Soaring high above the clouds, there’s little sign of the pandemic which tore up the air travel rulebook in March 2020.
Indeed, on the first flight between Australia and Singapore under the two countries’ ‘vaccinated travel lane’ (VTL) agreement – a travel bubble by any other name – things are already almost back to normal. It’s only on the ground where you notice the bumps.
And let’s be up front here: there’s rather a lot of them, even more so than for any other international destination.
There are Covid tests before your departure and upon arrival at Singapore; there are online forms, such as the mandatory vaccinated travel lane pass; there’s the need for travel insurance with at least SGD$30,000 of Covid-19 cover.
Executive Traveller joined on Singapore Airlines flight SQ212 from Sydney to Singapore to see what the new Australia-Singapore travel experience is like.
Under Singapore’s strict ‘vaccinated travel lane’ (VTL) system, the carefree pre-pandemic mode of ‘book a flight, pack a bag and go’ has been replaced by an assortment of permits, passes and proof of both your vaccination and your Covid-free status.
Thankfully it’s all made a lot easier with the checklist at Changi Airport’s free Safe Travel Concierge website, which outlines exactly what you need to do, and when, with helpful links as necessary.
All the same, there’s enough to do in the lead-up to your flight that you can’t leave any this until the last minute – even the vaccinated travel pass must be applied for no less than seven days before your flight – and should also bring a printout of everything with you to the airport.
Arriving at Sydney Airport ahead of Singapore Airlines’ morning SQ212 flight, a dedicated 'pre-checkin team’ was sighting necessary documents such as the Australian international vaccination certificate, the results of a Covid-19 test taken within the last 48 hours, and the Singapore-issued vaccinated travel pass.
In addition to reminding travellers that they’ll need to undergo a Covid PCR test on arrival at Changi Airport, the staff were suggesting that passengers pre-book their test online.
(And why would’t you? It costs no more, and it avoids the risk of being caught in a logjam if flights from any of the dozen other VTL other countries land around the same time.)
If you’re organised, with all your paperwork tucked into a handy folder, this whole pre-checking process should be a pitstop of just a few minutes, provided you’re not caught in a rush of fellow travellers.
Once this preliminary check is done, the actual checkin proceeds just as it used to – and before long you’re through the passport control and security checkpoints and find yourself in a terminal that’s obviously a lot quieter, and with fewer shops open, than two years ago.
At the time of writing, Singapore Airlines’ Sydney SilverKris Lounge are in a ‘soft reopening’ phase and unlock their doors three hour before the airline’s evening flights, and the neighbouring Air New Zealand Lounge – which is usually available to SQ travellers, under the airline’s shared membership of the Star Alliance – remains closed.
Singapore Airlines tells Executive Traveller that its Sydney lounge will once again open ahead of the morning flights from December 1.
Both the business class and first class lounges have been refreshed with new floors and lighting during the coronavirus closure.
Also refreshed are their menus, with the food and drink service now aligned with Covid protocols, such as hosted service with a la carte menu replacing the buffet.
On board Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A350
Our flight was on one of Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A350-900 jets: these quiet, roomy twin-aisle aircraft are arguably the most comfortable way to travel.
While some A350s are fitted with SQ’s long-range business class seat, most Australian flights feature aircraft with a medium-range or ‘regional’ business class seat.
There are no apologies to be made here, unless you’re in nit-picking mode.
The 1-2-1 layout means that every passenger has direct aisle access; the seat is wide and comfortable, with ample personal space including a shelf and storage cabinet; it’s fronted by a generous 18” video screen; and if you need some shuteye, the seat converts into a fully flat bed.
However, the staggered design of Singapore Airlines’ medium-range business class seat means that only half of the ‘window seats’ are right next to the window, with the shelf between the seat and the aisle.
The other half are directly adjacent to the aisle, with that shelving unit between the passenger and the window.
Want to be sitting right next to the window? Choose an A or K seat in rows 12, 15, 17 or 20.
Likewise, the paired middle seats have a staggered arrangement in which only every second row sees the passengers sitting closest together: those are seats D and F in rows 11, 14, 16, 18, 19 or 21.
The inflight experience with Singapore Airlines is almost exactly as it was in those fondly-remembered pre-pandemic days.
The crew – all fully-vaccinated – don protective eyewear along with masks, and many of the inflight meals arrive under a hygienic plastic cover.
A complimentary Care Kit available when you board the plane, and also on request, includes a face mask, hand sanitiser and disinfectant surface wipe.
For what it’s worth, we find these simple blue medical masks are the best to wear during a flight: they're lightweight, comfortable, and they ‘breathe’ well.
Breakfast on our morning flight came out around one hour after 9.15am takeoff.
This began with a selection of sliced fresh fruits, granola with Greek yoghurt and cherry compote, and a bakery item (the fruit, yoghurt and granola were each delivered under a plastic cover).
That was followed by a choice between Nasi Lemak (shown below), warm Belgian waffles with bananas in butterscotch sauce, and a ‘cheese and chive omelette with chicken sausage’.
There was no second meal service own this eight-hour flight, which was due to reach Singapore at 2.15pm – just an assortment of snacks with the option of instant cup noodles.
(Wondering what will be served on your upcoming Singapore Airlines flight? Enter the date, flight number and travel class at inflightmenu.singaporeair.com.)
Singapore Airlines’ inflight WiFi system offers a range of packages, including 100MB of free data (normally US$10) for business class passengers and two hours use of messaging and chat services – including the popular WhatsApp, WeChat and Line apps – for any KrisFlyer members in premium economy or economy (normality US$4).
We clocked the WiFi connection at 1.7Mbps download: definitely slow by most standards, but still sufficient for basic Web browsing, email, messaging and social media.
Singapore Airlines’ KrisWorld in-flight entertainment system remains loaded with all the movies, boxed set TV shows and music you could want, and can be driven using your smartphone instead of the in-seat controller.
In fact, with your KrisFlyer frequent flyer number entered into your booking and the Singapore Airlines app, before you set foot on board you can peruse the content library in advance to create a list of shows to watch.
Welcome (back) to Singapore...
Arriving on time at Singapore’s Changi Airport Terminal 3 meant returning to the realities of the Covid controls put in place to establish the Australia-Singapore vaccinated travel lane.
But again, this was far less burdensome than you might expect – and we can generally put that down to the famed Singaporean efficiency.
If you’ve completed all the necessary online forms – essentially the Vaccinated Travel Pass and SG Arrival Card & Health Declaration – those have already been lodged in the system against your passport, so you’ll proceed through Immigration as you usually would, collect any checked luggage, then head past security and follow the signs to the ‘Covid 19 Swab test’ facility.
Housed in a large shelter just outside the terminal, you’ll join a queue, and – being a smart traveller who’s already booked and paid for your test ahead of time – show your booking QR code.
After being directed to a testing cubicle you’ll undergo a quick nose-and-throat swab, and then you’re clear to proceed to your accommodation, where you have to stay in your room until receiving a negative result from the test.
We’d been warned this can take 6-8 hours, although an email containing the ‘all clear’ message landed around 7.30pm, just five hours after the test was done.
So yes, a trip from Australia to Singapore now presents quite a few hoops to jump through. There’s nothing insurmountable – it just takes time, organisation plus around $450 for the three Covid PCR tests (one before the Australia-Singapore flight, one on arrival at Singapore, and one before the return flight to Australia).
We can see that $450 overhead per passenger being the biggest impediment – it’s a hefty whack on top of your airfare and accommodation, and it’ll put just about any family holiday out of reach.
But nobody expects those PCR tests to remain in place forever – even in the short term, they could well be replaced by less expensive rapid anti-gen tests, similar to those now being accepted by many other countries.
In the meantime, Singapore Airlines expects to see plenty of Australians visiting Singapore as well as travelling further afield on the airline’s global network, with its flagship Airbus A380 slated for a return to Sydney on December 1.
Update: since this article was first published, Singapore has relaxed its stance on pre-flight testing as of November 12 for all VTL countries to allow the faster and less expensive antigen rapid tests (conducted by ‘trained professionals’ rather than self-administered) instead of PCR testing. However, visitors must still undergo an on-arrival PCR test.
The author travelled as a guest of Singapore Airlines.