Published in October 2015 issue
By Enrique Perrella
Belonging to an airline alliance has its pros and cons. Elite status, mileage accrual, priority boarding, and lounge access are some of the positives. Being stuck with whatever price the alliance has to offer is definitely the downside.
Savvy frequent flyers maintain that summer flying from the United States to Europe is an expensive ordeal, year after year. That was certainly true last June. Flying from any point on America’s East Coast to practically anywhere in Europe cost as much as $1,800 in Economy Class (Y) and $9,000 in Business Class (J).
These outrageous fares—for a flight that normally lasts less than nine hours—are completely out of proportion any time of the year. In June, SkyTeam carriers offered a J ticket from Florida to Germany at $8,200. Oneworld carriers loomed a little higher, charging $9,300 straight to Paris (CDG). Star Alliance kept a close gap, charging $7,900 for a similar routing—still unacceptable for any reasonable traveler.
These fares seemed extreme for a premium class ticket. Even with all the top-level perks such as airline lounges, priority boarding, full flat beds, bottomless champagne and gourmet food bundled up as part of the experience, there were too many zeroes above the flights’ true value.
But how about a $2,000 ticket to sit in a tight 17-inch wide, 31-inch long Economy Class seat for almost 20 hours (round-trip, that is)? Inhumane.
After surfing the net for several hours, a little more research took me to a very unusual carrier for the average American business traveler who flies regularly between the East Coast and Europe—a market dominated by the big carriers based out of MIA, JFK, ATL, and overseas in LHR: Singapore Airlines (SQ). This ‘infrequent’ airline, winner of infinite awards for in-flight catering, service, hard/soft product, on-time departures/arrivals, and listed as a five-star carrier by SkyTrax, has invaded the highly competitive North Atlantic market with one of the best products the aviation industry has to offer.
Based over 9,000 miles away from America, in Singapore’s Changi Airport (SIN), SQ has become one of the world’s leading carriers. Its serious and evolving service draws in and keeps customers—not only by taking advantage of its young ultra-long-haul (ULH) fleet and top-notch service, but also by exploiting the world’s Freedoms of the Air. SQ, in fact, is one of the world’s finest users of the Fifth Freedom privilege, with over eight routes originating in SIN, stopping and picking up passengers in a second country, and finalizing their trips in a third. Currently, SQ flies to New York (JFK) via Frankfurt (FRA); Houston (IAH) via Moscow (DMD); San Francisco (SFO) via Seoul (ICN) and Hong Kong (HKG); Los Angeles (LAX) via Tokyo-Narita (NRT); Manchester (MAN) via Munich (MUN); Sao Paulo via Barcelona (BCN); and Cairo (CAI) via Dubai (DXB).
SQ’s Fifth Freedom flights to America strengthened in November 2013, when the carrier stopped flying the 19-hour nonstop flight between SIN and Newark (EWR)—the world’s longest flight. According to the airline, the flight was too long and too thin, and current aircraft weren’t capable to operate it profitably. Singapore Airlines’ CEO Goh Choon Phong, in fact, has been talking with both Airbus and Boeing on developing an airplane with new technology that could reach America while turning profits. As he told Bloomberg News, “There isn’t really a commercially viable aircraft that could fly nonstop.”
One of the bright sides of operating a Fifth Freedom flight is that its prices are inherently lower than those of the competition. SQ operates the Boeing 777- 300(ER) to SFO and IAH, and its flagship Airbus A380 to LAX and JFK, thus offering more seats and dropping the prices even more.
Thus, a Y ticket for the JFK-FRA flight (round-trip) was quoted at $890, while the airline’s award-winning Business Class was available for $2,600 plus taxes (less than half than what US-based carriers had to offer).
Comparing the quality offered by Delta (DL), American Airlines (AA), United (UA), and even by their European counterparts, this was a no-brainer—even though SQ was not in the alliance I’m ‘loyal’ to and JFK was almost three hours away from my departure point in Miami.
The Singapore experience begins on its easy-to-use and glitch-free website. Booking was accomplished in less than eight minutes, capped by the arrival of a confirmation email to my inbox.
Weeks before the flight, a colleague advised that I pre-select my inflight meal choices through the airline’s reservation page—an excellent perk offered to Business and First Class passengers. Indeed, I opened up my reservation and the ‘Select my meal’ option was available, with over 20 dishes to choose from—all the way from vegetarian, kosher, Muslim and Hindu, to gluten- and sugar-free options.
The airline says that these pre-selected meals are custom-made for each passenger to ensure that the quality of the dish lives up to the customer’s expectations.
FLIGHT SQ25: JFK-FRA
On the day of the trip, I originated in Fort Lauderdale (FLL). My outbound DL flight arrived at JFK three hours before my scheduled departure to FRA, allowing for plenty of time to connect and enjoy this heavily trafficked airport. My bag was conveniently checked at FLL direct to FRA, thanks to cooperation between DL and SQ.
Upon arriving at the gate in JFK, an agent printed my boarding pass and confirmed that my bag had already been loaded on the A380, which was parked diagonally, adorning the tarmac with its gigantic beauty. I was then invited to the Wingtips Lounge, located 15 minutes away from the gate. Unfortunately, this proved to be perhaps one of the worst lounges I had ever visited: crowded, with very few offerings and places to sit. The staff was rude and the whole place was quite unpleasant overall, forcing me to leave and sit next to a terminal window, from where I admired the endless heavies that land at and depart from New York. Curiously, our next-door neighbor was another A380 from Emirates (EK), which also operates a daily Fifth Freedom Flight to Milan-Malpensa (MXP) at more-than-decent prices in both Y and J.
Boarding began right on time, at 19:55. First Class (Suites) was called to board, then Business Class. Three jetbridges linked the terminal with the Super Airbus, allowing for a rather quick boarding. It took less than 25 minutes to get all 409 passengers on board.
I entered the aircraft through the upper deck, turned left and reached my front-cabin 15A window seat—an ultra-wide, comfortable, and private mini-suite especially designed for ULH flights. After settling in, an elegant Flight Attendant (FA) dressed in SQ’s signature ‘Singapore Girl’ uniform (Airways, July 2015: Top 10 Cabin Crew Uniforms), approached and welcomed me onboard by my last name. This would be the norm for the rest of the flight, with all FAs in the front cabin addressing passengers this way.
Champagne and fruit juice were offered, as well as scented hot towels, the menu, and two small bags containing slippers and eyeshades—no amenity kits. Pushback followed, five minutes ahead of schedule. Flight time to FRA: an astonishing six hours and 50 minutes—one of the quickest transatlantic flights of my life.
On our way to the runway, the diminutive size of the Airbus A330-200s could be appreciated from the left-side window. Even smaller Boeing 767-300s were spotted from my upper-deck station. When flying an A380, perspective is completely lost and what are usually regarded as heavies become regular-sized airliners.
Takeoff was silent. To realize that the massive 600-ton airliner was rolling down the runway, one had to look out the window to see the engines spinning in full motion—a true delight for any aviation enthusiast.
As we reached cruising altitude, all FAs began the service, frantically. More Taittinger Champagne and assorted nuts were served, and, almost too soon, the dish I had ordered online made its way to my wide and comfortable dining table.
The appetizer, a shrimp salad with greens and tomatoes, was the first component of my dinner. Nicely presented and flavored, the dish was paired with one of the many selections SQ offers on its red wine list.
The main course followed: braised short ribs on a bed of sautéed noodles and vegetables. The ribs were so tender they were almost off the bone, and the noodles were quite tasty, hot, and spicy. Overall, an excellent dish.
Following the main course, an elegant pear torte and the liqueur, coffee, and tea service followed, putting an end to an excellent, yet expedited, meal service. As it came to an end, five female Fas surrounded the two middle seats next to me with a tray holding two cups of Champagne, a squared cake with candles, a glass with dry ice, and two teddy bears holding hands to celebrate a couple’s honeymoon. What a nice touch!
Once the cabin had been cleared up, the FAs offered turndown service. I stood up and my seat was transformed into a fully flat bed, with a mattress-like cover, two large pillows, and an extra-large feathered cover. With four hours of flight remaining, I decided to skip the In-flight Entertainment (IFE), and managed to sleep comfortably for three hours, more than enough to arrive in good shape.
As I was awakened by the smell of coffee, one of the FAs informed us that, given the quick flight, continental breakfast wouldn’t be served—just coffee and fruits, which was fine with me, after the hearty meal just three hours earlier. SQ offers a full range of Illy coffee preparations, all the way from espresso to cappuccino—the best way to get ready for an arrival into FRA.
Approach and landing were smooth and uneventful. All FAs more than politely thanked me for flying with them, and a new crew boarded the A380 for its continuing flight to SIN, with at least 60% of the passengers remaining on board. Less than seven hours after departing New York, I was picking up my luggage and walking to the Air France (AF) counters for my connection to Paris.
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FLIGHT SQ26: FRA-JFK
Two days after arriving in Frankfurt, it was time to head back. Scheduled departure time was an early 08:55. I arrived at the check-in counters at 06:00, hoping to enjoy the Lufthansa Senators Lounge for a hot breakfast.
SQ’s counters at FRA are quick and efficient. They printed my boarding pass and, in less than seven minutes, I reached the lounge, where I enjoyed cereals, croissants, eggs, and a hot cup of coffee.
Boarding began at 07:50, in the same order as in JFK, with all J passengers boarding after the First Class Suites were called. This time, my seat, 15K, was on the opposite side of the cabin. Even though the airplane was already filled with passengers flying in from Singapore and continuing to New York, the cabin was spotless and in great shape. Our heavy airliner departed FRA at 09:10, with a total expected flying time of eight hours and 50 minutes.
Thirty minutes after liftoff, brunch service began with a nice plate of fresh fruit and a choice of soft and alcoholic beverages. Given the early time of the morning, I chose sparkling water and some hot coffee. Once the plate of fruit had been cleared, a typical continental breakfast was offered, along with several egg options or a chicken noodle soup and a mixed grill of beef and pork sausage. For those who, like me, had ordered their meal choices online, the food was simply waiting to be served in the galley.
First, I chose a nice plate of traditional corn flakes—which were as good as they get. Then, my pre-ordered dish of buonfatti with spinach filling and vine ripe tomatoes arrived. The buonfatti were a sort of filled Italian gnocchi with a tomato sauce and steamed vegetables, an excellent way to start a long day of travel.
After brunch service ended, I took advantage of SQ’s IFE programming and enjoyed three movies as we flew to JFK. Unfortunately, the system didn’t offer outside camera views, just the regular moving map.
I was continuously checked on for drinks or snacks and dutyfree purchases. That day, the airline had a special $80 offer on its 1/200-scale Airbus A380-800 model, a deal I couldn’t refuse. It was the best souvenir an aviation enthusiast could ask for.
With just two hours to go before landing, the light meal service began. Normally, airlines devote all their efforts to their first meal, substantially dropping quality on their second. Not this time.
The appetizer for this meal was chorizo-style salmon and veal tonnato, capsicum walnut paste, and vegetables. The pretzel bread, among many others, came with extra virgin olive oil and refined butter.
The main course, a pre-ordered beef fillet with Cafe de Paris butter potato, arrived at my table, all incredibly well presented and even better cooked. The beef was not only tender and juicy—it was flavorful and rich. The baked potato, something I had never before tried on a flight, was moist and tasty. The overall dish was remarkable.
To finish the banquet, a raspberry sorbet with mango syrup was served in a tiny plate, followed by an Illy espresso macchiato, ending the best dining experience I have experienced on board an airplane.
Thirty minutes later, our gigantic A380 touched down in New York and the Singapore experience came to a rapid end.
It is a pity that frequent flyers who devote their valuable time and hard-earned money to flying the same airline—and alliance— get stuck with them, regardless of price and schedule, just to reach elite status and be treated substantially better than if flying other carriers. This loyalty, however, has its limits when the prices don’t reflect the actual service that those carriers offer.
Singapore proved to be 10 stories above all the SkyTeam carriers that fly out of the East Coast to Europe, even though its cabin design is already 10-years-old. To the disgrace of the competition, SQ offers a world-class service at a fraction of their cost.
These Fifth Freedom flights, albeit inconvenient to governments and local airlines, are intensifying the competition on certain routes. Both SQ flights to/from JFK were 100% booked. Service was flawless and the convenience of transiting my bag directly to their airplane from and to my DL flights was a true delight.
Would I repeat my experience on board Singapore’s A380? No question about it. My frequent flyer account may take a setback, but I’ll take the savings.