Skift Take

We expect Singapore's new first-class suites will be considered among the world's best products. But the airline still faces intense competition from Gulf and Asian airlines. It's not clear how much this cabin update will help on that front.

When Singapore Airlines introduced its first suite in 2007,  coinciding with the inaugural Airbus A380 passenger flight, it was a big deal. No airline had ever put a double bed on an airplane, and the product, with its opulent leather compartments, was so novel journalists asked if the airline would bar passengers from having sex on board. 

A decade later, Singapore Airlines still delights long-haul passengers with that suite, and that makes for an impressively long run in an industry in which even the most advanced products become obsolete within five years. But it’s no longer the world’s most opulent product, having been eclipsed a couple of years ago by Etihad Airways and its first class “apartment.”

On its A380s, Etihad put two suites on each side of the upper-deck aisle, while Singapore’s decade-old configuration has four on the wider lower deck.

On Thursday, Singapore tried to catch up, introducing a massive new suite for 19 Airbus A380s, including five new aircraft set to arrive soon from Airbus. The first airplane with the new product will debut December 18 on the Singapore-Syndey route, though the airline does not expect every A380 to have the new update until 2020.

Singapore’s executives say the suites are 60 percent larger than what they replace, and each will have both a leather recliner and a single bed. Couples in some rows may combine suites to make an extra-large compartment complete with a double bed.

At its launch event in Singapore, the airline also introduced new business-class and economy-class products for the A380s, though neither is as innovative as the new suites. Business class does have at least one new fun feature — couples in center seats can combine seats to make a double bed. It’s similar to a new seat from Qatar Airways called the QSuite.

The announcement comes at a difficult time for Singapore. Once, it was the unabashed leader in long-haul luxury, but increasingly, other airlines have caught up, adding not only first class suites, but also over-the-top features like showers and onboard bars.

Like U.S. and European airlines, Singapore faces tough competition from the three main Gulf carriers — Etihad, Emirates and Qatar. But it also must compete for passengers with Chinese carriers, who still lag Singapore’s quality but have improved their products in recent years, while offering relatively cheap long-haul fares.

Interestingly, Singapore is spending roughly $850 million on the A380 cabins — a figure that includes research and development costs — even as it tries to pare costs elsewhere.

Last month, Singapore outlined a three-year program to make the carrier more efficient and profitable. Reports indicted Singapore was looking at more than 50 initiatives, including lowering fuel burn and offering more self-service options for passengers, as well as implementing strategies to reduce onboard food and drink waste. This announcement came several months after the airline reported its first quarterly loss in five years.

The A380 is an iconic airplane for Singapore, but it accounts for a small portion of the airline’s fleet, with many of its long-haul routes flown by Airbus A350s and Boeing 777-300ERs. Only one flight to the United States — New York to Frankfurt to Singapore — is operated by the A380. Other destinations from Singapore include Auckland, Beijing, Hong Kong, London, and Paris.

That means relatively few passengers will ever fly Singapore’s A380s. And far fewer will ever experience the airline’s Suites Class. But at Skift we love innovative airlines, so let’s look at the new products introduced Thursday.

Suites Class

The new suite has ample storage, including a space for handbags.

With its 21-inch wide leather armchair and separate 27-inch wide bed, the new suite looks more like a miniature hotel room than an aircraft cabin.

It comes with large sliding doors and adjustable blinds, offering unusual privacy, even compared to other first-class cabins. Passengers may control their suite’s lighting, just as at home. They’ll also have a 32-inch high-definition monitor to watch movies and television.

Travelers will be able to store belongings in the suite, rather than in overhead bins. Each suite will have a dedicated space for handbags, an important feature, one executive said, for female customers who didn’t like stowing their Birkin bags in a bin or on the floor.

In an interview, Singapore CEO Goh Choon Phong said the airline surveyed its best passengers and learned they wanted neither onboard showers nor a bar, so unlike Etihad and Emirates, Singapore will have neither.

“They wanted more space,” he said. “They wanted more privacy. They wanted more convenience, like in where to place things. And they wanted more comfort. This is exactly what we have given them.”

The suites cabin will be much smaller than today’s, with only six seats, compared to 12, and it’ll be upstairs rather than on the lower deck. Having a dozen suites was probably too many, since the market of potential passengers willing spend $10,000 or more on a round-trip ticket is small, said Brendan Sobie, the Singapore-based chief analyst for CAPA – Centre for Aviation.

“What they have discovered is the load factor is quite low,” he said, adding that profitability likely will improve as Singapore sells a greater percentage of seats in a smaller cabin.

And even if Singapore doesn’t sell every seat, the airline might find that having an over-the-top cabin will help it sell more seats in business class and even economy class. Prospective customers might be intrigued by suites, and make assumptions that other cabins also will be luxurious.

“It can have a halo effect,” Sobie said. “There’s always this unquantifiable benefit you get with these types of products.

One potential issue: The new suite is being manufactured by Zodiac Seats UK. In recent months, United Airlines has complained that Zodiac has been behind schedule on its new Polaris class seats. But on Thursday, Singapore executives said they had no concerns about timely delivery of the product.

Business class

Singapore Airlines has long had one of the world’s most luxurious business classes, but its seats have one main drawback. Unlike most others, passengers cannot recline their seat into a bed. Instead, to convert it, they must stand up and flip the seat over.

That approach may produce a more comfortable bed, but it’s a slight inconvenience. And since it takes time to make the switch, it essentially requires to passengers to make a commitment — Do they want a seat? Or a bed?

With the new A380 business class, Singapore has solved that problem. Its seat will recline into a bed. No flipping is required.

Singapore’s seat, designed by JPA Design of the UK and manufactured by JAMCO Corp. in Japan, is 25 inches wide and 78 inches long. It’ll have a 18-inch high-definition screen. There will be four seats in every row, and each seat will have unimpeded aisle access.

The seat is mostly standard, but has a few new features, including the larger bed that can be formed by joining the two center seats. The airline also said the seat will have more storage than usual, allowing customers to stow a full-size bag underneath it.

The new cabin will have 78 business class seats. Today, Singapore has two versions of the A380, one with 60 business class seats, and one with 86.

It is possible Singapore will add the same seats to other planes. But on Thursday, executives said they weren’t ready to announce whether they would retrofit other long-haul planes with the new product.

Economy class

Today, no Singapore Airlines A380 has more than 441 seats, but the new version will have 471. That means Singapore will reduce its number of premium seats, while adding seats in economy.

On one version of the A380 — the one that is already more dense — Singapore will add 10 economy class seats. On the other, which today has more premium seats, Singapore will add 98 economy class seats.

Even with more coach seats, Singapore executives say cabin comfort will not change. Instead, they say, they’re being more efficient with how they use space. It helps that the suites will move to the upper deck, allowing the airline to devote the entire main deck to economy class.

Singapore also made some other tweaks that passengers likely will not notice.

“We managed to optimize the real estate usage on the plane by locating the galleys and all those monuments in the right place so the space could be more efficiently used,” Goh said.

The economy class seats, manufactured by Recaro, may be thinner than the ones they replace. But according to the airline, they’ll have more legroom and back support, as well as a six-way adjustable headrest. They’ll also have an 11.1-inch touch-screen monitor.

Singapore’s premium economy product is not expected to change.


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Tags: airline innovation, Etihad Airways, first class, passenger experience, singapore airlines

Photo credit: Singapore Airlines has unveiled a new suite for its 19 Airbus A380s. It will be on all superjumbos by 2020. Singapore Airlines

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