SINGAPORE — The Airbus A350 has only reached delivery stage for about 14 months, but since the first aircraft went to Qatar Airways just before Christmas 2014, new deliveries to new customers start to get a bit of a routine at Airbus.
When aircraft number 16, MSN 026, A350-941 registered 9V-SMA, was handed over to Singapore Airlines (SIA) on Wednesday, the buzz was considerably less than before. Even more so in comparison to the last milestone delivery for SIA in Toulouse, the first-ever Airbus A380 in the fall of 2007. With the first A350 for the Asian quality carrier, it was almost a low-key event for Airbus and SIA standards.Adding to that was that Airbus’ top brass was in China at the time, breaking ground for a new A330 completion center in Tianjn. So Didier Evrard , EVP Programmes at Airbus and former Head of the A350 Programme, was the master of ceremonies on the manufacturer’s side back in Toulouse. “Having SIA as a customer is the strongest possible endorsement of the A350”, remarked Evrard during the handover ceremony.
For SIA, 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”, said SIA-CEO Goh Choon Phong in talking to AirwaysNews.
“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 SIA, from Singapore to Düsseldorf, Germany, in July this year. “That would have been difficult to serve for us without the A350”, adds Goh.
The A350s 253 seats (42 in Business Class, 24 in Premium Economy and 187 in Economy) are just about the perfect size to establish new routes off the trunk routes or add more frequencies with extra flights to existing destinations. The first long-haul route for the new aircraft in the SIA fleet will be the service to Amsterdam from May 9th, replacing a Boeing 777-300ER.
SIA is so far the biggest customer for the A350-900 with 67 firm orders for the base version. Interestingly, the airline will deploy the type on any kind of route – from regional runs within Asia to long haul to ultra long haul. SIA is the launch customer for a new version, the A350-900ULR. “Strategically, the ULR is very important to us, as the US is such an important market and we plan to re-establish non-stop service in 2018 from Singapore to New York, Los Angeles and one more city we will announce later”, says Goh.
SIA had pulled the 18-hour-plus non-stop services from Changi Airport to Newark and the slightly shorter LAX-service in 2013, with fuel prices so high and the utilized four-engine A340-500s so inefficient that it was no longer viable. So the A350-900 will be part of the SIA fleet in three different versions, besides the current 253-seat base version for long-haul. “It’s obvious the ULR will have less seats than regular A350s, and then we will have the regional version with more seats, we still have flexibility to adjust the number of each version we need according to demand.” Interestingly, as Airbus’s A350 spokesman Arnaud de la Croix pointed out in Toulouse, the ULR model can be reconfigured back to the base 900-version, in restricting some fuel tank capacity. Unlike other ULR aircraft, the A350-900ULR variant does not physically contain bigger or more fuel tanks, the ULR just makes maximum use of the existing capacity.
But this is still kind of far off in the future, the current priority is to introduce the A350 into SIA’s fleet. Here, it will replace up to 29 Boeing 777-200ERs and 32 A330-300s, all of the latter are leased. “We currently have about 40 pilot trained to fly the A350, all converting from the A330 due to the common type rating”, explains SIA’s A350 chief pilot Paul Ho to AirwaysNews.
“By year-end, when we will have eleven 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 had to pre-authorize guests on the delivery flight to even visit the cockpit, and even then, photos of the cockpit in flight were not allowed.
There were about 70 passengers on flight SQ8895 from Toulouse to Singapore, a small media contingent, staff on duty and employees who won the trip as a prize in an internal raffle. After checking-in at the Airbus Delivery Center, each passenger and crew member had to stand on a scale to be weighed together with all personal luggage. Interestingly, several male fliers observed, including the pilot, brought it to 106 kilograms each.
The aircraft’s luxurious Business Class cabin, in 1-2-1 configuration, but forcing passengers to sleep diagonally when in full-flat mode, was almost fully occupied. The product is similar to that in the latest Boeing 777-300ERs, with some small enhancements. SIA plans to totally revamp its First and Business Class offerings with delivery of five new A380s from the second half of 2017. The CEO wouldn’t say if the airline would keep the diagonal seating, which fairly many passengers dislike.
The new Premium Economy Class has proven to be a success for SIA, while reducing the number of Economy seats, effectively leaving the cheapest segment of the market more to the Gulf carriers. “We respond to what our customers tell us”, comments the CEO. SIA’s Premium Economy, with seats supplied by the same German manufacturer ZIM that equips Lufthansa, is quite luxurious in appearance and boasts 38 inches of pitch and inflight service including French champagne. Catering on the delivery flight however included bubbly in plastic cups for everybody, as well as two meal choices supplied by Airbus. Nothing to write home about, but well presented. Apparently SIA did not want to make as much fuss as for example Qatar Airways does on delivery flights with guests, which includes a specially printed menu and an even higher class catering than what the Gulf carrier already offers on regular flights in Premium classes, often including caviar for all on board.
The route flight SQ8895 took from France to Southeast Asia was quite southerly, avoiding Iraq, for example, but not Egypt. After it got dark, most passengers used the various options of the Krisworld IFE offerings or simply slept. Once a French breakfast with croissants had been cleared, the delivery landed exactly 12 hours and 13 minutes after take-off at its new home base in Changi Airport.
A cheery reception event attended by Singapore’s minister of transport rounded out the premiere of the next-generation Airbus to one of the manufacturer’s most faithful customers since the early days of the Airbus A300 in the late 1970s. Before scheduled long-haul services to Amsterdam start, passengers can experience the new aircraft on short-haul legs between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and Jakarta, flown to enable newly trained A350-pilots to accumulate enough cycles.