Can Singapore Airlines' Airbus A350 redefine long-range flying?

By David Flynn, April 8 2016

A spree of “world’s longest flights” is on the way, powered by the globe-spanning Airbus A350-900 Ultra Long-Range jet which will allow airlines to launch new time-saving routes without a halfway stop-over to refuel.

And, if travellers are lucky, we'll see those aircraft and their seating geared to suit those seemingly endless hours above the clouds.

Today’s extensive treks which share the podium for the world’s longest flights – such as Qantas' Airbus A380 from Sydney to Dallas, and Qatar's Boeing 777-200LR between Doha and Auckland – operate on conventional aircraft with standard seating.

In the case of Qantas, that means everything from 14 private first class nooks and 64 business class pods to some 400 seats across premium economy and economy.

None of these seats are any different to the Flying Kangaroo’s other A380s which sometimes make a trip barely half the length of the Dallas marathon, such as the lazy eight hour lope from Sydney to Hong Kong.

Singapore Airlines' launch of the Airbus A350-900 Ultra-Long Range jet in 2018 could change that for the better.

The A350ULR – created as a bespoke build for Singapore Airlines but now under consideration by several other airlines – will let the Singaporean flag-carrier resume non-stop flights between Singapore and the USA, potentially including a 19 hour stretch to New York.

(The Star Alliance member currently flies to Los Angeles and San Francisco via Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo, New York via Frankfurt, and Houston with a stop in Moscow.)

'Executive economy class'

Singapore Airlines previously ran non-stop flights from Singapore to Los Angeles and NY-adjacent Newark on older Airbus A340 jets but axed the service in 2013 due to rising fuel bills.

Those A340s were initially fitted with 64 of SQ's Airbus A380-style business class seats and 117 'executive economy class' seats, the later being more akin to domestic business class in width and legroom, although in their final years of flying the jets were upgraded to an all-business class 100 seat layout.  

In a nod to those early New York and Los Angeles flights, Singapore Airlines CEO Mr Goh Choon Phong has previously told Australian Business Traveller that he is looking beyond the A340’s ‘all business class’ model, saying “It will probably be more than just business class, I think it will be a mix of cabin classes.”

Singapore Airlines’ long-legged A350 will have around 170 seats – approximately 80 less than its new standard-issue A350-900s.

First impressions: Singapore Airlines' Airbus A350 business class

SQ's A350ULR mix

But could some of those 170 seats be standard economy class benches?

When Singapore Airlines’ launch order for seven of the A350-900ULRs was announced last year, Airbus Executive Vice-President for Strategy and Marketing Kiran Rao said "I can’t go into details on the type of layouts they’re looking at, but it would be a premium service."

However, speaking with Australian Business Traveller on the sidelines of an Airbus media briefing in London last month, Rao revealed that “during the evaluation Singapore Airlines did ask for a regular economy class seat.”

“They have the option to put regular economy in (but) will they or won’t they… what they will do I’ll let them decide, that’s a question you need to ask them.”

When Rao says “regular economy” on the A350 he's talking of a different and far more generously-proportioned seat than most people would picture – it’s a comfy 18 inches wide, and on our A350 flights there's much-appreciated room around the knees.

That said, Rao expects that airlines flying the new extended-range A350-900 from 2020 – which will see its range extended by 500 nautical miles over the debutant jet launched just last year, for a maximum range of 8,100 miles – will not shy away from economy seating. 

Airlines buying the revamped A350-900 will “start to do not 19 hour flights but maybe 17 or 18 hour flights, and when you're doing 17 -18 hours, for sure  those customers will have the normal 18 inch economy class seat in the aeroplane.”

A spokesperson for Singapore Airlines tells Australian Business Traveller that “at this stage no decision has been made on the cabin layout for our A350-900ULR aircraft that will enter service in 2018.”

“We are continuing to analyse all options to ensure the most suitable configuration is chosen for the world's longest flights.”

Also read: Singapore Airlines' new regional business class for Boeing 787-10, Airbus A350 

New business class

What seats, then, are travellers likely to see on Singapore Airlines’ epic 19 hour flights?

There’s little doubt that business class will occur the larger part of the A350ULR.

The route from Singapore to Los Angeles and New York is a well-monied one and in the days of SQ’s non-stop A340 flights attracted more than its share of high-flying executives, especially from the financial sector.

On the A350ULR those passengers will be ensconced in Singapore Airlines’ next-generation business class seat – a design due to be launched in 2017 and moving one generation beyond the current and already exceptional model.

First class suites?

And beyond business class?

As Airbus’ Rao admits, Singapore Airlines has certainly considered economy class – but whether the carrier eventually opts for 18 inch wide economy seating (ideally matched with a little more than standard legroom) or raises the baseline to its well-regarded premium economy seat (below) remains to be seen.

Review: Singapore Airlines premium economy (Sydney-Singapore)

First class will also factor into SQ’s equations, potentially using the airlines’ forthcoming suites design now under development and set to launch in 2017.

But the luxe suites will certainly face a squeeze, and not only from uncertain economic conditions – exactly how much loose change will be jangling in A-list and C-level pockets take by the time the A350ULR is flying and into the years beyond?

The continued improvement of business class – SQ’s own Boeing 777-300ER business class seats being a stellar example – makes it harder for airlines to define and differentiate first class, and justify its much higher price tag.

For what it’s worth, Singapore Airlines’ A350-900ULR is also expected to deliver the full Airspace experience of Airbus’ new-wave cabin design (show below).

Read: Airbus reveals new Airspace business class cabin designs

“You take the recent order by Singapore Airlines of the A350-900URL” suggests Rao. “These passengers are going to be in that aeroplane for 19 hours. You cannot put them in a plane for 19 hours and give them a space that will drive them nuts!”

Also read: Beyond business class – upgrading the seat to a 'suite'

Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT

David
David

David Flynn

David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

rob01

rob01

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

10 Nov 2011

Total posts 121

Interesting that they are considering economy. There is absolutely no circumstance under which I can imagine considering a 19 hour flight in economy - even if it is some kind of premium economy. In business, sure, but no way in economy.

Then again, I like flying and I'm one of a small handful of people that actually like airports, so I would usually have no problem with an additional stop over and chance to stretch anyway.

lind26

lind26

24 Apr 2014

Total posts 269

With a Headwind on the LAX to MEL route I have sometimes been subjected to 16+ hours, so I think I can survive 19

Serg

Serg

QFF

12 Apr 2013

Total posts 1446

Generally speaking I hate airports and flying and looking at them as at essential devil, but cannot agree with you more – if time OK I rather make stop over and have a sleep in proper bed instead of flying almost straight 20 hr. Even in business.

eminere

eminere

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Sep 2013

Total posts 1127

Who will supply engines for the A350-900ULR?

Jedinak K

Jedinak K

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Sep 2012

Total posts 211

RRT XWB. Not sure if it will be the standard 84000 or the 97000 lb thrust setting

kikoenaivoice

kikoenaivoice

08 Mar 2012

Total posts 27

I think the A345 was initially fitted with spacebeds. Quite hard to imagine now that spacebeds had the WOW-factor back then!

HelpfulAmerican

HelpfulAmerican

06 Jan 2016

Total posts 31

So 17-18 houur flights, economy is fine. 19 hours all of a sudden the industry may need to axe economy? If that's the message of this article it seems a bit arbitrary.

I do agree Rob and Linds posts. I wouldnt fly 19 hours in economy, but I could survive it. With that in mind it will just come down, as it always does, to finding a mix that maxemizies revenue.

David

David

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2322

There's no 'message' in this article, just the posing of an idea that long-haul focussed configurations of the A350-900ULR could be markedly different to the 16-17hr 'standard' configurations of other airlines.

For what it's worth, while we don't dwell on economy here at AusBT, there are many times I hear people decry the notion of economy on very long flights, to which I point out that several hundred people fly every day in economy on Qantas' A380 marathon between Sydney and Dallas and they survive.

Covo95

Covo95

30 Jul 2015

Total posts 113

what if they made their premium econony seats sold as economy seats on these very long flights 

lind26

lind26

24 Apr 2014

Total posts 269

It sounds like that is most likely the idea as the seats don't seem the routine economy

FLX1

FLX1

31 Mar 2016

Total posts 644

But what will be the point of such confusing mkting strategy  other than to confuse your potential PY & Y customers?  There're really only 2 outcomes:

A) Sell PY seat @ Y fare level and lose $ big time=

PY seat product costs much more than a Y seat.  Ignoring the diff in design+manufacturing cost, 4rows of PY(About 28seats) typically consume nearly the same cabin floor area as 5rows of Y(About 45seats) on a 350.  Therefore, this approach equates to a Rev$ loss of @ least 37% fm the same cabin space....and we've not even started accounting for the lost of fare premium PY over Y.

B) Sell a technically PY seat but marketed/branded as a Y product @ PY fare level=

1st of all, it alienates PY customers whom mistakenly is told by SQ this product is a Y.  2ndly, it alienates Y customers whom instantly see this Y fare display on fare search engines being significantly higher than the Y fares fm comparable competitors. 

 

I simply fail to see how your suggestion can serve any purpose.

GuyBetsy

GuyBetsy

British Airways - Executive Club

07 Sep 2012

Total posts 48

Oy. Just put in some bunk beds.

Covo95

Covo95

30 Jul 2015

Total posts 113

or maybe create a new economy seat, which has extra legroom and width than the normal economy seat to make it bearable for such a long flight

Jedinak K

Jedinak K

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Sep 2012

Total posts 211

That would be a good idea, but it all depends on how successful the route will be. If the new non-stop routes prove to be a big money-maker, SQ could seek out a larger aircraft like the B777-8 to put in more passengers, in which case having a roomy economy would be good. If the routes don't prove to be a success, the adaptability of the fuel systems on the A350-900ULR to revert back to normal A350 range would render the new economy seats useless as it was designed for the 19 hour journey. I think seeing roomy economy seats would depend on the success of these non-stop flights. 

FLX1

FLX1

31 Mar 2016

Total posts 644

And what exactly will be the diff in cabin floor area consumption between such "a new economy seat" with extra legroom+width as described vs a typical PY seat design today?

1+1 somehow mysteriously still =1?

sgb

sgb

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

30 Nov 2015

Total posts 745

Sound like DVT will be on it's way back.

RaptorNation158

RaptorNation158

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Aug 2014

Total posts 513

I can imagine quite a bit of Y would be empty so chances are you will be able to find a row to sleep, but I don't know what I will do sitting 20 hours on a plane besides a few movies and maybe some sleep - this is clearly for people who want to pay for time and a cheaper ticket too and are fit enough to handle the rigours of ultra long haul travel. 

FLX1

FLX1

31 Mar 2016

Total posts 644

But if U are right and SQ agree to your conclusion that many Y seats are expected to remain unsold/empty, what is the point for SQ to include a Y cabin on SIN-NYC/LAX nonstop?

To breakeven in Y cabin for such a hi-cost ULH operation, minimum breakeven load factor must actually be higher(e.g. 85% full) than normal(e.g. 65% full).

Also, I can assure U that the Y fare for this SQ flight won't be cheaper than all other 1-stop options.  In fact, it should normally be higher due to higher op cost for such long ULH flights. Look @ the hypothetical mission comparison(All based on published route/fleet/cabin config info+data) as below and U'll see this is no rocket science nor fancy financial modeling but straight forward math:

SQ= EWR/JFK->SIN nonstop, @ least 19hrs sector duration or fuel burn, 359ULR carry about 170seats maximum.

CX= EWR/JFK->HKG nonstop, no more than 16h15m sector duration or fuel burn, 359(Longhaul config) carrying 280seats.

Easy to conclude SQ will bear far higher op cost per seat than CX no matter how we slice it or dice it.  Worst of all, SQ can't rely on superior connectivity in S.E.Asia @ SIN to fill those 170seats.....CX's HKG hub is just as well connected to S.E.Asia as SIN plus CX already hv x4 daily nonstop in the NYC mkt around the clock while SQ will only hv 1 frequency.

SQ's SIN-NYC service is clearly for people flying only NYC/N.Eastern U.S. to/fm SIN(But not beyond) AND willing to pay MORE to save total travel time regardless of which cabin class.

Looking

Looking

10 Aug 2015

Total posts 118

Surely there is scope for a 100% rethink about the flight seat / space experience? I think that long haul flying is based on simply  stretching the LHR - JFK journey ... that is add in an extra meal, add in some extra films and that is modern day long haul. When really using the ful interior to allow for bunk style beds, similar to the Indian railways, would be ideal. Compact yes but being seated for 8+hours is awful and despite being in my 30s I am at the point now where travelling due to the flights is rather off putting. 

FLX1

FLX1

31 Mar 2016

Total posts 644

"Surely there is scope for a 100% rethink about the flight seat / space experience?"

I assume U're talking about the Y class experience and I also assume U're aware that some of the smartest/brightest airliner cabin interior designers hv been working on the problem of maximizing comfort in a forever limited Y space(i.e. space efficiency) for decades including early demo of various innovative concepts.  Airlines rarely adopt these concepts /solutions due to a range of reasons but on occassions in recent yrs, a few ideas were implemented or close to being implemented in Y e.g.

1. NZ's SkyCouch or CI's Family Couch

2. Geven Piuma Sofa (Just search google for details)

"...using the full interior to allow for bunk style beds, similar to the Indian railways..."

Despite not being a professional cabin designer, I can instantly think of a few major practical problems with this idea in a typical modern widebody aircraft.  If the 'beds' are stacked tight enough fm floor to ceiling to accommodate 3 adult pax e.g., in the original space for Y seats x3(Otherwise, fare will go up due to extra cabin floor area consumption),  then how to address the following issues?

a) Where to store carry-on bags securely which is a must during taxi /take-off //turbulence /landing?  Not an issue on railway but a real safety issue on an aircraft.

b) Will 2 out of every 3 Y pax accept not hving a window?  Railway cars can hv huge windows but not on an aircraft.

c) Can we expect all adult Y pax to accept such a low headroom clearance throughout the entire flight even when a meal is served(Squatting when eating?)?

d) What about body position when seatbelts must be fasten? Must lie-flat to fasten seat belts?  Is that even safe?


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