A Reimagination of Space and Function: Singapore Airlines' New A380 Products
The long-anticipated overhaul of Singapore Airlines’ seats onboard the A380 has been finally unveiled to the public after a 3 day exhibition which marks the culmination of a cabin revamp that is four years in the making.
The flagship product of the carrier, its Suites, was the headliner for the event and was accompanied by redesigns of their Business and Economy class offerings. This represents a huge investment for Singapore Airlines as it will shell out $850 million to install the new products on the five new A380s that it will receive from Dec 2017. This cost will also cover the retrofitting works for the existing super-jumbos in the fleet, with a view to complete this by 2020.
This new product announcement comes just as the airline begins to receive deliveries of its new A350s (fitted with its 2013 products). The carrier has also recently signed a deal with Boeing to acquire 39 new 777-9 and 787-10 aircraft.
A refinement of what was already opulent
As the first carrier to offer ‘a class above First’, Singapore Airlines has fallen behind in recent years. The launch and subsequent refresh of its Suites occurred in 2007 and 2014 respectively, but the Suites are now seen as too expensive and uncompetitive; its seats often flying empty.
The new Suites are significantly bigger, allowing them to house a full stand-alone bed and a swivel chair within each enclosure. This new design is twice the size of its predecessor. To accommodate this, SQ’s A380s will now only have 6 suites instead of 12 previously. Couples
balloting sitting in Suites 1A/2A and 1F/2F can opt to enbloc ’combine’ their Suites to form a double bed. Additionally, the Suites cabin has been moved to the plane’s upper deck and will adopt a 1-1 configuration instead of the 1-2-1 configuration it replaces. Hence, the new A380s will have an upper deck that is decked out with an all-premium layout.
The suite’s IFE screen has also been greatly enhanced, now sporting a 32inch Full HD display compared to its 23inch predecessor. More storage spaces are available, and each Suite comes inbuilt with a handy IFE-control tablet that allows you to adjust the rollerblinds, lighting and of course, KrisWorld.
Italian furnished Poltrona Frau was contracted for the swivel seat’s leather upholstery while the bed’s duvet and linen is provided by French luxury label Lalique. The items found within the amenity kit are also provided by Lalique which replaces the existing Salvatore Ferragamo kits.
Suites passengers will find two bathrooms at the nose of the upper deck, with one of them featuring a sit-down vanity table. However, the carrier has been very firm with not including onboard showers and has decided to do away with a bar and lounge area.
The Bottom Line
I do believe that this new redesign has catapulted SQ back into game especially when you realise that the new Suites are bigger than Etihad’s First Class apartments. The ability to have a fully flat bed without converting your seat is also very alluring.
That being said, there are some issues that I think could limit appeal once the Suites go into service at the end of the year. For one, there seems to be a lack of attention being paid to the importance of dining. For all SQ has done to create its double bed in the sky, there seems to be no conceivable way for passengers to sit in close proximity and have an intimate meal. First Class on other carriers do this - SQ’s response to this is notably absent.
Furthermore whilst Singapore Airlines’ passengers say that they don’t feel a need for onboard showers, the carrier should at least provide such a service upon landing. This issue could easily be solved - just grant Suites passengers lounge access on arrival (whether at a partner or contract one). My main criticism of the product (don’t get me wrong, its a dream to fly on it) is that SQ needs to invest more in its ground services as it is narrow-minded to only consider the onboard experience as the full product. Compared to Lufthansa’s First-Class Terminal and Qatar’s Al-Safwa, SQ’s First Class Lounge (even The Private Room) pales in comparison. Hopefully, we will see a redesign of the KF lounges in the near future though I think that this will be on hold until the carrier moves to T5.
Space-conscious but space-efficient
The first thing one notices about the new Business Class seat is that its width has been reduced in favour of more storage space. Compared to the seats on the carrier’s 777-300ER and A350s, the new Business seats are 3 inches narrower, providing 25 inches of width. Singapore Airlines is also now fitting 78 seats in a space that previously only accommodated 66 as each pod has a smaller footprint compared to the 2013 Business seats.
The middle seats in the Business class cabins have been reconfigured such that passengers now sit ‘next to’ each other, which aims to improve the uptake of these seats amongst travellers flying with companions. This decision seems to take cues from Qatar Airways’ business QSuites and allows Singapore Airlines to transform three sets of its bulkhead seats (11D/F, 91D/F and 96D/F) into double beds if passengers so choose to opt for this. Nevertheless, those who aren’t shouldn’t fear as the seats feature a central divider (3 modes of varying height) to maintain privacy.
Business seats now recline to form a full-flat bed whereas in the past, passengers had to fold down the back of the seat to form the bed. Because of this, SQ has decided to include an interesting pullout ottoman that facilitates lounging/sleeping at various angles, a much welcome change.
The sizes of the IFE screens remain unchanged at 18 inches. Travellers can also curate their preferred selections of movies and music before the flight and have these options synced to their seats once onboard. This is new for the industry and complements the existing ability to use smartphones to control the in-seat IFE as facilitated by the plane’s onboard wifi.
As you know, SQ’s Business Class passengers aren’t provided amenity kits on board (the audacity am I right?) and are instead encouraged to utilise the products found in the onboard toilets. For the new jets, the carrier will provide Penhaligon toiletries which will include hand lotion, facial mists and a fragrance.
The Bottom Line
Two standout refinements are worthy of mention here. Firstly, the new recline mechanism will be better for passengers and crew from an operational and convenience perspective. Secondly, the more streamlined design (without apparently sacrificing space) that allows for more seats per plane will undoubtedly help the carrier improve profits especially on very high demand routes.
Any update to the A380’s aging 2006 era Business seats are welcome. To this end, my take is that the new Business Class seats are a subtle refinement of the 2013 era seats now available on the 777-300ER and A350s. I think that it doesn’t make much sense for the carrier to reinvent the wheel with this iteration because of how new (and fantastic) the existing ones are.
Considering that the carrier already has 6 variants of Business Class, I think that another wholly new product is just too much and will generate confusion. Going forward, the carrier will also be unveiling yet another seat design this time for its new regional business class on their upcoming 787-10s which are touted to also be an adaption of the 2013 seats.
This evolutionary approach to product design is something that I think is prudent for a carrier which attracts passengers based on product quality and more importantly, product consistency.
The design for the seats has remained the same as Singapore Airlines only recently announced them in 2015. Those keeping track will know that the carrier was late to introducing such seats for fear of cannibalising demands for Business Class.
Though uptake of the PY cabin has been weak since launch, the carrier seems to be betting on its success for its long-haul routes as we see the carrier’s new A380s sporting a PY only cabin that will house 44 seats (used to be 36). This new cabin will also be moved to the front of the lower deck, space once reserved for the Suites.
The Bottom Line
It’s interesting to see that SQ is increasing the seat count of the PY cabin. Whilst PY was languishing on the thinner routes operated by the A350s and 777s, perhaps the carrier has seen strong demand on its A380s and believes that money rollers like SIN - LHR and SIN - PEK will fly with full PY cabins.
The PY design released in 2015 didn’t really stand out much to me due to its overly boxy design. Additionally, the 2-4-2 layout does seem to leave more to be desired as other carriers have adopted a 2-3-2 configuration.
Nothing much changed here and so there’s little that can be said about it. Hence, while PY is definitely a better experience than flying in coach, isn’t that far ahead either.
great somewhat better way to fly
For economy fliers, the carrier’s redesign promises more legroom and better back and lumbar support whilst retaining a 3-4-3 layout. The seats are also coloured more conservatively with minimal blue and grey tones. Whilst the upholstery of previous seats featured tactile finishings, these new seats are smoother to the touch. From the initial photos, these new RECARO designed seats are way more streamlined and polished.
These seats also define themselves from the competition by including a footrest that can be adjusted to fit the needs of the passenger. A new 6-way adjustable headrest also aims to alleviate discomfort during long-haul flights.
On the back of the seat, a hard plastic storage area is included to stow mobile devices which can be found adjacent to the seat-back cup holder. The seat also comes with an 11.1 touchscreen monitor which eliminates the need for a handset (FINALLY) to control the IFE system. These features are complemented by the presence of in-seat USB and traditional power sockets.
One interesting inclusion is the presence of a contactless/NFC card reader which the carrier is still keeping mum about. Whilst the reader could just be an innocuous way to pay for in-flight purchases or to pair your mobile device with the in-seat IFE, its inclusion could lead to industry-changing innovations in the future.
The Bottom Line
Whilst most carriers usually ignore product innovation for economy seats, I think SQ has done well for itself. For one, the ability to control the screen with a responsive touchscreen (keyword: responsive), is miles more intuitive compared to using a separate remote. Secondly, the new 6-way adjustable headrest and configurable footrest will be a defining factor for economy fliers that are in it for the long-haul.
It is usually quite hard to improve on the base economy experience but I think SQ has done well for itself especially for a carrier that is simultaneously already good at it but also perilously worried about cannibalising the yield of its premium cabins. This new product redesign puts SQ’s economy on par if not ahead of its rivals Cathay Pacific and Qantas.
Also, the inclusion of a means to conduct contactless payments makes sense as it reduces the barrier to purchases - buying things can be ‘self-service’ and the crew only needs to bring the product to you. Will we start getting 5.5 mpd (4mpd with UOB PPV and KF’s 1.5mpd) on in-flight purchases? Only time will tell.
Conservative but welcome changes
These new products will debut on Dec 18 on its inaugural flight from Singapore to Sydney, which was the same route that launched the world’s first commercial A380 flight a full decade ago. Singapore Airlines has already retired the first A380 it received back in 2007 and although this gives the carrier’s super-jumbos a new lease of life, it is perhaps just a one-off uptick in the long-term decline of the super-jumbos as the industry tends towards more cost-efficient twin-engine jets.
These new products come at a time when premium Asian carriers are struggling to compete with the ME3 and China’s Big 3 airlines. Carriers like Cathay Pacific and ANA are however, still sticking to their mettle in believing that demand for premium air travel will remain strong for years to come.
Others have been disappointed by the new products and seem to advocate for a borderline iconoclastic revolution for SQ's onboard products. I don't subscribe to this view because I think that that is not what SQ's customer base wants. Passengers flying with SQ want familiarity and efficiency that 'just works' and will not be wowed by one-off pageantry. It is for this reason that the concept for SQ's new safety video is more traditional (albeit beautiful) than other airlines.
However, I feel that the biggest problem lies with the fact that while Singapore Airlines has been leading the pack when it comes to its onboard products and service, its ground products leaves lots to be desired. As this criticism may sound premature as the carrier is currently refreshing its network of lounges, my opinion of the recently reopened SilverKris lounge in Bangkok is that it simply does not wow passengers in the same way its onboard products do.
As a frame of reference, I’m comparing SQ’s lounges to the ones Cathay Pacific passengers have access to - these are simply stunning and are borne out of a sensible interpretation of the carrier’s premium and classy approach to design and service.
Other exciting product announcements are on the horizon as travellers can now look forward to Emirates’ own upcoming product launch during the Dubai Airshow (12 Nov) which will see the Middle Eastern carrier updating its seats across all of its cabin classes. In any case, these new products will be put to the test (vis-a-vis Emirates, et al.) as Singapore Airlines incrementally rolls them out across its fleet of superjumbos.
All photos found within this article come courtesy of Singapore Airlines.
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