To dream of flying is one thing. But to dream while flying is rare. Dreaming requires a blissful letting go. How do you do that while crammed in a metal tube with hundreds of other humans breathing recirculated air and hurtling through the sky? Yet, for the first time, I did.
As I awoke on my recent flight from Singapore to Sydney on top of soft white sheets that smelled like fresh laundry, I was still lost in a pleasant reverie (about the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which I was hoping to walk across the next day), and it took a long beat before I remembered where I was: six miles above the earth in one of the highly anticipated new first class suites on Singapore Airlines.
It is not hyperbole to say that Singapore is considered one of the best airlines in the world—years of consumer polls and accolades attest to that (as does the wistful look I’ve noticed frequent fliers get at the mere mention of the airline). There was always its food and nonpareil service—gracious, respectful, ever present but never intrusive—but also innovations small and large that kept all classes of fliers happy.
Singapore was first to introduce free drinks and headphones in economy, first to debut an all-business-class plane on flights between the United States and Asia—with seats, moreover, that lie completely flat. And it was Singapore that 10 years ago pioneered the first class suite on the superjumbo Airbus A380.
Other airlines followed, and the first-class-suite space race was on. Though they’re a slim wedge of the air travel pie, suites and all the amenities that go with them occupy an important niche: They’re the ultimate experience in commercial flying, and they help define an airline’s brand. Which is why all eyes are now on Singapore, the latest from the innovator.
Over the next several months, the airline is rolling out its reimagined planes. The first route to open with the renovated aircraft (there are 19 of them) is the eight-hour evening flight from Singapore to Sydney. (Others will follow. A380s with the new suites will be flying the JFK-Frankfurt-Singapore route by the end of this year.) And Town & Country is the first American magazine to go along for the ride.
Singapore’s Changi Airport is vast, new, spotless, and astoundingly efficient. Suite passengers are dropped off at their own departures entrance, and from the moment my car door opened, the suite treatment began. I was greeted curbside by a smiling employee who glanced at my gold-rimmed boarding pass (a subliminal echo of the golden ticket that gains a small handful of lucky winners entrance to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory) and escorted me through immigration.
No lines for me—in fact, I barely broke stride. I was transferred smoothly to another handler, who led me through the first class lounge into an even more exclusive inner sanctum called “the private room” that is just for suite passengers. (People traveling in first class but on 777s, for example, which have no suites, cannot enter.)
It was like a grand gentlemen’s club without the cigars and white mustaches. Yes, a waiter appeared proffering Dom Perignon 2006 and an array of culinary treats. But what struck me most was the splendid isolation I felt sitting in the vast space in my soft leather wingback chair with a view of the planes through double-height windows—privacy, I was quickly learning, was the coin of this rarefied realm. As I admired the marble columns and tropical wood paneling—the latter a subtle nod to the local environment—another escort appeared. It was time to board.
It was like a grand gentlemen’s club without the cigars and white mustaches.
The six new suites—which can be configured as singles or doubles on demand—are on the upper forward deck of the latest A380 configuration. My first impression of my compartment (2A, a single, to which I was escorted briskly, lest any encounter shatter that illusion of privacy) was, once again, one of the jaw-dropping generosity of space.
It was not an illusion, just a whole lot of space—especially when the 76-inch-long, 27-inch-wide fully flat bed (not a converted seat, as on many carriers) was stowed against the wall. The single suite is 50 square feet; the double, 100. (Emirates offers approximately 40 square feet in its suites, while Etihad has a 45-square-foot single “apartment.”)
My jacket and carry-on were promptly stashed by the crew in a personal closet just inside the sliding suite door—what a pleasure not having to attempt that kettlebell swing. The door, I noticed after I closed it, had a satin metallic tone and was lightly perforated: for airflow and regulatory reasons (the crew needs visual access to the cabin). Perforations notwithstanding, I instantly lost whatever awareness I still had of others—for all I could tell, I was the only passenger on the plane—and looked about me.
The palette was subtle, soothing, tone-on-tone neutrals: gray, beige, brown, pewter, and cream, with contrasts of black and silver. “We do research on the psychological effect of different colors and designs,” Jacques Pierrejean had told me. The founder of Pierrejean Design Studios, which specializes in nautical and aviation projects, he won a 2014 competition for Singapore’s A380 renovation.
“We had to think about different cultures, genders, and tastes and come up with what would satisfy the most people.” I must be a cultural amalgam: I have never felt such serenity upon boarding. My suite felt spa-like, if not Zen-like.
“Luxury is simplicity,” says Betty Wong, the airline’s divisional vice president for customer experience. It took a lot to get there. According to Wong, the redesign of the fleet involved four years of planning, 18 months of production, and $800 million. “We wanted something that is contemporary yet timeless, nothing over the top. It’s all in the craftsmanship, in the understatement.” Singapore, it struck me, is the Birkin bag of airlines.
The details gradually came into focus: the gentle swirl of the carpet, the meticulous stitching of the Poltrona Frau leather, the industrial-style lighting fixtures in polished chrome, the abstract batik pattern on the walls. On the dining console stood a single white orchid in a matte black vase.
A few minutes after takeoff, Kelly, the crew member assigned to my suite, appeared in the doorway to exchange pleasantries and ask if I would like a blanket on my legs. I declined, but the conversation signaled that I was about to experience more of what Wong says defines the Singapore customer experience: the service, the china, the food, and the wine.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier in my life.
Kelly is a Singapore Girl. That is not a slight but a compliment. The Singapore crew—women and men—are the very core of the airline’s brand of Asian hospitality (they feature prominently in all its ads). Widely considered the best in the business, they are the people who greet you by name with a warm smile, who make you feel special, who serve the wine and present your meals, who make your bed, and who, like an Edwardian butler, have an uncanny ability to anticipate your needs without ever being intrusive.
These skills are the result of discipline and professionalism. (A visit to the airline’s training facility demonstrates the kind of investment required to maintain such high standards.) Kelly wore the iconic sarong kebaya designed for Singapore Airlines by couturier Pierre Balmain in the 1970s. Hers was green, indicating a rank of “leading stewardess.”
She was there to answer any questions I had about the menu and to let me know that I would dictate the schedule of service. When I asked for it, she would bring it. If I wanted a nap before dinner, or to watch a movie, or to change into my Lalique “sleeper suit” (Lalique also provides the bed linens, amenities kits, and crystal in the new suites) and work on my laptop, Kelly would accommodate me.
Whatever you do, do not skip dinner. That would be like going to the Vatican and skipping the Sistine Chapel. The menu is put together by an international culinary panel of famous chefs that at Singapore Airlines includes Zhu Jun, Carlo Cracco, Matt Moran, Alfred Portale, Georges Blanc, Suzanne Goin, Yoshihiro Murata, and Sanjeev Kapoor.
On my flight there was a menu suggested by Blanc from courses he designed. I felt that might be too facile, however, and I decided to make my own selections. To discuss them with me as I sat in my seat, Kelly knelt so she was at eye level. It was a subtle gesture, but it allowed her to comfortably make eye contact and put me at ease while we talked.
Could I have two appetizers, with one as the entrée? Of course I could. I started with Malossol caviar, which is traditionally served with blinis, crème fraîche, chopped egg, and chives. Kelly suggested a shot of chilled Belvedere vodka to go with it. Though caviar is not uncommon in international first class, here it was artfully presented on silver-rimmed Wedgwood porcelain, and the crème fraîche was whipped into a perfect swirl.
Kelly stopped by to ask (unobtrusively, and only once) if everything was to my liking. I replied, “Yes, lovely,” trying to sound casual, but my inner voice was saying something like this: “I am eating caviar in a private suite 35,000 feet over the Java Sea, traveling at 550 mph, and no one can text me.” I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier in my life.
For my next course I had the poached lobster with shellfish oil vinaigrette over minced green beans. (I know: caviar and lobster, a little on the nose. Sue me.) This was one of Georges Blanc’s dishes. It was sublime. Coming from New England, I am a shellfish snob and an enemy of rubbery, overcooked lobster. I don’t know how they did it in that little galley, but this was perfectly tender and tasted like a summer in Maine. Kelly wisely suggested a 2013 Port Phillip Estate Australian chardonnay to go with it—rich and buttery, without the feeling that you were licking an oak barrel.
As the sun began to rise over the Outback, I opted for another first: the luxury of breakfast in bed on a plane.
After dessert (I chose a warm crepe filled with strawberry mousse) I told Kelly that I was settling into a food coma and needed to pause before the cheese course. She reappeared half an hour later with the cheeses, all at room temperature, as they should be. (Cold cheese is another culinary pet peeve.) The sweet fig aroma and silky texture of the Dow’s 20-year-old port she brought with it made my eyes roll back in my head.
Would she please start the bed turn-down service, I asked. A flurry of activity ensued: The bed was deployed, crew members arrived with sheets, pillows, a comforter, and another blanket, and Kelly arranged everything before setting the lighting of the suite to sleep mode and showing me how to use the tablet device to pivot the 36-inch TV for viewing in bed.
I was still savoring the port when I thought that I might try the bed, just for a moment. I lay down in my clothes, closed my eyes, and woke up two hours later from my dream. As the sun began to rise over the Outback, I opted for another first: the luxury of breakfast in bed on a plane. Soon I could feel the aircraft begin its descent into Sydney, and I have to admit that my heart sank along with the rest of me.
Wong told me that she wanted customers to come away from the new suite class flights “really well rested, having enjoyed themselves, feeling as satisfied as if they had been to a great hotel and eaten a Michelin-starred meal. And wanting to fly with us again.” I think she is going to get her wish. I, for one, want another chance to dream in the sky. Roundtrip flights from Singapore to Sydney from $8,400.
As Published in Town and Country