When airlines take delivery of a brand new jet from the likes of Airbus or Boeing, the flight from the aircraft factory to the plane's new home is a unique "money can't buy" experience that's more like flying on a private jet.
Airbus celebrated the delivery of its 10,000th aircraft this month, handing over an A350-900 to Singapore Airlines – and Australian Business Traveller was invited along for the ride from Airbus HQ in Toulouse to Singapore.
It all starts at the Airbus private terminal in Toulouse, France...
Forget those long lines at check-in, queuing up for security or navigating your way through the airport to find the lounge – in Toulouse, Airbus runs its own private terminal to cater for these delivery flights, located on the opposite side of the airport from where regular passenger flights depart.
Check-in desks immediately greet you in the lobby. There's no need to pull up your itinerary or mention your destination and flight number: the staff here all know where you're headed, because yours is the only flight leaving from the terminal.
In a move that made us smile, the check-in staff insist on tagging our suitcase with a business class priority label, despite the fact that only seven journalists were on board and everybody was travelling up the front.
Next comes a very unique boarding pass, which looks nothing like what you'd ordinarily get from Singapore Airlines.
There's no space for your PPS Club or Star Alliance Gold status, but because this is a private flight where no miles can be earned, it doesn't really matter.
Now, you're probably used to having your checked baggage weighed when you drop it off, but there's another pit stop before these delivery flights: passengers are also asked to stand on a very large scale with their carry-on baggage and anything else being taken on board, to be weighed also.
This takes place one-at-a-time in another room to avoid any embarrassment, but by knowing the exact weight being carried on board, the airline gets once last chance to very precisely check the performance of the aircraft before it takes its first 'normal' passenger flight.
Once that's done, you're free to wander upstairs and relax wherever you like in the terminal, which curves around the one and only aircraft parked there and even has an outdoor balcony for a bit of sunlight...
... while inside, sofas line the windows with more traditional 'airport lounge' seating just behind:
Speaking of airport lounges, there's no separate or traditional 'lounge' here: the entire terminal is your private lounge.
Lunch is served while you await your flight, with baristas also on-hand to craft a perfect latte or macchiato.
Blank out the idea of flight information screens, announcements and boarding calls, too – when it's time to step aboard the aircraft, an Airbus representative comes by to personally notify you, before you clear security and stop by a dedicated passport control desk atop the aerobridge.
When you do have to leave France, this really has to be the best way!
From Toulouse to Singapore
We take our seat in 16A, and the first thing we notice is that pleasant 'new plane smell'. It's like a new car smell, but just hundreds of millions of dollars more expensive.
The crew quickly come by to offer a glass of Champagne, but what's unique about these flights is that Airbus – rather than Singapore Airlines – handles the catering, so there's no 'Book The Cook' service or indeed regular tableware, with everything delivered on single-use trays, plates, napkins and in plastic cups.
That includes for the bubbly, and because these aren't the usual glasses, they don't quite fit on the inflight cocktail shelf: but that's all part of the fun!
Cabin crew are also in high spirits and high numbers with no fewer than nine on duty to cater for just seven journalists and two Singapore Airlines execs, as was required to meet various safety regulations. That's one cabin crew member per passenger, which made the service quite attentive!
Appetisers quickly appear after take-off. We're encouraged to try everything, but return for seconds of the foie gras.
While dinner is being prepared, we take the chance to snap some photos of the aircraft, including of our A350 business class seat in 'bed mode'.
Look different to what you're used to? This is how the seat arrives fresh from the factory, with padding and also headrest covers installed later in Singapore.
Even without the usual tools at hand, that didn't stop the crew from offering to make our bed using one-off mattress pads supplied by Airbus exclusively for this delivery flight to make things more comfortable, plus an array of pillows and blankets – again, loaded only for today before SQ replaces them with its own signature products.
With so many other seats to choose from, I left the bed assembled in 16A for later, commandeered 16D as my 'working and eating' seat and assigned my laptop bag to 16F, giving it some extra privacy by sliding the divider closed. Heck, 16K was also up for grabs, but three seats felt like plenty.
That was until I went exploring down in premium economy to briefly seize all of row 31 – bulkhead seats with extra legroom (and Champagne smuggled back from business class)...
... and a quick glance at economy, which I wasn't surprised to find completely vacant when business class was open to all.
As we leave the south of France, the captain suggests we look outside as we fly over stunning snow-capped mountains and can just begin to observe the curvature of the Earth in the distance...
... after which, we're told that dinner is being served in business class – but only if we can sneak back through the economy class curtain undetected, as so many have tried (and failed) before us...
We survive the mission, finding an array of salad, seafood, pie and cheese served to one of our business class seats, plus bread from a roving bread basket:
We, and many of the other passengers, assumed this was everything, but were surprised when the crew followed-up with a choice between three further main courses. I opted for the veal with bacon-wrapped beans, carrot, olives and a potato rosti:
It was a surprisingly tasty dish, but do excuse the economy-style meal box – you certainly won't see these in business class on 'regular' Singapore Airlines flights. As with everything else, they're a one-off for this special delivery flight.
After the meal we took a chance to play with the inflight entertainment system, which wouldn't normally be loaded with content for a delivery flight, but was indeed for today's journey.
Everything was there, from SQ's regular library of movies and TV shows through to the 'moving map' to keep tabs on the flight.
After a solid sleep, a change in cabin lighting wakes us up closer to Singapore, and when the crew offer to serve "breakfast in bed" rather than the inconvenience of trekking it all the way across the aisle to my nearby 'eating seat', who was I to refuse?
Breakfast is a simple affair of fruits, yoghurt, juice and scrambled eggs, but when I take a moment to decide between a regular croissant or a chocolate croissant, the crew insist I try one of each and enjoy a third for good measure.
Then comes one of the only announcements you don't want to hear when happily cruising along in your private jet: "cabin crew, prepare the cabin for landing", and before we know it, we've arrived at Singapore and it's time to leave the aircraft and return to reality.
But, not before taking a group photo with the pilots, cabin crew, fellow journalists, Singapore Airlines executives and other SQ staff including engineers and back-up crew, who all shared in the experience and helped to make the flight so enjoyable.
Singapore Airlines will now use this Airbus A350 to begin non-stop flights between Singapore and San Francisco on October 23, while flying it to other destinations closer to home in the meantime, including Melbourne.
Chris Chamberlin travelled on Airbus' 10,000th delivery flight as a guest of Airbus and Singapore Airlines.