Friday, 1 May 2009

Amsterdam to Singapore - Singapore Airlines

It’s something of a wonder that, despite the sheer amount of flying I’ve done over the years, Singapore Airlines has hitherto not made its presence felt in one single itinerary. Whilst exotica like the hastily-rebranded Continental Boeing 767 with a Vietnam Airlines sticker on the tail have featured with alarming (in all senses of the word) regularity, Skytrax’s Airline of The Year Winner 2008 and runner-up in 2009 hasn’t had a look-in.

Time to remedy the situation then and, with awards and plaudits like Skytrax’s aplenty, high hopes were held for this 777-operated flight from Amsterdam to Singapore, in Business Class.

The Schiphol start-point was purely a quirk of availability and timing, but the on-board product would be, at the point of booking, the same as that offered from London on Singapore's Boeing 747-400 services. Not that it was all that easy to glean advance information of that product, as the Singapore Airlines website had deleted almost all reference to it in favour of the trumpeting of its New Business Class seat, as featured on the (limited) Airbus A380 Super Jumbo, ultra long-range Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A340-500 routes.

With BBC World reporting that Amsterdam’s sister airport in the Air France KLM twinning, Paris Charles de Gaulle, was all but closed due to high winds and rain, it was with slight trepidation that we re-commenced the marathon trek through the World’s Longest Building back to check-in. Spirits lifted with the sighting of the distinctive Singapore tailfin, assuring us that our flight, being the airline's single daily visit, was at least on stand.

Check-in was swift and we motored on through the terminal following the signs for the Airline Lounges. With only one false turn, we found the dedicated Singapore Lounge tucked around the back of the ABN Amro one.

Wheelchair safely stowed in the cloakroom, we settled in for our first pure Singapore Airlines experience.

Well, I suppose that we should be impressed that SQ has a dedicated lounge for a single daily rotation through AMS, even if that’s hardly unique. Otherwise, frankly, it was all rather disappointing. On a dull day, it was dark and viewless, but even on a bright day the limited choice and quality of food would be obvious.

The décor belied its age and the lack of facilities the fact that the Amsterdam service is operated by a two-class 777, rather than equipment offering First Class.

So, whilst the lounge facilities may have been industry-standard 15 or 20 years ago, they were disappointing up against contemporary comparisons and, of course, that much-vaunted Singapore Airlines reputation. It was, at least, well cared-for, despite the brave black, purple and gold colour scheme.

Boarding was announced and we made reasonably swift progress to the gate and through security. At the gate, we were met by a wheelchair pusher who would graciously assist with the last yards – although surely more from a Health & Safety point-of-view rather than any genuine desire to help on Schiphol’s part.

This special assistance requirement meant that, throughout this entire trip, we would pre-board every flight and therefore the manner and means of the priority boarding that we would otherwise be entitled to, would go wholly untested.

Until relatively recently, Singapore’s Business Class product was known as Raffles Class but, for reason or reasons unknown, that branding has been quietly dropped. The seats on this 777, arranged 2-2-2 across the cabin, are of the ‘wedgie’ variety – that is, when fully reclined, they extend flat but not horizontally-so. With an inclination of 8 degrees, they’re therefore renowned for inducing in-flight slippage with the resultant effect that underwear becomes wedged rather more intimately than was necessarily the designer’s intention.

The cabin is reminiscent of Cathay Pacific’s recently superseded New Business Class with seats housed in cocoons, a small privacy screen between the two single seats of each pair and the TV screen mounted on the rear of the seat cocoon in front. Unlike the previous Cathay seat, the cocoon does move slightly to facilitate the recline, and the armrests drop away to provide greater bed width. It all looks clean and tidy and more than serviceable for the flight ahead.

The welcome is polite and friendly from the crew, although again the special assistance requirement means that I’m more interested in getting my charges seated in the right seats and their bags and sticks stowed, than I am in observing intricacies of crew interaction at this stage.

As the other passengers begin to board, pre-poured drinks are offered on a tray – water, orange juice and champagne for this scheduled 10:55am departure. We’re also offered our in-flight amenity kits which, given the publicity surrounding the Givenchy-designed goodies carried in First Class, I’m really looking forward to seeing.

The Dynasty-era lounge was soon to be joined by another SQ disappointment however: the cheapest, most paltry amenity pack seen since well, actually, I’ve never seen one so grim. Ignoring the (rotten) colour, the sum total of the contents were 1x eyeshade, 1x socks. Lest we should forget, the cheapest published return Singapore Airlines Amsterdam to Singapore Business Class fare is (at time of writing) a touch under 3,500 Euros, so this is far from a low cost option. Hmm.

Anyway, off we set, pretty much on time and with every member of the attendant tribe in the right seat, pointing in the right direction and, most helpfully, apparently still breathing. Despite the shock of the amenity kit.

The crew were prompt to busy themselves as soon as the seatbelt light was off, and a further selection from the aforementioned range of drinks was offered. Heralded by clanking of trolleys and clinking of crockery, they re-emerged from the forward galleys to offer satay. Not that this was explained however (you notice these things when you’re accompanying the less well-travelled) and GCC looked at it very suspiciously.

The former Raffles crockery was in use, given away by the distinctive blue logo. No table cloth was provided however – plate on table, paper napkin and a KFC-style wet wipe. It tasted OK though. The satay, I mean, not the wet wipe.

Once cleared away and a full bar service undertaken, the tables were laid properly, again with the Raffles-branded cruet and a linen cloth. The starter course offers a single ‘choice,’ so the ‘Procuitto (sic) ham with celeriac remoulade, piperade, grilled asparagus with extra virgin olive oil’ it was.

Notwithstanding that fact that I wouldn’t know piperade from cherryade, I have to say that what was presented didn’t exactly look like the description, to me. For a start, rather a lot of cheese seemed to have been sneaked in.

It was, basically, OK, but you’ll be getting the impression by now that I was already feeling sadly underwhelmed. Looking at GCC, well, he was still looking relieved more than anything else. His last scheduled flight had, after all, been on a Shorts 330 from Aberdeen to Newcastle, so the sheer amount of space around him for this long haul expedition was enough to keep him pleased. MCC and FCC would be a different matter however, so I avoided looking at them for fear of two pairs of blameful eyes meeting me, demanding justification for not being on Cathay….

Next up: main course and here, at least, a choice from Beef, Seafood, Chicken Pasta or Fish Curry. MCC would be sampling the Vegetarian Meal and all would be delivered plated from the galley.

The beef was, reportedly, very nice and I certainly wouldn’t complain about the fish curry, which was extremely tasty. In both cases however, I couldn’t help but notice that everything on the plates seemed to have a Fisher-Price-like, easy-to-grab chunkiness to it. It was an observation, anyway – it didn’t affect the flavour but seemed to look a bit odd compared to traditional airline catering daintiness.

GCC glanced across at MCC and asked me to identify what she had been presented with for her main course. Upon learning that it was the vegetarian meal, he pondered it for a moment before declaring its visual reminiscence to a compost heap. MCC later confirmed that the similarity extended way beyond aesthetics and well into taste.

Dessert brought with it a choice of 'Cappuccino Mousse, A Selection of Fresh Fruit or Gourmet Cheese with Garnishes'. So, dear reader, I offer for your delectation and salivation, Singapore Airlines’ (or at least their Amsterdam caterer’s) interpretation of the latter ‘Gourmet Cheese with Garnishes,’ along with the somewhat non-traditional iron, cheese-cutting for the purpose of:

I mean, is someone having a laugh?

Attention was then turned to KrisWorld, Singapore Airlines in-flight on-demand entertainment system. The choice of films, music, TV programmes and so on was good, but the means of accessing them seemed clumsier than either Cathay’s or British Airways’, necessitating quite a bit of scrolling through pages to get to the desired feature. Also missing was the much-valued ability to turn the screen off whilst still listening to music, something that Cathay’s Studio CX, in particular, offers.

Lights dimmed and seat flattened, a few hours slidey but reasonable sleep was managed through the night, before an increase in crew activity preceded the cabin lighting rising again and breakfast service being prepared. Surprisingly, landing was more than two hours away but that turned out to be just as well, as the seat would not return to its upright position. The problem appeared to be a broken armrest, which wouldn’t lift from its lowered-for-sleeping position. No amount of re-setting would cure it so, in the end, crew assistance was requested and a clearly well-practiced kick and twisted thump got the thing moving again.

The table was set but, to be honest, the choice of Griddled Pancake with Blueberry Compote and (the brave addition of a) Veal Sausage, or Braised Udon Noodles with Chicken, Mushrooms and Leafy Greens, or Scrambled Egg with Mushrooms, Grilled Tomato and Breakfast Ham didn’t really appeal. At least the quality and presentation of that part of the breakfast taken – sliced fresh fruit - was a marginal, if still uninspiring, improvement on the post take-off lunch.

The coffee was nice.

So that was it, really; the service was never anything other than polite on this overnight flight, but there was little conversation or interaction between crew or any of the Business Class passengers. I didn’t notice any acknowledgment of status passengers – maybe there weren’t any – but I think that the best that can be said of the whole experience is that it was ‘business-like’. I’d venture to suggest that, in these times and in this most competitive of markets, that’s not really good enough for the fare asked.

Hopefully, the airline’s home would impress me more.

Final Verdict for Singapore Airlines (ex-Raffles) Business Class: 6.5/10. The lounge was out-dated, the catering poor and the rest of the soft product largely unimpressive. The seat was reasonably comfortable, but its failure to operate pre-landing was a nuisance and, whilst the crew was charming, the service was perfunctory. 7 years ago, this might have been 7.5/10, but not today.

No comments: