Published in July 2016 issue

Two of the world’s top-3 airlines have taken delivery of Airbus’ newest airliner, the A350. Join us on the delivery ceremony and flight of Singapore’s first.

By Andreas Spaeth

When Singapore Airlines (SQ), one of the world’s foremost airlines, premieres a new aircraft, there is always a buzz. That was certainly the case when the Asian carrier took delivery of the world’s first Airbus A380 from the then brand-new Toulouse Airbus center in October 2007 (Airways, January 2008). More than eight years later, the classy Singapore Girls—as the carrier calls its famed female Flight Attendants—were once again commanding attention on a bleak March morning in 2016.

The occasion was the delivery of SQ’s first Airbus A350-900. The newest European twin jet had reached delivery stage only about 14 months earlier and, since the first aircraft had gone to Qatar Airways (QR) just before Christmas 2014 (Airways, April 2015), first deliveries to new customers—Vietnam Airlines (VN), Finnair (AY) (Airways, March 2016), and TAM (JJ)— had started to get a bit routine at Airbus.

By the time Singapore Airlines joined the exclusive club of A350 operators this spring, the handover was almost a low-key event by both Airbus and SQ standards. Nevertheless, its underlying importance could not be denied. As Didier Evrard, Airbus Executive Vice President of Programs, said during the ceremonies, “Having Singapore Airlines as a customer is the strongest possible endorsement of the A350.”

For the airline, the A350 is a truly new dimension. “In the last five years, we had very little expansion on long-haul. We didn’t have the right aircraft with the right efficiency to expand in a commercially viable manner,” Singapore Airlines CEO Goh Choon Phong told Airways. “The A350 is a game-changer for us because it is this particular aircraft offering us the right size, efficiency, and cabin to add more capacity on long-haul.”

In fact, the A350 will open up a new route for Singapore Airlines, from Singapore to Düsseldorf (DUS) as soon as July this year. “That would have been difficult to serve for us without the A350,” Goh said, adding that is a new joint venture between SQ and Lufthansa (LH) for routes linking Asia and Europe. “It makes Düsseldorf, as a destination, much more efficient, as we can transfer our passengers to the Lufthansa network around Europe,” he added. “And we make use of the size and technology the A350 brings into play to serve points we couldn’t possibly serve in the past.”

Inside its cabin, the Singapore Airlines A350 boasts 253 seats (42 in Business Class, 24 in Premium Economy and 187 in Economy). That’s just about the perfect size for establishing new routes besides the trunk ones, or for adding more frequencies with extra flights to existing destinations. After the initial crew familiarization flights to Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, the first long-haul route for the new aircraft will be to Amsterdam from May 9, replacing the Boeing 777-300ER service.

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Singapore is, so far, the largest customer for the A350-900, with 67 firm orders for the base version. The airline plans to deploy the type on any kind of route—from regional runs within Asia to long- and ultra-long haul operations. For the latter, Singapore has ordered the ultra-long-range variant of the A350, dubbed the A350-900ULR. “Strategically, the ULR is very important to us, as the United States are a key market and we plan to reestablish nonstop services in 2018 from Singapore to New York, Los Angeles, and one more city that we will announce later,” Goh said.

Singapore Airlines used to offer the world’s longest flight—from Changi (SIN) to Newark (EWR)—and the slightly shorter Los Angeles (LAX) service. The airline closed both routes in 2013 when fuel prices spiked and the operation of the Airbus A340-500 grew too burdensome. Goh insists that the return of Singapore Airlines’ direct flights to the USA with the A350 will make financial sense—and will not be just for bragging rights. “We would never go somewhere just for prestige, or just to serve the world’s longest route. It’s got to be commercially viable. Even with higher fuel prices, now the new US nonstop would be economically viable,” the CEO told Airways.

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Eventually, Singapore Airlines will operate two more versions of the A350- 900 besides its current 253-seat base longhaul one. “It’s obvious that the ULRs will have less seats than the regular A350s, and then we will have the regional versión with more seats. We are flexible enough to adjust the number of each version we need according to demand,” Goh said.

Talk about flexibility: the ULR model can be reconfigured back to the base -900 version by simply relinquishing all fuel tank capacity, said Arnaud de la Croix, head of communications for the Airbus A350 XWB Program. Unlike other ULR aircraft, the A350-900ULR variant does not need to be equipped with bigger or additional fuel tanks; it just makes maximum use of its existing ones.

But this is still kind of far off in the future. The current priority is to introduce the A350 into the SQ fleet, replacing up to 29 Boeing 777-200ERs and 32 leased A330- 300s. “We currently have about 40 Pilots trained to fly the A350, all coming from the A330, given the common type rating,” the airline’s A350 chief Pilot, Paul Ho, told Airways during the delivery flight, while approaching Singapore over the island of Sumatra. “By year end, when we will have 11 A350s delivered, we plan to have about 100 Pilots to fly them.”

Singapore being Singapore, a city-state with famously strict rules, the Civil Aviation Authority and SQ’s SVP Flight Operationshad to preauthorize guests on the delivery flight to even visit the cockpit. Even then, photos of the cockpit during flight were not allowed.

There were about 70 passengers on flight SQ8895 from Toulouse to Singapore, which included a small media contingent, the staff on duty, and those employees who had won the trip in a raffle. After check-in at the Airbus Delivery Center, all passengers and crewmembers had to stand on a scale to be weighed together with all their personal luggage.

The aircraft’s luxurious Business Class cabin in 1-2-1 configuration, with passengers sleeping diagonally when in full-flat mode, was almost fully occupied. The product is similar to that found in the latest Boeing 777-300ERs, with some small enhancements. SQ plans to totally revamp its First and Business Class offerings with the delivery of five new A380s beginning in the second half of 2017. The CEO would not say whether the airline would keep the diagonal seating, which is disliked by a fair number of passengers.

The new Premium Economy Class has proved a success for Singapore Airlines. While reducing the number of Economy seats, it effectively leaves more of the cheapest segment of the market to the Gulf carriers. “We respond to what our customers tell us,” Goh said.

SQ’s Premium Economy, with seats supplied by ZIM, the same German manufacturer that equips Lufthansa, is quite luxurious in appearance, boasts 38 inches of pitch, and offers inflight service that includes Champagne. Catering on the delivery flight, however, included bubbly served in plastic cups for everybody, as well as two meal choices supplied by Airbus. Nothing to write home about, but well presented. Apparently, SQ did not want to make as much fuss as, for example, Qatar Airways (QR), which, on delivery flights, gives guests a specially printed menu and even higher-class catering than what it typically offers in Premium.

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The route that flight SQ8895 took from France to Southeast Asia was quite a southerly one, avoiding Iraq, for example, but not Egypt. After dark, most passengers used the various options offered by the Krisworld inflight entertainment offerings or just slept. Once a French breakfast with croissants had been cleared, the delivery flight landed exactly 12 hours and 13 minutes after takeoff at its new home base in Changi Airport.

A cheery reception attended by Singapore’s Minister for Transport rounded out the premiere of the next-generation Airbus to one of the manufacturer’s most faithful customers, a relationship that dates to the early days of the Airbus A300 in the late 1970s.

Both in passenger volume (counted in RPKs) and revenue, Singapore Airlines currently ranks 18th worldwide, eclipsing both All Nippon Airways (NH) and easyJet (U2) by carrying about 19 million passengers over mostly longer distances annually in 107 aircraft, at last count. However, it faces increasing competition on several fronts, threatening its usually healthy profits. On longhaul, the Gulf carriers present a formidable challenge and, on regional routes, an intensifying battle for market share is on with a proliferation of LCCs flying in and out of Singapore.

So, Singapore Airlines, known for its fairly stoic strategies, is being forced to react; it is doing so by forming a group of airlines to adapt to different needs and market segments. This includes SilkAir (MI), a regional full-service subsidiary that is increasingly getting integrated with SQ, as well as short-haul LCC Tigerair (TR) and long-haul offshoot Scoot (TZ).

And now, of course, an aircraft that seems tailor-made for Singapore Airlines’ expansion: the Airbus A350.