7 takeaways from my 1st Singapore Airlines business-class experience
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A few years ago, I had such an enjoyable flight in economy aboard a Singapore Airlines A380 that I’ve wanted to fly the carrier’s much-loved business class ever since. I finally got my opportunity to do so a few weeks ago.
Singapore Airlines is known for offering a top-notch premium experience in both business and first classes. That’s why I kept scanning its route from Houston‘s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), where I’m based, to Manchester Airport (MAN) in England for saver awards or low fares.
Why would Singapore Airlines — the flag carrier of Singapore — fly a route neither to nor from its home country? It’s one of a few fifth-freedom routes that the airline operates. Flying a fifth-freedom route allows a carrier based in country A to fly to country B and then onward to country C — and vice-versa — while selling tickets for all those legs. In this case, Singapore Airlines Flight SQ51 begins in Houston, stops in Manchester and then continues onward to Singapore’s Changi Airport (SIN).
Arguably one of the lesser-known fifth-freedom routes, Singapore’s Houston service began in 2008 — though it initially stopped at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport (DME) en route to Singapore. That changed in October 2016, when Singapore Airlines switched the midpoint to Manchester. After a COVID-19 suspension, the route returned with a thrice-weekly schedule in December 2021 and is operated with an Airbus A350-900.
Travelling just to Manchester, it almost felt like I got a free stopover in Singapore between the U.S. and Europe. I got to experience the cuisine — and those famous Singapore Slings — despite being thousands of miles away from the Asian city-state. It was such a unique experience that I cannot wait to do it again soon.
The staff, catering and seat all met or exceeded my expectations. However, COVID-19 service cuts on this flight were quite noticeable — and sometimes unexpected. Here are seven takeaways from my first experience in Singapore business class.
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Exceptional onboard experience
It’s often said that it’s the people who can make or break an airline — and one’s experience flying on a particular airline. That was very true on this flight.
Everyone I interacted with from Singapore Airlines — both on the ground and during the flight — was exceptional. Singapore uses its own customer service agents in Houston (as opposed to contract agents), and they’re clearly trained to the airline’s very high customer service standards. The first subtle but remarkable touch I noticed was with the agent I checked in with. As I approached the counter to hand over my documents (there was no line), a friendly customer service agent was standing in front of the desk instead of behind it. It was a minor but welcoming touch that made me feel somewhat special — the agent was going to come to me.
At the boarding gate, I stood in the business-class lane behind a fellow passenger who was headed home to the United Kingdom and was a regular on the flight. The airline’s supervisor kept walking over to him — and, in turn, to me — and kept us posted about an unusually large number of preboarding passengers that caused the boarding process to be slightly delayed. Again, a completely unnecessary but very nice touch.
Then there were the airline’s flight attendants, who lived up to their reputation of providing some of the highest standards of service.
I was escorted to my seat from the boarding door by one flight attendant and immediately greeted by name by a second flight attendant, who told me what the expected flight time would be. They both explained the seat to me, and said to let them know if I needed anything. These flight attendants were also efficient to an astonishing degree — they concluded an entire meal service within an hour of takeoff — and proactively made my bed when they saw me go to the lavatory with my toiletry bag. The flight attendants were seemingly omnipresent. They were constantly in the aisles, monitoring the cabin for any needs, without being overbearing.
Their final impression on me was a strong one. too. As I deplaned, I heard “Thank you, Mr. Klapper,” from one of the flight attendants. She didn’t have a sheet of paper or my seat number to associate me with my name. She simply remembered my name, a nice personal touch.
Inspired food and beverage options
I love it when an airline adds some local flair to its menu, and Singapore did not disappoint here. The menu on my flight included Southern, Tex-Mex and Southeast Asian specialities.
While I didn’t want to order the Texas barbecue chicken, pork ribs and jalapeno sausage for my main course, I appreciated the appetizer of prawns and guacamole. The guacamole was fresh and chunky and nicely complemented the prawns.
There was also another option that was a bit more Texas than Singapore (or even English, given our destination): a braised beef short rib, with cornbread putting, sauteed spinach and smoked tomato butter.
For my main, I went with the stir-fried scallops and prawns in XO sauce over fried rice. It was portioned nicely, and brought me a little taste of Singapore without the (much longer) flight I would have needed to get there instead. The seafood tasted fresh, and the fried rice wasn’t greasy, which is sometimes a difficult accomplishment even on the ground. For this first service, my table was set and trays weren’t used — typically a hallmark reserved for international first class.
To drink, I enjoyed the airline’s signature Singapore Sling, along with a glass of Champagne. Singapore was pouring 2012 Piper-Heidsieck Brut Vintage on this route.
The flight’s only catering error that I noticed was with the dessert. The menu advertised a blueberry cheesecake, but what actually arrived was more of a carrot cake. It was still tasty, but going with a digital-only menu means a change could have easily been made (more on that below).
We were offered three hot breakfast options — a cheese frittata with baked beans, braised Cantonese noodles with oriental sauce or an egg burrito — which sets a high standard for transatlantic business class. I went with the egg burrito, which would have passed for a tasty breakfast burrito even in Houston, which is known for its exceptional Tex-Mex cuisine. I also appreciated the relatively large fruit plate that was served before the main course came out.
Ground experience: A study in contrasts
Houston’s international Terminal D is showing its age and is about to be replaced. The good news is that I didn’t have to spend much time there. I was the only person in the business-class check-in line, and there was only one person in front of me at the Terminal D TSA PreCheck line. That allowed me to go from the curb to the other side of security within 10 minutes.
In Houston, Singapore Airlines business-class passengers (along with other Star Alliance long-haul business- and first-class passengers) are able to access the United Polaris lounge located in neighbouring Terminal E, about a five-minute walk from the departure gate. TPG has written lots about Polaris lounges, and they’re easily some of the best lounges in the U.S.
I went right to the dining room and enjoyed a whiskey craft cocktail (“Not My First Rodeo”). I also had a Caesar salad that was fresh and delicious, as well as a signature Polaris burger that was juicy and perfectly cooked. After dining, I tried a few items from the buffet and had a glass of The Federalist Chardonnay, which had a nice and fruity taste. I sat in one of those oversized lounge chairs that include a desk – a signature furnishing item in Polaris lounges. Bathrooms were private and featured Sunday Riley soap and moisturizer, a local Houston brand that United now stocks across its aircraft and Polaris lounges.
Back in Terminal D, the gate area was relatively small with spots of peeling paint. A well-configured set of rope lines separated an adjacent gate used by Qatar Airways, whose flight had just departed. I wonder what would have happened if the Qatar flight had been delayed.
COVID-19 service cuts hurt the experience
I really wanted to try Singapore’s “Book the Cook” service and preorder a signature dish — lobster Thermidor. Disappointingly, however, I found out soon after booking this flight that the service is not currently offered out of Houston as a result of the pandemic. The food was good and I was happy with the menu offered on my flight, but missing out on Book the Cook felt like a devaluation of the soft product. Prior to COVID-19, this preorder service offered a multitude of meal choices and was a signature Singapore Airlines amenity.
More broadly about the menu: I mentioned earlier that Singapore is currently using digital menus. I love printed menus, and simply scanning a QR code doesn’t have the same feel, especially for an AvGeek like me who likes to keep airline menus as souvenirs of my journeys.
Hot towels were missing from this flight, though this has been an amenity that’s been slower to return to many airlines.
After takeoff, I was served nuts prepackaged in a bag, instead of in a ramekin. Shortly after that, I was served a full meal on Singapore’s signature china that was beautifully set at my table — no trays in sight.
It’s also worth noting that Singapore Airlines continues to provide amenities in the lavatories in lieu of a traditional amenity kit, a practice that was in place prior to COVID-19, admittedly.
Like printed menus, I appreciate amenity kits as a souvenir of my flights. For many airlines, the container is more special than its contents, like when Lufthansa partnered with Rimowa for its kits. I feel Singapore could do something special here that’s reflective of the premier airline it is.
I found it interesting that some amenities were cut — like the ramekins for nuts — while others had returned. That said, Singapore (and other airlines) are operating in a very difficult supply chain environment for certain amenities, so the unequal return of some of the experiences can be expected as demand goes up and the industry recovers from the pandemic.
KrisWorld: An excellent inflight entertainment system
A lot has been written about Singapore Airlines’ KrisWorld inflight entertainment system, and it should rightly be placed in the top tier of such systems. There was a seemingly endless selection of movies and TV shows, along with a few channels of live TV. For the TV shows, I watched “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Superstore” and “30 Rock,” though it’s worth noting that Singapore had only about half a season of each available. A whole season would have been preferable, but the sheer variety of content Singapore offers on its IFE system makes up for it. The moving map was crisp and of the latest generation, so it was interactive and could be zoomed in and panned.
We were provided active noise-cancelling headphones that used three-pronged plugs you could plug in at two separate spots on the seat. The noise cancellation worked well, though the A350 is a rather quiet aircraft to begin with — especially sitting forward of the aircraft’s engines in the aircraft’s second row.
One quirk about KrisWorld on the A350 business-class seat: it can only be controlled with the IFE handset, which took some getting used to.
A comfortable seat, and good sleep
Singapore’s business-class seat on the A350 is controversial. My colleague, TPG senior writer Zach Griff, thought the bed was too hard and wasn’t a fan of the seat’s diagonally aligned footwell. He advised readers to avoid the world’s longest flight if they weren’t able to snatch a bulkhead seat, which doesn’t have that orientation.
World’s longest flight: Reviewing Singapore Airlines’ A350-900ULR business class from Newark to Singapore
I’m not as tall as Zach (he’s about 5 feet, 10 inches tall and I’m about 5 feet, 6 inches). Although I found the misaligned bulkhead a bit different, it caused me no discomfort while I was sitting or using the bed. The seat is wide and well padded. This flight featured a relatively light load, but it’s worth noting that both the window seats and the aisle seats tend to “hug” the aisle — meaning that if someone was seated across the aisle from me in seat 12D (I was seated in 12A), there would not have been much privacy since these seats do not feature doors. (The seats do, however, feature some privacy wings that protrude from the top part of the seat.)
The seat also included two USB-A ports, a standard universal EmPower port that provided 110 volts, an HDMI port that you can use to connect a device to the screen and, oddly for a relatively modern product, an iPod connector.
The bed is not controlled by the seat’s recline function. Instead, it folds over, which the flight attendant helped me with. Singapore’s bed is firmer, which, for me, is a good thing. I slept for over four hours during this flight, which is about as much sleep as I can get on an aeroplane. I woke up feeling refreshed and without any back or neck pain, which I can sometimes experience when I sleep on a plane. To me, that’s what matters the most, and I look forward to sleeping in this product again.
Singapore should offer an unlimited Wi-Fi plan
Maybe we’re spoiled on U.S. carriers, which all offer unlimited Wi-Fi packages. However, I find it difficult to do any work on an airline that caps its Wi-Fi allowances. Singapore Airlines offers a number of Wi-Fi packages, including a three-hour unlimited package for $15.99, which represents some improvement over the last time I flew on Singapore Airlines. You can buy multiple three-hour packages, but on longer flights, that adds up.
The only people who are able to enjoy full-flight, unlimited Wi-Fi are those who fly in the airline’s Suites or first class, neither of which is offered on this aircraft. This might be frustrating, but it helps ensure that the Wi-Fi isn’t stretched beyond its capacity and that the carrier’s best customers are the ones who can benefit from the unlimited packages.
I did appreciate receiving 100MB of free data thanks to my business-class ticket. No U.S. airline provides any sort of free Wi-Fi for flying a particular class of service, except for JetBlue, where Wi-Fi is free for everyone. That said, 100MB should only be used on your phone and not on a laptop, which is what I did. I made sure to use my iPhone’s low data mode, which disables background updates. With a four-hour pause on the session for sleep, I ended up using the entire 100MB for iMessage and Twitter by the end of the flight. Had the flight been a daytime flight, I likely would have purchased at least one three-hour session, but possibly more, once I used up my free 100MB.
Speeds were on the slower end, about 2.75Mbps download and 1.22Mbps upload. It didn’t hinder me from doing anything I tried to do on my phone during the flight, though.
Singapore Airlines remains a luxurious way to cross the Atlantic — even if you’re just stopping in Manchester and not going all the way to Singapore. My first experience flying the airline’s business-class product on its A350 was overwhelmingly positive, highlighted by superb interactions with the staff and delicious food. It was disappointing to see that some COVID-19 service cuts on Singapore remain. The good news is these cuts are reversible, and it should not be hard to restore this experience to its full greatness. I look forward to flying it again soon.
Featured photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy.
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