have beds that are more like beds than super-firm benches.

JW19

Man the inevitable 10 abreast, 14 hours in one of those and you wished you hadn’t got off the ground. Hopefully scarifising some aisle space and slimmer carts cout yield an 18 incher, it makes tremendous difference.

Last edited 4 months ago by JW19
Hana

Indeed 10 abreast is the standard for this aircraft. Don’t think any airline will deviate from this – not even Singapore Airlines

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