Saturday, November 12, 2016

Flying Xtra Long on the Xtra Wide

San Francisco to Singapore Non Stop on Singapore Airlines’ Inaugural A350 Flight


Credit:  Singapore Airlines

On October 23, 2016, Singapore Airlines re-started non stop service between the United States and Singapore using the brand new Airbus A350-900 XWB (Xtra Wide Body).  San Francisco International (SFO) had the honor of being the first U.S. airport to receive the new ultra long haul service.  It also marked the A350’s first service to the Western U.S.  

Being a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I had to take part in this historical flight.  I took advantage of the special introductory pricing of $1500 round-trip (including taxes) in Premium Economy.  By comparison, prices in other cabins were $4700 round-trip in “New” Business Class and $1050 round-trip in “New” Economy.

When I finally committed to the trip, there were no more window seats available in the rather small 24-seat, three-row Premium Economy cabin.  Windows were popular: none would ever open up.  I took advantage of Book the Cook or “BTC”, a popular premium class pre-flight meal ordering service now extended to Premium Economy.  Even though the meal is still “economy”, as you will see later, the quality and presentation of the BTC meal seemed to be nicer and a notch higher quality.

For reference, here were the Premium Economy BTC meal choices on my flights:




Pre-Flight


The inbound flight SQ32 to SFO was arriving more than one hour early due to favorable tailwinds.  As a result, I had to leave early for the airport.  At SFO, it was obvious that the airport was very proud of this occasion.  Banners and posters announcing the service were on display everywhere.  I was excited to be part of the historical occasion.





At the ticket counter, staff was still busy setting up; it was still early.  At 8:40 am, exactly 3.5 hours prior to departure, the counters officially opened.





I went up to my friend / fellow spotter / gate agent Alex who checked me into the flight. Alex thoroughly went over all the information with me: gate event, free 15 Mb wifi coupon for the flight, priority security lane, and direction to the lounge.



Mr. Zsau, Singapore Airlines’ Vice President Northwest Operations (as I later found out) was at the counter actively greeting passengers and assisting with the check-in process. He provided me a valuable tip on where to view the arriving flight – not at the gate, not in the lounge, but as it turned out, where I would normally go as a spotter.

Shortly after 9 am, I had my first ever sighting of an Airbus A350 as aircraft 9V-SMF taxied around the corner at the G concourse.



As an ardent fan of the 787 Dreamliner, it pains me to say it – but the A350 actually does look stylish.  The bullet shaped nose and the black “panda” windshield were very distinctive.




Moreover, the curvaceous tapered winglet is very elegant.  It is clear why that winglet is an oft-used element when advertising the A350.  Aircraft –SMF, delivered only nine days prior, was tasked to undertake the inaugural flights.  Not only because it was the airlines’ newest A350, it is also the 10,000th Airbus aircraft, making this historical flight even more significant.




As part of the inaugural activities, I was invited to the SilverKris Lounge.  (Note:  lounge access is not included with Premium Economy ticket.)  Despite it being a relatively small lounge, it was comfortable and tastefully decorated.





There was an excellent selection breakfast food items (but it was still too early for Laksa) and adult beverages (not too early for some).  View of the even number G-gates (a view us spotters don’t normally have) can also be had.  I had just enough time for a quick bite of quiche and use the wifi to download the press kit before heading down to the gate for the inaugural festivities.




Gate G93 was decked out with more A350 signage, Singapore Airlines logos, and flowers.  With the introduction of “game changing” aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus 787 over the past years, airlines have made a big deal over new aircraft launches.  It is now expected that a service launch - especially one with new aircraft - will have a big hoopla.  As an airline enthusiast, I am appreciative that airlines and airports realize the significance of these events and go out of their way to make them special.






Consistent with Singapore Airline’s elegance, beautifully presented appetizers, bite-sized sandwiches, and desserts were available for all passengers.




With a thundering drumbeat and clacking of cymbals, lion dancers soon appeared.  The lion was playful and interacted with the crowd, much to everyone’s delight.  After unraveling a “Good Luck” banner, obligatory speeches followed.




SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel introduced the speakers:  SFO Chief Operating Officer Jeff Littlefield and Singapore Airlines Regional Vice President Americas Sek Eng Lee.  The event culminated in a ribbon cutting.






Before boarding, I had the two “Singapore Girls” present pose a photo with me.  Created the 1972, Singapore Airlines’ stewardesses are known as “Singapore Girls”. Wearing a distinctive “sarong kebaya” created by French fashion designer Pierre Balmain, “Singapore Girls” are featured prominently by the airline as a symbol of their Asian heritage and high quality service.  Recognized worldwide, “Singapore Girls” have become a global icon.





The Flight



Personal Achievements:
  • 1st Airbus A350 flight
  • 1st SFO inaugural flight
  • Longest SFO flight (distance and duration) 

Aircraft:  Airbus A350-900 
Registration:  9V-SMF (msn 54)
10,000th Airbus Built
Aircraft Delivered (age):  14 Oct 2016 (9 days)

Flight:  SQ 31
San Francisco (SFO) – Singapore (SIN)

Scheduled Departure – Arrival:  11:40 am – 7:10 pm
Actual Departure – Arrival:  11:41 am (Gate G93) – 7:23 pm (Gate A1)
Depart SFO Runway 28L:  12:04 pm
Arrive SIN:  7:17 pm
Duration:  16 hours 12 minutes
Loads:
Business and Premium Economy:  100% full
Economy: ~90% full



I was given an opportunity to pre-board the aircraft to take photos of the cabin. After picking up my gift bag, I stepped foot on board my very first A350.

“New” Business Class is in a 1-2-1 configuration and has 42 seats over two cabins.  Seat pitch is 51 inches and the airline claims it is the industry’s widest flat bed.  When extended, bed length is 78 inches.  These redesigned seats have increased recline and additional space for storage.

Seatback monitor is 18-inches.








Launched in 2015, the 24-seat 2-4-2 configuration Premium Economy cabin offers additional space over Economy – 18.5 to 19.5 inches width and 38 inches pitch, with legrests and footbar.  A large 13.3-inch personal monitor compliments the distinctive seat styling.





Finally, the 187-seat 3-3-3 configuration “New” Economy Class features a redesigned backrest and headrest.  Seat back monitor is also larger at 11.1 inches; seat pitch is 32 inches.






After running around feverishly taking photos before boarding (all the while staying out of the way of the crew and other reporters), I finally settled into my seat.  The airbag seatbelt was a first for me in economy.  The seat cushion also felt a bit hard.




Seat pocket was stocked with typical items though there was no Duty Free catalog (no Duty Free sales either). Noise cancelling headphone (ala Business Class) was a nice amenity.  The netting above the seat pocket was very handy and that was the space I utilized the most for storage.  The inaugural flight, cabin-specific menu was an unexpected but a nice touch.




Surprisingly enough, the Captain provided quite a detailed routing for our flight in the welcome announcement.  It was a nice gesture for the avgeeks, but isn’t it just straight across the middle of the Pacific Ocean?  The weather enroute was expected to occasionally bumpy and Singapore was cloudy with thunderstorms.

My 13.3” touchscreen seat-back monitor was delightfully large and comfortable to read from a distance.  The Panasonic eX3 in-flight entertainment (IFE) system was very responsive.  The map showed expected flying time of 15 hours 45 minutes with distance of 8,446 miles.  The remote control had a large color touchscreen and worked like a smart phone.







Actually, I did not realize this until later in the flight, but I could connect to the IFE with my smartphone and use it as a remote control.  Holding onto my own phone was a lot more comfortable than holding on to the bulky in-seat remote.

From my phone, I could see the entire IFE selection and create my playlist straight there.  Screens drilling down each layer were responsive and the video controls worked well – majority of the time.  After waking my phone from to sleep, it took a few seconds to reconnect back to wifi resulting in a wait/lag of the IFE control.  During those situations, it was simply faster/easier to use the at-seat or on-screen control.



iPhone screenshots


Engine start was not boomy on this Rolls-Royce Trent powered A350.  After engine start, a curious electrical whine followed, not unlike during a 787 engine start.  As I later found out on my return flight seated next to the window, it probably was the sound of lowering flaps.

We taxied swiftly and without delay to Runway 28L.  When we power up for takeoff, there was swift acceleration - a kick in the pants.  Rotating near the S-F-O water tanks, the entire takeoff run was very quiet.  In fact, climb out was extremely quiet as well – I was very impressed!  As with all non-U.S. carriers I have flown, seatbelt sign went off as soon as we reached 10,000 feet.

Flight attendants passed out amenity kits.  Disappointingly, it only contained a toothbrush and a pair of flight socks (orange – matching the pillow).  “Not my color” according to my seat mate, but he put them on anyway.  At the least, I expected earplugs and eyeshades.



An announcement was made that champagne will be served to celebrate our inaugural flight.  Flight attendants came around the cabin and served a choice of Champagne, beer, orange juice, or water.  There was no toast, but here was my rather uninteresting OJ toasting this inaugural flight.



When we reached our initial cruising attitude of 36,000 feet (our final would be 40,000 feet), the cabin lights dimmed.  The cabin temperature was quite cold.  I contemplated getting my sweater from my bag in the overhead, but decided to wrap myself up in a blanket instead.  That blanket would become my close companion for the next 16 hours.  I noticed others complained about the temperature to the flight attendant as well, but apparently it was something that they could not fix.   
We were served two packets of peanuts and I expected a beverage service to follow.  But it never did, which I thought it was rather strange.  Perhaps the Champagne service earlier was it.



Lunch service followed about a half hour later.  The meal cart came by and a “Singapore Girl” confirmed my “BTC” order of Korean Beef Ribs.  Galbi is one of my favorite food items and I was very curious how the in-flight version would fare.



Meal tray was lined with linen, which gave a touch of class.  I took a peek at the other trays in the cart – the Economy Class meals trays do not have linen.  Although I did not see the Economy Class menu, I highly suspect the warm meal choices between Premium Economy and Economy were the same.




For my beverage, I ordered citrus breeze.  Even though it was not something the flight attendants could handily make from their drink cart, the “Singapore Guy” happily took my order and later delivered it from the “bar”.  The citrus breeze was delicious and was very refreshing.  It is something I have to remember for future flights!

As luck would have it, we encountered bumpy air and the seat belt sign lit up.  Seems to always happen during mealtime.

The tabbouleh couscous salad appetizer was very tasty and felt very high-end – appropriate for the “premium” feel.  The crackers, unfortunately, did not fare too well.  They were cracked and crumbly and most of my cheese from Oregon had to go without their crunchy companion.

On to the main.  The beef short ribs were very flavorful, cooked with the as expected salty yet fruity kalbi sauce.  Unfortunately, the meat had lots of tendon and I felt like I was chewing rubber bands with my meat.  That was disappointing.  Despite the extra width of these Premium Economy seats (no more armrest fights!), cutting with a fork and knife on a small tray was still a challenge.  Not wanting to make a mess by spilling my tray or elbowing my neighbor, I opted to enjoy my ribs by using my fingers instead.  I can say that I have had worse cuts of ribs in restaurants, so I rate it as “not too bad”.  The kimchi rice was very tasty, as was the clear noodles (“japchae”).  Overall, the meal was “good” for being flavorful and unique tasting (that is, not ‘standard airplane fare’), though the rib was not the best of cuts.

Ice cream quickly followed after I completed my meal.  I was expecting my used tray to be picked up at the same time, but it was not.  In fact, though out the entire meal service, one of the “Singapore Girls” serving my aisle seemed frazzled – not everything went smoothly.  First day jitters perhaps, but I really felt for her.  When the bar cart finally showed up to pick up the dirty trays, I ordered coffee to go with the Haagen-Dazs.  The coffee was very strong, just the way I like it. Based upon my experience later in my trip, I can safely conclude that Singaporeans prefer their coffee strong.



“Singapore Girl” quickly returned for coffee and tea refills.  I was expecting a simple top off of my cup.  Instead I got nicely presented tray.  It’s the little touches like this that makes flying Singapore special.



With the meal service now complete, flight attendants passed out water bottles and the cabin darkened and settled into a hushed silence.

After that hectic morning, I finally had a chance to checkout my goodie bag.  Wow – what a nice surprise!  There was an inaugural flight certificate, a batik colored luggage belt, a commemorative leather luggage tag from Gump’s (go ahead, look them up, I have never heard of them either), and the best part, a 1/400 diecast model of the A350!  Granted, the model did not have a registration number nor did it have the 10,000th Airbus logo, but it was a lovely gesture on Singapore’s part to provide such a valuable collection of memorabilia.




While I was unpacking my goodies, a couple “Singapore Girls” took note and gathered around me. We unpacked boxes together and tried to figure out what was in them.  This was really something unique that I have only experienced on a handful of airlines.  The genuine care and interest that crew members extend really makes a huge difference in the flight experience.  I asked them to have the model box signed by the pilots and the menu signed by the flight attendants.  “Singapore Girls” were more than happy to oblige.



As I was moving my stuff up and down the center overhead bins, I found they were high and away from the aisle, making them hard for me to reach.  I had to step on the foothold and hang over the person seated.  I later figured out why:  the bins were designed to go over the three-seats in Economy instead of the four-seats in Premium Economy, that’s why they were difficult to reach for my short stature. 

Premium Economy cabin was at a nice location where there was very little foot traffic.  Located immediately behind Business Class, all Economy lavatories were aft of this cabin.  Unfortunately, the back of this small cabin was also the bulkhead location for the bassinets in Economy.  On this flight, there were at least two crying babies.  I may have heard a third, but that could have been a screaming toddler.  Nevertheless, “Singapore Girls” were helpful to the parents, holding and playing with the babies (awe, so cute!).

As expected, even the Economy Class lavatory was stocked with amenities: lotion, mouth wash, toilet water, comb, and toothbrush were available for your disposal.  I think Airbus tried to outdo the 787’s automatic toilet covers here; the A350 has an automatic trash bin lid!





Between meals, there was frequent water and snack tray service.  I opted to pay personal visits to the galley instead.  I was curious whether there was an Economy snack bar.  There was not.  Despite that, it was a nice excuse to chat with the “Singapore Girls” and “Singapore Guys”.  Even though they were always busy preparing something, they were always happy to help me decide on my snack selection.  I went with a bag of Sun Chips and an apple.

A bit over eight hours into the flight, sunrise lighting filled the cabin and flight attendants distributed hot towels in preparation for dinner.  Not wanting to have another beef dish, I decided to abandon my BTC meal and told my “Singapore Girl” that I instead wanted the chicken parmesan off the menu.  She did not hesitate fulfilling my request.  For my drink, I got Coke Zero.  The “Singapore Guy” offered me the full can without asking – nice!

Just like the appetizer at lunch, the smoked salmon appetizer for dinner was delicious.  It tasted fresh and gave a nice high-end feel.  Unfortunately, just like the previous meal, my cracker was broken.  The most disappointing part of the meal, however, was the chicken parmesan.  The breading on the chicken was damp (which was what I was afraid of) and the whole dish tasted like your run-of-the-mill reheated frozen microwave airline meal.  I regretted not sticking with my BTC order.  The dessert – despite it looking like strawberry cheesecake – was not.  Looking back at the menu, it was panna cotta.  It didn’t taste like that either.   Once again, I had to wait for a while before my dirty tray was picked up.  I give this meal barely a passing grade.  The only saving grace was the appetizer and the good service.



After clocking almost 10 hours, we finished dinner. Lights in the cabin dimmed again.  On a typical long-haul flight, this is the point where you tell yourself, “alright, we are almost there, maybe top it off with a nap”.  I looked at the map, 6.5 hours to go.  Damn!  Seeing me looking at the map, my seatmate asked, “how many hours to go?”  I broke him the bad news, “six more hours.”  He replied, “at least there is plenty of time to use that free internet voucher”.




We thus connected to the satellite internet whilst between Guam and the Philippines.   It would be a good test.  I had worked on my inaugural flight article throughout the flight.  It would be fun to get the article and photos submitted prior to landing.  Alas the wifi was slow.  I did not have problems sending or receiving emails, but the wifi was not usable when I tried to upload photos to my Dropbox.



Too bad, after spending all that time on my article, it was all for naught.  I gave up on the wifi and tried to go to sleep.  Despite having legrest and footrest, and the fact that I was able to recline all the way (no one behind me), I was not able to get comfortable.  The footrest was perfectly placed while seated upright.  However when the seat was reclined, the position of the legrest and footrest didn’t line up: my feet just hung off the edge.  In addition, the legrest did not raise to a high enough angle to put myself in a comfortable “Z” position.  I was disappointed.  That on top of the two babies screaming behind me…there was no way…

About 2.5 hours to go, the “Singapore Girl” brought the entire snack tray out.  It had the same selection as I saw in the gallery previously:  Tuna or vegetarian sandwich, apples, Sun Chips, cookies.  Another round?  Sure, why not…what else was there to do.




Just a short half-hour later, another snack tray came out.  But this time, it was the official “refreshment” portion of the menu: tuna or vegetarian wrap.



One hour to go (finally), cabin lights came back up.  The captain announced the weather in Singapore was fair but it had just rained.  Temperature was 26C.  We expected an early 7:05 pm arrival.  He concluded, “thank you for flying the inaugural flight from San Francisco to Singapore.”  After “prepare for landing”, we made deviations from our approach due to traffic congestion.  The captain kept us informed of the reason for the maneuvers, which resulted in a slight delay to our arrival.
A disconcertingly loud “thud” announced the lowering of the main gears.  A “clank” followed with the closing of the gear doors.  Looking at the pictures later – yeah, I was seated over the main gears.



After 8,997 miles, more than 16 hours after departing SFO, we made a heavy landing on a wet runway at SIN at 7:17 pm local time.  After a short taxi, we arrived at Gate A1 in Terminal 3.  During deplaning, flight attendants curtained off Business Class to ensure all passengers there have deplaned before us commoners rush the front cabin.  Considering we were only 13 minutes late, there was a number of people running off to their connection to Hyderabad.




The Return


I had hoped to get an upgrade to Business Class on my return flight to SFO.  Alas it was full, so Premium Economy again - on the same airplane even.  As such, I will only highlight some of the differences.

Pre-Flight


At Singapore Airlines’ home airport, Premium Economy has its own dedicated row.  The counter agent was very helpful, looking into my standby upgrade (“sorry, Business is full”).  I requested relocating to a bulkhead window seat in 31K (normally blocked).  She gladly made a phone call to have the seat released to her.




Security check in Singapore took place at the boarding gate, which opened one hour prior to departure.  Once I was in the gate hold area, however, I was stuck there (which meant no more shopping and restaurants).  It’s best to hold off your trip to the gate as late as you can.




Thirty minutes before departure, boarding commenced with Business Class.  To my pleasant surprise, Premium Economy boarded with Star Alliance Gold on the second group.  After boarding, it was apparent that this would be a light load to San Francisco.  The fully loaded front half of the plane probably paid for the flight on this Thursday; I estimate we were only 50% full in the back (both Premium Economy and Economy).

Despite not being in Business, having a bulkhead row to myself was really the next best thing.  




The Flight




Flight:  SQ 32
Singapore (SIN) – San Francisco (SFO) 

Scheduled Departure – Arrival:  9:25 am – 10:10 am
Actual Departure – Arrival:  9:26 am (Gate B9) – 8:52 am (Gate G93)
Depart SIN Runway 02L:  9:43 am
Arrive SFO Runway 28R:  8:43 am
Duration:  13 hours 59 minutes
Loads:
Business:  100% full
Premium Economy and Economy: ~50% full







A350 amenity kit!



Meal Service




This was the most significant difference between my two flights, both in terms of the catering and the way the meal was served.

Shortly after departure, the purser came by and confirmed my Book the Cook order.  “Nasi lemak, Mr. Wang?” and placed a sticker next to my seat.

After takeoff, a “Singapore Girl” went around the cabin and took meal orders (similar to Business Class).  She quickly apologized for not noticing that I had preordered a meal.

Everyone’s meal tray came individually from “somewhere behind us”.  At no time did I see a meal cart (similar to Business Class).  “Singapore Girl” came by with a pitcher of coffee or tea.  I went with tea.

Onto my nasi lamek with fried chicken.  It is a classic Singaporean/Malaysian breakfast meal.  I was unsure about this meal when I ordered it.  It is definitely an unique but unusual meal for airplane food.  I was not too sure how well it would turn out in the air.



I unwrapped the foil.  I was greeted with an amazing aroma of coconut infused fragrant rice.  Wow!  It was not a smell I normally associate with airplane food.  I popped open the lid on the chili paste and the accompaniments.  Wow!  The pungent smell of fish and chili.  Again, more unique smells I would not expect with airplane food.



Everything tasted fresh.  I would not have been surprised if it was freshly made that morning.  The rice was perfect (not wet or “microwaved”) and the chicken had a nice crunch.  The small bits of anchovies and roasted peanuts (required sidebits for nasi lemak) were crunchy and flavorful.  The baked egg (egg – another requisite nasi lemak item) plus some mystery steamed item were tasty as well.  The chili paste was fishy but not spicy, a perfect complement to the chicken and the egg. Hands down, this was the most delicious Economy Class meal I have ever had!  The quality was high, food tasted fresh, and the experience was unique: an un-airline meal, as it were.  A perfect 10!  

Unlike my inbound flight, I did not have a dirty tray in front of me waiting to be picked up.  Perfectly satisfied after that amazing breakfast, I watch a program about food while slipping my pu-erh tea.  The cabin temperature was comfortable.  Unlike the outbound flight, I did not have to wrap myself in a blanket.





Even though there was not an official Economy snack bar, the flight attendants set something up in the galley.  There was a variety of chips, chocolates, peanuts, and dried cranberries to choose from, as well a basket of fruit.  I grabbed an apple and a package of cranberries to snack on.



Six and a half hours to go, sunrise lighting filled the cabin.  It was 5 pm in Singapore and I was hungry for dinner.  “Almonds and cashews” was a lot nicer than plain peanuts served on the inbound flight.  



Disappointingly, my rosemary beef brisket dinner was underwhelming when compared with that amazing breakfast.  While the rosemary sauce was tasty (and different), it was still just your basic beef and potato meal.  Once again, the winner was the appetizer.  The nicoise salad with shrimp was excellent.  For the first time, the dinner roll was not a roll – it was cheesy olive bread.   And for the first time, I actually ate my bread.  It was pretty good!




Five hours to go and the light dimmed.  I tried to sleep.  Despite having all the room around me, I could not get comfortable.  As before, the legrest did not come up at a steep enough angle.  The attached footrest was springy and did not stay in place.  I tried to lie across both seats.  But since the armrest could not be raised, I had to put my body in a “Z” position with my knees over the armrest.  That was comfortable only for a while until my knees became strained from locking in an inverted “V”.

Unable to sleep productively, I decided to raid the galley again.  But the snack bar was no longer set up.  The flight attendants were still helpful though.  They pulled open drawers to show me what was available.  I grabbed some chips, a Toblerone (“Singapore Girl” shoved an extra in my hand), and a wrap.



A bit over two hours to go, we had our final official meal of the flight:  a choice of tuna croissant or chicken wrap.  The croissant would have been better if it was not chilled.  I longed for a nice warm breakfast as I heard clanking of silverware against china on the other side of the curtain in Business Class.




We started our descend 200 miles to go.  Despite the light rain, there was only a slight circuitous routing to our arrival, turning final farther south near San Jose.




We touched down within one minute of what the pilots predicted before departure.  That was impressive!  Total distance was 8,651 miles.



Final Thoughts


Was Premium Economy worth a 50% upcharge?  On low-cost airlines – especially those with a la cart pricing - the answer may very well be yes.  Thankfully, Singapore Airlines is not one of those airlines.  In Economy, Singapore still offers free choice meals, amenities, superior friendly service, as well as free baggage allowance.  The gap between standard and premium economies is not too great.  Sure, one gets extra inches of leg room and elbow room, the legrest is nice, pre-ordered meal quality is a notch above Economy, but when the cabin is full, one still gets that “packed in” feel.  For those stuck in the middle or window, their seatmates at the aisle still have get up to let them out.  To be sure, seating comfort is definitely not at the same “1990s Business Class” or “Domestic First Class” recliner level that Premium Economy Class (in general) is purportedly trying to fulfill. 

Premium Economy tries to bridge the massive gap between Economy and Business Class.  Business Class style amenities such as Book the Cook and noise cancelling headphones are niceties the airline was able to provide without incurring too much cost.  However, if seating density was lower and lounge access was included, then Premium Economy would be a very compelling upgrade.  However, given the gap between Economy and Premium Economy is only “modest” when flying on Singapore – travellers have to decide whether the 50% upcharge is considered “modest” to them.