Singapore Airlines aims to redefine luxury with revamped cabins

SIA will unveil its first major overhaul across cabin classes of its Airbus SE A380s on Nov 2.
SIA will unveil its first major overhaul across cabin classes of its Airbus SE A380s on Nov 2.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Singapore Airlines, the first carrier to put a double bed in its cabins, is preparing to take airborne luxury up another notch - and catch up with a key rival.

The airline on Thursday (Nov 2) will unveil its first major overhaul across cabin classes of its Airbus A-380s since 2007, when it became the first carrier to fly the double-decker aircraft. Singapore Air has revealed scant details, other than the likelihood of fewer suites and that the changes will be introduced in five new super-jumbo planes it will receive progressively from this year.

Airlines have been trying to outdo one another when it comes to pampering the upscale business traveller. Singapore Air currently has 18 A-380s with 12 suites each that feature a full-length sliding screen door. Cabin crew help passengers in these suites make up a fold-down flat bed with a duvet and cushions when they are ready to sleep. Etihad Airways provides in-flight showers for first-class passengers on its A-380s, and its Residence suites feature a lie-flat bed and a living area with a 32-inch television and private butler.

SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong is fending off intensifying competition, particularly from Middle Eastern carriers like Emirates, which in August introduced a revamped lounge inspired by private yacht cabins on its own A-380s. The Singapore carrier's cabin revamp - four years in the making - comes amid a review of its entire business as the money earned from flying passengers per kilometer hovers at roughly eight-year lows.

"There was a time when superior product offering was one of the stronger choice criteria for a person buying a seat, but unfortunately everyone has become pretty good," said Mohshin Aziz, an aviation-focused analyst at Maybank Investment Bank in Kuala Lumpur. "To put so much emphasis on it is probably an outdated strategy."

The first flight with the new cabin products will be on the Singapore-Sydney route on Dec 18. Rather than spending money to upgrade cabins, Singapore Air should be focusing more on better scheduling and services to lift profit, said Mohshin, who rates the stock a hold.

The carrier has previously engaged specialist design firms to work on cabin upgrades. It hired DesignworksUSA, a unit of BMW Group, five years ago to work on a new first-class cabin to increase privacy, storage space and comfort. Pierrejean Design Studio - which designed Emirates' A-380 first-class cabin - also counts SIA as a client.

SIA - the only Asian carrier to have flown the luxurious Concorde more than three decades ago - posted a net loss in the quarter ended March. It rebounded to a profit of S$235.1 million in the three months ended June.

Predicting another challenging year, SIA set up a dedicated office to conduct a wide-ranging review to transform the company and better position itself for sustainable growth, it said in May. Goh said in June that jobs could be eliminated, and two months later offered voluntary unpaid leave to cut costs.

It's not the only one feeling the heat. Cathay Pacific Airways is also carrying out its biggest transformation plan in two decades, and said in May that it will cut 600 jobs at its Hong Kong head office as part of efforts to revive its fortunes.

Besides the A380 revamp, Emirates is preparing to unveil the new first class cabin on its Boeing 777-300ER planes that will have six suites, two fewer than before, as well as new features for business and economy seats, during the Dubai airshow this month.

While SIA had been an industry trendsetter, such as being the first to provide free alcohol to economy-class passengers and headsets for in-flight entertainment in the 1970s, it has been less so in recent years. The airline's last major offering was in May 2015, when it introduced a premium economy class and played catch up to Qantas Airways and Cathay.

"There is an urgent need for SIA to move ahead of the competition again," said Corrine Png, founder and chief executive officer of Crucial Perspective in Singapore.