Surprise Meet-up On Board the World’s Longest Flight
When Singapore Airlines discontinues their ultra long-haul (ULH) flights between Singapore (SIN) and Newark (EWR) and Los Angeles (LAX), it will mark the end of an era of ULH flights flown with the Airbus A340-500 (A345).
Having never flown on the A345, I wanted to log that aircraft and experience it as it was originally designed, on an ULH flight. As luck would have it, I had personal business in Asia in October, giving me an excuse to be on that side of the world. I decided to fly on flight SQ22 from SIN to EWR. With a block time of 18 hours 55 minutes, SQ22 has the distinction of being the longest non-stop flight in the world based on scheduled time.
Singapore Airlines has their A345s in an 100-seat all-Business Class configuration. Unfortunately, the airline does not make Star Alliance mileage award seats available on these flights, which meant that I had to pay in order to fly. Flying one-way from SIN to EWR costs around USD $4,700, certainly not cheap. While doing my research, I found other travelers were able to take advantage of lower prices flying from another Asian gateway city connecting in SIN to the same flight to EWR. Flying from Colombo, Sri Lanka and some Indian cities were the least expensive at around $2,500 one-way. A friend did this trip from Vietnam, paying around $3,000 one-way. I decided to originate my trip in Bangalore, India, paying $2,536 for my ticket, saving almost half of the cost if I originated the flight from Singapore.
|Fare calculation line for my ticket. Since my ticket was issued in India, it was priced in Indian Rupees.|
After arriving in Singapore the previous afternoon from Bangalore on SilkAir (see that trip report), I spent overnight at the Ambassador Transit Hotel inside Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 3. The room was basic, windowless, but clean and efficient. I checked out of the hotel at 8 am, almost 3 hours before departure, to have breakfast at the SilverKris Lounge.
The lounge is divided into First Class and Business Class areas. The Business Class section was quite busy, though I did not have a problem finding an empty seat or connecting to the free wifi.
Although some hot trays and steamers were empty when I got there and it took a bit of time for them to get refilled. Knowing that I will have big meals ahead, I went light and had a muffin, some fruit, but could not resist the pork buns and shrimp dumplings in the bamboo steamers.
The large lounge was tastefully decorated and there were separate service areas for the bar (with coffee and tea service), cereals, and sandwiches. It was almost like a treasure hunt walking around the lounge to see what hidden goodies can be found.
After finishing my breakfast, I proceed to gate A13 to see if my aircraft was there; it was not. I decided to do some spotting at the Terminal 3 mall hoping to see my A345 being towed to the gate. Unfortunately, I did not see it. About 20 minutes before boarding time, I proceeded to my gate. The terminal had thinned out considerably after the morning rush. On my walk, a cart drove up and asked whether I wanted a ride. I declined the offer and opted to continue on foot.
At SIN, security check is done prior to the gate hold area. I was given a very careful and methodical pat down as my checker was being trained. <rolleyes> As I entered the hold room, the gate agent scanned my boarding pass and gave me an U.S. Customs declaration form.
Origin – Destination: SIN – EWR
Aircraft: Airbus A340-541
Registration: 9V-SGE (msn 563)
Scheduled Departure – Arrival: 10:55 am – 5:50 pm (18 hr 55 min)
Actual Departure – Arrival: 11:00 am – 5:30 pm (18 hr 30 min)
Actual Flying Time: 17 hr 37 min
Distance Flown: 8,996 nmi (16,661 km)
|Flightaware map and data|
Seat diagram at check-in, 48 hours prior to departure. Apparently there was a lot of cancellations, because only 45 people ended up flying on my flight.
I would be flying on aircraft registration 9V-SGE. Delivered in 2004, SGE is the last of Singapore’s fleet of five A340-500s.
There were only three or four other people waiting at the gate, but over the next ten minutes, more would show up in large batches.
|Inside the hold room. Most people in the queue was for the flight at the next gate.|
When boarding commenced, it was not board by status followed by row number. It was simply boarding all passengers at your convenience. I chose to board right then; most others did the same. Both 1L and 2L doors were being used for boarding, with the 2L jetway amusingly displaying the “Economy Class” sign.
My seat was 16A, really the fifth row in the first cabin. I grabbed some photos of my seat and seats around me, however those passengers showed up rather quickly.
This widebody only seats 100 passengers, all in Business Class. Seats are arranged in an 1-2-1 configuration, with the exception of the last two rows, which becomes 1-1-1 due to the narrowing fuselage towards the rear. Seat width is 30 inches and according to seatguru, pitch is 64 inches. Seat colors alternate between tan and brown leather.
The 15.4-inch monitor hosts KrisWorld, Singapore’s on-demand in-flight entertainment system. Panel covers to the left of the monitor conceal an AC power outlet, USB port, iPod port, and A/V port. I did not use any of these ports. Covers to the right conceal a vanity mirror and a cup holder. Electric seat controls for recline and legrest are in the armrest. Throw pillow on an airline seat was a first for me.
I was offered newspaper, magazine, noise reduction headphones, menu, and then a welcome drink (a choice of Champagne or fresh squeezed orange juice or water).
Wanting to use the lavatory before take off, I stretched my neck forward and aft looking for the nearest restroom. A Singapore Girl literally anticipated my need and pointed to the lav across the aisle next to her (my nearest one was occupied). I walked over and told her, “you read my mind!”
|Click to see the menu. For completeness, I have included all of the pages, including the return flight, SQ21 from EWR to SIN.|
Over the loudspeakers, Captain Andrew Choo introduced our flight. The flight duration was expected to be 17 hours and 30 minutes (I was disappointed that we were not going to break the 18 hour mark). Along with him flying, there were two other captains and one senior first officer. There were 14 cabin crews. We were to fly eastwards and weather enroute was expected to be mostly smooth with fine conditions.
Hot towels were then distributed followed by drink orders. I went with Golden Spice after verifying it was non-alcoholic. The Singapore Girl also confirmed my lunch order made before the flight. I had “Book the Cook” and ordered lobster thermidor for lunch. It was a highly rated dish based upon what I read on-line.
One of the service managers walked around the cabin and individually welcomed each passenger aboard. It was obvious that some of the passengers were frequent travelers based upon the prolonged conversation and greeting they received.
Hour 0 to 2.5
We pushed back at 11:00 am, 5 minutes late. We were towed a good distance away from the gate to a taxiway intersection for engine start. At 11:16 am, we took-off from SIN’s Runway 20R (see video).
After the seat belt light was extinguished, I went down to the mid cabin lavatory. As I approached the nearly empty aft cabin, I saw some guys running around taking photos. I thought: I am not the only aviation geek on this flight. Hey, I recognize one of them! It was fellow airliners.net photographer Sam Chui! We exchanged pleasantries and was amused that we were flying on the same flight. What a coincidence! He introduced me to his traveling companions, Anosh and Roni. Like Sam, both Anosh (SR 103) and Roni (ronerone) are also well known on airliners.net for their excellent trip reports. I commented that I thought it was strange that people had reserved seats all they way in the back of the aircraft. As it turned out, as I had suspected, they were enthusiasts. I joined in the fun taking cabin photos. I told the gang that I would return later in the flight to have dinner with them.
|Me and Sam|
A total setup shot, courtesy of Sam Chui!
Sam at work.
My after take-off drink, Golden Spice: a refreshing, zesty mix of lime cordial spiced up with ginger ale and fresh pineapple juice. Served with warmed nuts.
It took me a while to get KrisWorld going because I didn’t know the controller was hidden underneath the armrest (I thought it was touch screen – it was not). I found and watched Top Gear, though there was only one episode (and I had seen parts of that one too).
One quarter past noon, we started lunch service. The table was set individually from the drink cart and I was asked if I wanted wine with my lunch. I went with Coke Zero.
As each course was placed my table, the Singapore Girl told me what it was – just like at a restaurant. A nice touch!
|Starter: Trilogy of salmon with mesclun salad. Slices of hot smoked, cold smoked and marinated salmon.|
The trilogy of salmon appetizer was excellent. I definitely tasted salmon three ways. It was followed by a selection of breads – I chose cheesy olive bread.
“Mr. Wang, here is your lobster thermidor”
|Lobster Thermidor: Lobster tail sautéed in butter, flambéed in brandy, sprinkled with cheese, and served with creamy mushroom sauce, garlic and spicy mustard, and buttered asparagus|
The lobster was meaty and flavorful, sauce rich and buttery, saffron rice light and fluffy. It was delicious! If memory serves right, this was only the second time I had lobster on an airplane (previous time was a cold appetizer on board British Airways Concorde).
A choice of fruit or dessert was made from the cart. There was ice cream sundae, panna cotta, and a selection of fruit. “I’ll have some fruit.” Singapore Girl replied, “pick your choice, perhaps some dragon fruit?” It is definitely the most interesting fruit there, so I went with it. I also picked out some grapes. Then she offered me the panna cotta. I had never heard of it. So I tried it. The fruits were ripe and tasty, the panna cotta interesting.
After lunch oolong tea with chocolate praline. Hot towel followed.
Top Gear was finishing up while I sipped my tea. Why can’t flying always be this relaxing and civilized?
I’d be remised if I did not do a run down of the nice lavatory.
Fresh orchid was a nice touch. It reminds me a lot of Thai, which liberally uses fresh orchids in their lounge and premium class decorations.
High-end touches included leather covering on the toilet seat cover, vanity lights, makeup mirror, and linen hand towels.
Amenity drawers consisted of the usual items one would expect: toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, hairbrush, razor, shaving cream, sanitary napkin, and barf bag.
Below that, mouth wash, eau de toilette, aftershave, and lotion.
Hour 2.5 to 6
|Initial cruising altitude: 32,000 feet.|
Flight socks and eye shades were distributed and then Duty Free shopping, known as KrisShop, came through the aisles.
After the cart went past, I decided to use up my left over Singapore Dollars to purchase the SIA Batik Pen (with the same design as the flight attendant uniforms). Unfortunately, it was not available. I was offered the batik phone case instead, but I turned it down.
The cabin went into night mode. I was surprised to see this, as it was only afternoon in Singapore local time. However, given that the time difference between Singapore and U.S. Eastern Time is exactly 12 hours, this gave passengers an opportunity to sleep to transition the body clock. In fact, most passengers in my cabin chose to transition to the destination time zone by either skipping lunch or having a light meal and went immediately to sleep.
On the other hand, I wanted to enjoy the flight while I was still alert. I left my window shades a crack to let in some sunshine while I read the International New York Times. I then watched White House Down. Singapore Girls patrolled the cabin and offered a selection fruits, Lay’s potato chips, nuts, shortbread cookies, and Toblerone chocolate. I decided to be healthy for the moment and had the packaged dried fruit and drank bottled mineral water.
Hour 6 to 10.5
Six hours after takeoff (11.5 hours to go) we were over Japan and cruising at 35,000 feet. If you look at the map, this flight is really just a Singapore-Tokyo flight and Tokyo-New York flight put together.
Several season 3 episodes of Games of Thrones were available on KrisWorld. After hearing good things about this series, I decided to check it out. Since I was coming into the middle of the series, it was difficult to follow the characters and the storyline. Though the look and characters reminded me a lot of Lord of the Rings. After one episode, I decided to continue with another, hoping that it will grow on me. As the next episode started, there was a warning for adult situations. I didn’t think much about it. About half way though, there was a love scene with naked bodies. Hmmm, interesting…not cut or blurred out? Getting a little bit red faced, will other passengers behind me think I’m watching porn on that large, very visible 15.4-inch screen? Episode continues. Whoa! Girl-on-girl action with a tortured guy, full nudity, Singapore Girls walking around me! I quickly grabbed the remote and hit stop button.
“Mr. Wang, we will start dinner at 7:15, what would like to drink to start off?”
I ordered Tropical Fizz and told the Singapore Girl that I would be having dinner with my friends in the back of the plane. She asked whether I would be going down during drink, satay, or just dinner. “Drink”, I replied. She would forward my drink order to her colleagues.
I joined Sam and Roni at the middle of the last row, seat 38F. So there we were, three airplane geeks, occupying the very back of the A345, yelling across the aisle with each other.
A Singapore Girl (different one from my cabin up front) came by and asked, “Mr. Wang, what would you like for dinner?” I was impressed. Me switching seats and a new face in her cabin did not deter her from knowing and then remembering my name. I ordered the famous Singapore chicken rice, emphasizing the famous when I called out my order. She said it might not be available and asked for my second choice. Getting ready for disappointment, I chose the wok-fried beef. But I really wanted to have the famous chicken rice.
My drink, Tropical Fizz (an invigorating concoction of pineapple juice and bitter lemon) was quickly followed by satay. Satay was served from a cart: beef, chicken, or combination with small cubes of onion and cucumber and the requisite spicy peanut sauce. The satay was very tasty though it did not come close to the fresh satay I had at a street vendor on Boon Tat Street the previous evening in Singapore. On the satay cart’s return trip back to the galley, Sam stopped it in its tracks and ordered another serving for the three of us to share.
Starter, Cajun spiced prawns with marinated capsicums and sweet pepper pesto, was served with choice of wine and bread from a basket. I opted for Coke Zero with lemon (“of course, Mr. Wang”) and went with garlic bread. A second piece was liberally placed on my plate. The shrimp was meaty and there was no skimping on the number of shrimp. Overall it was quite good.
Then came my main course. Disappointingly, it was my second choice: wok-fried beef in black pepper sauce with garlic, French bean with dried shrimp, fried rice (exclusively created by Chef Sam Leong, Singapore).
There was no explanation or apology that the famous chicken rice was not available. The plate got placed on my table and Singapore Girl went away quickly. That marked the only low light in service for me on the flight.
The beef was very tender – not chewy at all. I was very surprised that re-heated beef can taste freshly made. The black pepper sauce was very tasty and was a great accompaniment. The string bean, on the other hand, was limp and soggy. That definitely tasted from frozen. Tiny dried shrimp with the string beans tasted clashy, which I did not care for.
|Enjoying the pepper beef. Roni can be seen in the background.|
After the main course was done, all the excess plates, silverware, and accessories were picked up. Dessert cart came by and I opted for the tiramisu (mascarpone cheesecake with coffee). Although I did not have any, selection of cheeses on the cart looked delectable as well. Roni, Sam and I all agreed, the tiramisu was simply mmm…mmm…yummy!
Pacing for both lunch and dinner was just right. I did not feel rushed as when I flew on Asiana, or left waiting with dirty plates in front of me as when I flew on ANA.
Half way through the flight! About eight hours down and about eight more to go. It was funny looking at the four reading lights in overhead service unit being used for two seats (in my case, one seat way in the back).
I ordered Rooibos Tea after dinner, wanting to relive that unique taste I had back in South Africa. Singapore Girl said she would check with the galley up front. Unfortunately, it was not available, so instead I went with the lemon ginger tea. Chocolates pralines come by and there was just a couple pieces on the plate. I was not sure if I was to take one or the entire plate. It was hard to tell since I was at the very end. I asked, “do you want me to take the whole plate?” “Sure”, said the Singapore Girl. Really didn’t matter, I guess.
Anosh, Roni, Sam and I got together in the middle of some empty seats and chatted about airplanes, airlines, and travel (what else would we talk about?). Even though there was not a bar for socializing, the nearly empty back cabin served us just as well.
The cabin went into sunset and the lights dimmed. I grabbed some cabin photos before the cabin went totally dark again. We continued our conversation in the pitch-black cabin. On occasion, a Singapore Girl came by to offer snacks (the standard selection of cookies, Toblerone chocolate, chips, etc.) by candlelight.
37,000 feet over Alaska, 10.5 hours down and seven hours to go, we decided to retire back to our seats to grab some sleep. As I walked forward to my seat, I was surprised to see curtains drawn in between the aft, mid, and forward cabins. What is the point, I wondered? There is no need to separate the classes on this plane.
Hour 10.5 to 16
After brushing my teeth using a provided toothbrush from the amenity drawer, I went back to my seat to make up my bed. I almost asked for help as it was quite hard to figure out: these seats were not recline-to-lie-flat that I was used to. To set up the bed, you actually had to put the seat back up right, and then flip the seatback forward to reveal the flat bed. All of the bedding (padding, blanket, and sleep pillow - as opposed to the day pillow) was already pre-made. It was literally fold the seatback down and sleep, no additional setup required. And everything hides away again when the bed is folded back up. Quite an ingenious design that does away the always-challenging issue of where to store the blanket and bedding when you are not sleeping. The fold down seatback also allows for sleeping in a flat bed instead of a flatten seat put together with lumpy seat cushions. There is also a separate seat belt for the bed. Headphone storage on sidewall, side storage, and cupholder all remain accessible. It is quite an impressive design.
Despite all the niceties of being in the best flat-seat/bed I had ever been, I was not able to sleep. The cabin temperature was warm, I got hot under the covers, and I simply could not get comfortable sleeping in my street clothes. My senses were on high alert for some reason. Perhaps I should not have had a caffeinated drink with dinner. Wearing eyeshades and noise reduction headset did not help. I was able to hear clicking sounds in the headphone, feel the floor depress beneath me when the Singapore Girl walked by and get a whiff her perfume. I was in between light sleep and “why can’t I sleep?” mode for four and a half hours. Quite sad.
I knew by the sound of clanking silverware against china that others were having breakfast (known as “Light Bites” on the menu – I guess it’s not really a full breakfast). In an act of desperation for sleep, I muddled on in my charade. Around 2:00 am Singapore time, I took a peek from under my eyeshade at the flight map. We were over the Great Lakes and there was only two hours to go. After being up all day, it was the middle of the night for my body...I should be sleeping. But I decided to conclude this pointless exercise and got up. I knew I missed breakfast, but a Singapore Girl quickly came by with the snack basket. I went for the dried fruit pack again and asked for a bottle of water. Around me, despite the still darkened cabin, I noticed there was a few opened window shades. Pretty much everyone was up and working on their computers or paperwork. Marks of the true professional business traveler. Time adjusted and off to work!
Hour 16 to 17
I converted my bed back to a seat and connected my iPhone to the in-flight wifi, operated by onair. Despite the high price of $5.99 for 5 Mb of data, I wanted to send some bragging emails from the flight back to my friends.
I had to act quickly before the service concludes one hour before landing. Internet connection was not reliable. I kept on getting “out of service, try again later” message. Maybe there were issues maintaining contact with the satellite? Unfortunately, someone sent me a large attachment email and before I knew it, I had hit my 5 Mb limit. I managed to send out just one email to my spotter group. Was hoping for more, but mission accomplished.
Sam came up to my seat to get some photos out of my window. He asked if I had noodles for breakfast; it reminded him a lot of China. I sadly replied “no”, and complained that in-spite of missing breakfast, I didn’t even get good sleep in return. Looking at the menu, though, I probably would have gone with the omelet.
Hour 17 to 18.5
Fifty minutes before landing, over Toronto, the captain announced that we were to begin our descend for Newark. The wind was out of the south with temperature of 23°C. Cabin lights came back on from sunrise to full brightness. Flight attendants passed out hot towels followed by fresh squeezed orange juice followed by sweets. Headphones were collected and the KrisWorld system was turned off. The familiar soft Singapore Airlines landing music played over the loudspeakers.
Out the window, I was greeted with changing fall colors over northern New Jersey. It was not full bloom fall colors yet, but the leaves were getting there.
After a right turn on final, Manhattan came into my view. The new World Trade Center was visible through the haze.
At 4:54 pm Eastern Time, SQ22 touched down on Runway 22L at Newark Liberty International Airport. Total flying time was 17 hours 37 minutes. As we turned off the runway, there was an United A319 surrounded by emergency vehicles.
We taxied towards our gate in Terminal B and stopped short of the building. A pilot got on and announced that our gate was occupied and it would take about 20 minutes before we were able to park. I guess that was the penalty for arriving early. We taxied back around the block, passing the United A319 again before parking at Gate 65 at 5:30 pm. Despite the wait, we still arrived 20 minutes early. Total block time, gate-to-gate, was 18 hours 30 minutes.
With so few passengers on board, deplaning was quick and orderly. I waited until the end and deplaned with my fellow airplane geeks. The Flight Manager warmly shook my hand and said enthusiastically, “Mr. Wang! Thank you for flying with us!” I thanked him back for such a memorable flight.
|One last look at 9V-SGE before heading to customs and immigration.|
There was no line at passport control and there was a lot of open positions. I made it through quickly. There was a bit wait at baggage claim for my luggage. The funny thing was, on an all-business class flight like this, every bag was tagged “Priority”. So what is the point? Is your bag still prioritized when it is the last one to come out? Luckily, mine was not and we breezed through customs to exit.
After experiencing Singapore Airlines twice in business class (once in medium-haul and this time in ultra long-haul) and twice in economy, I can say hands down it is the best airline I have flown. In general, service was consistently outstanding and meals were always delicious. Specifically in business class, the super wide seat was comfortable and fold down bed was excellent.
Being on the flight with friends made the time fly by quickly. Having personal space and being able to stroll around helped out tremendously. At no time did I feel time was dragging. In fact, I wished the flying time was longer, since I wanted to break the 18-hour mark.
The flight was worth every penny. I am glad to have flown on the world’s longest non-stop flight before discontinuation on Nov 23, 2013. Only time will tell if this record will be met or broken – perhaps by the 777X in the not too distant future.
Copyright © Ben Wang. All Rights Reserved.
Bonus: Sam Chui's video trip report!