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by Christopher J Varady
PHOTO: ROB FINLAYSON
Airline: Singapore Airlines
Sector: Los Angeles, California (LAX) to Singapore (SIN)
Aircraft: Airbus A340-500
Since reading the features in Airways (June 2004, October 2004 & August 2005) describing the ultra-long-haul flights by Airbus A340-500s of Singapore Airlines (IATA: SQ/ICAO: SIA) and Thai Airways International (IATA: TG/ICAO: THA), I vowed to never take such a horrifically long trip. After trying to use ‘LH Miles & More’ points to fly in SQ’s ‘new Business Class’, I was half-disappointed, half-afraid to hear that the only flight available was its A340-500 ‘LeaderShip’ service. Later, the opportunity arose to sample Thai’s ‘A345’ ultra-long-haul experience.
In true LAX/Hollywood style, I bumped into Sophia Loren—literally—at the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Arriving about 2½ hours before departure, I was pleased to see only one other traveller at the business class line. Check-in took less than five minutes. Unfortunately, at LAX passengers must walk their luggage to the security screening point before heading to the gate.
The Star Alliance lounge at LAX is located just after the security checkpoint. Save for a few businessmen with all the modern electronic tools of their trade, I had the whole place to myself. Although plenty of drinks were stocked, the food quality left a lot to be desired. Given the impeccable standards expected from SQ and other Star Alliance members, this was a big disappointment, especially at such a key airport.
On this evening the aircraft boarded at the auxiliary terminal, which meant that passengers were ferried there by bus. Once at the terminal, passengers had to walk up ramps to the second story to reach the Jetway. However, immediately after stepping on board the A340-500, it became obvious that this would be no ordinary flight. Flight attendants (FAs) worked in friendly unison to distribute hot towels, champagne, dinner menus, and reading materials, within a few minutes of boarding. They exuded an air of professionalism, confidence, and attentiveness that I had never experienced on other airlines.
Immediately before push-back, FAs came round to take drink orders, addressing each passenger by name. I chose the Château Haut-Batailley 1998 Pauillac off the list that featured no less than 30 types of adult beverages, eight teas, four coffees, and the usual selection of all other sorts of drinks. Even on an 18-hour flight, a passenger could not sample even half the choices. The captain, who had an Australian accent, made his PA (public address) announcement and wished us a pleasant flight while bidding us a good night on Monday, saying that he would speak to us again on Wednesday morning shortly before landing. We pushed back 17 minutes after the scheduled departure time.
After a very short taxi, we took off in a westerly direction over the Pacific. Passengers on the A340-500 will notice a significantly more powerful takeoff and faster climb than on other A340 models.
Immediately after takeoff, the cabin crew distributed slippers and eye shades, but not amenity kits—which surprised me, given that many toiletries no longer make it past the security checkpoints. Even before reaching our cruising altitude, there were so many crew serving us that I couldn’t recognize them all.
SQ’s ‘SpaceBed’ is luxurious. At 6ft (1.83m) tall, my feet still did not reach the seat in front of me and I felt that I had plenty of room even though nearly every seat in this section was occupied. While not as wide as the new Business Class seats, the SpaceBed was more than comfortable for enduring the 18-hour flight. The cabin, which was upholstered in deep purples and gray, gave an elegant feel; I didn’t feel it was as cramped as many business class products. Instead, it had a genuinely open ambiance.
Lavatories were the best equipped I’d ever seen, even beyond those of other airlines’ first class cabins. I was surprised to see a window in the toilet, a full-length mirror, and fresh flowers. Extra amenities such as real washcloths, eau de cologne, and mouthwash were on offer.
The FAs began their work in a friendly and attentive manner. Little touches made a difference, such as turning on individuals’ reading lights and using passengers’ names throughout the service. Most passengers quickly turned to the ‘KrisWorld’ entertainment guide after receiving noise-canceling headsets. SQ offers 80 movies, 105 TV shows, and 180 CDs. In addition, passengers can access games and information.Two FAs served dinner to each passenger, refilling the French wine at each course. Dinner began with a light course of canapés (salmon cakes, ham with ginger, and smoked duck) followed by a salad of crab and mango. For the main course, I chose the mint-crusted lamb chops from the choice of four. Dinner service concluded with ice cream and coffee.
PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER J VARADY
Singapore dinner: canapes, salad, and main course.
After dinner, I chose Ali for my first movie and settled in for the night. The SpaceBed is extremely comfortable with enough elbow room, and my feet just touching the end of the bed. It lies flat but at an angle, which caused me to slide down a bit. With the feather pillow and oversize thick blankets, I found it quite easy to sleep.
Somewhere between Hawai‘i and Guam, I took a midnight walk through the cabin to see the ‘Executive Economy’ cabin. I was surprised at how comfortable EE seating appeared, with plenty of legroom, an angle of recline not seen before in economy, and most passengers appearing to sleep comfortably. Other airlines flying 14-plus-hour legs should take note.
Over Guam I requested the noodle and fish ball soup, which made an excellent ‘midnight’ snack, and was quickly served by the FAs. I then settled in for a French movie and tried to nap a bit more.
About 2½ hours before landing, the cabin was artificially suffused with illumination of a soft reddish hue while the crewmembers began preparing each passenger for the breakfast service. The breakfast courses were: fresh fruits; yogurt and cereal; and omelet with sausage and potatoes, all served with tea and juice. Before ‘retiring’ for the night, I had pre-ordered the omelet.
Singapore breakfast of fruit and omelet.
We landed smoothly at a still-dark Changi Airport. Because of SQ’s configuration of the A340-500, we disembarked within five minutes of reaching the parking stand. Once off the airplane, I headed straight for the business class lounge, where a shower after such a long flight makes a huge difference.
PHOTO: GERARD ISAACSON
Airline: Thai Airways International
Sector: Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to LAX
Aircraft: Airbus A340-500
Because of my incoming flight landing only 25 minutes before the departure of TG794, a representative from Thai met me at the arrival gate, holding up a placard with my name on it. She walked me to Gate C9 where the flight to Los Angeles was boarding. I was worried about my luggage, but the agent confidently informed me that the flights were at the same terminal and Thai personnel were making an effort to ensure that the baggage would also make the connection.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to enjoy Suvarnabhumi Airport (Airways, December 2006 & January 2007), which is one of the world’s best in terms of both aesthetics and amenities. I walked aboard the A340-500, which still had the ‘new airplane’ smell. A flight attendant greeted me by bowing her head in Thai tradition, and indicated my seat was on the right side of the aircraft. Boarding continued for about ten minutes past the scheduled departure time while a few late passengers arrived.
Pushing back at 1950, we taxied past a pageant of airplanes from many of the world’s major airlines, and even a few rare visitors such as a Turkmenistan Airlines Boeing 757. Our takeoff roll was relatively brief despite the nearly full load, thanks mainly to the A340-500’s more powerful Rolls-Royce Trent engines.
Once the seat belt sign was turned off, the beautifully dressed FAs distributed noise-canceling headsets, amenity kits, and hot towels. TG has perhaps the most attractively uniformed female FAs in the sky, clad in colorful embroidered dresses with a sash.
PHOTO: KOK CHWEE SIM
Dinner service began soon afterward, with the serving of aperitifs. I chose the dry Italian red wine. The first salad course arrived: a bed of greens with king prawn and a choice of breads. Business class passengers could choose from four dinner entrées (main courses, for non-US readers)—pork, chicken, beef, or fish. I opted for the beef with au gratin potatoes and vegetables. Given the world renowned cuisine of Thailand, it was disappointing not to have a Thai dish on the menu. The meal was concluded with fruit and cheese, followed by tiramisu for dessert with choice of fruit topping, served with Cognac or Grand Marnier. Reflecting the good nature of Thai people in general, the FAs were extremely friendly and joked with passengers throughout the service.
Once the dinner trays were collected, most travellers settled in to rest or take advantage of the entertainment system. However, the cabin crew left the bright fluorescent lights on for quite some time, making it difficult for some to sleep.
TG’s entertainment options numbered about half of SQ’s, but were still adequate for the 14-hour flight. I selected Invasion, then reclined my seat to the lie-flat position for the night. TG’s business class seats were slightly more comfortable than SQ’s SpaceBed because they had less of an angle when fully extended. Coupled with the thick and heavy red silk blanket, it was quite easy to doze off.
The cabin attendants woke us for breakfast, then turned on the ‘mood’ lighting (also soft red). Passengers had pre-ordered breakfast the night before from among three options. I chose the shrimp and fried noodles, in keeping with an Asian flavor, rather than pancakes and maple syrup. Fresh fruits and yogurt rounded off breakfast, along with tea and coffee.
After breakfast the trays were collected, I turned on the moving map display, and was disappointed to note that nearly three hours remained to destination. I was confused as to why the FAs had chosen to wake up passengers with so much flight time remaining. Most passengers turned on their entertainment systems again in search of a final movie, still groggy from their interrupted sleep.
Eager to compare Thai’s economy class with Singapore Airlines, I took a walk to the rear of the cabin. TG’s A340-500s have cabins of premium economy and regular economy. Although premium economy was similar to that of SQ, regular economy would have been brutal on such a long flight, and nearly impossible on the New York service on the same aircraft, as it seemed to contain no appreciable amount of extra space.
We made landfall on the US West Coast near San Francisco, and followed the coast of California to Los Angeles. After another smooth landing, we taxied to the international terminal. Most passengers seemed disoriented by having taken off in the evening to land at approximately the same time of day as when they departed, with no daylight in between.
Except for the lack of amenity kits, SQ proved it is the world’s best airline, at least on its ultra-long-haul service. Both airlines have shown that, for business class passengers, they can make some of the longest routes in the world survivable and even pleasurable, through good entertainment, lie-flat seats, adequate meals and, most of all, attentive cabin crews.
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