SINGAPORE - The long-grounded Boeing 737-8 planes that were previously operated by SilkAir are inching closer towards flying with passengers again, with refurbished cabins.
Passengers will get more legroom due to a new seat design and also in-flight entertainment, among other changes.
Business class passengers will have seats that can be adjusted to become flat beds, instead of just reclining.
Singapore Airlines (SIA), which integrated SilkAir within its operations earlier this year, announced on Tuesday (Nov 16) that the aircraft will gradually enter into service on short- to medium-haul flights across SIA's network in the coming weeks.
These include services to destinations in Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Nepal and Thailand, subject to regulatory approvals in these countries.
SilkAir was the regional arm of SIA. SIA had announced plans in May 2018 to upgrade SilkAir's planes and subsequently merge the regional arm with the flag carrier. The merger was completed earlier this year, which means SilkAir no longer exists. SIA had said this would ensure closer product and service consistency across the SIA Group.
SIA invested about $230 million to develop and install the new cabin products in the 737-8, otherwise known as the 737 Max 8.
The project started three years ago, but progress was delayed by the grounding of the aircraft and the Covid-19 pandemic.
SIA's executive vice-president of commercial Lee Lik Hsin said in a media interview on Tuesday that the revamp of the former SilkAir planes will significantly improve customer experience.
"Once we made the decision to reintegrate SilkAir into SIA, we knew we had to up our game in the product area, specifically with regard to the narrow-body aircraft that SilkAir used to operate," he said.
"I daresay that the product that we are about to roll out is the best in class globally and, in fact, regionally on the routes we are going to operate this aircraft... it is unmatched."
SIA's revamped 737-8 aircraft will have 144 seats in economy class and 10 seats in business class.
The most obvious change for passengers flying economy class is a 10-inch touchscreen monitor with an integrated USB charging port.
The entertainment system features a new 3D flight map that lets passengers access 20 map views.
SilkAir's 737-8 planes did not have in-flight entertainment installed in the economy class cabin.
Other changes, such as a better backrest support in seats and Wi-Fi service, will also be introduced.
In business class, beyond the lie-flat seats, passengers will have more storage space.
The removal of two business class seats from the previous SilkAir configuration has also created room for two standalone business class seats with extra space.
On why SIA continued with its investment in revamping the 737-8 despite the financial challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Lee said the improvements will enhance customers' experience and help SIA to emerge stronger from the crisis.
SIA currently has a fleet of six 737-8 planes, all of which previously belonged to SilkAir.
The planes had been grounded since March 2019 and were subsequently flown to the Alice Springs plane storage facility in Australia.
The grounding followed two fatal accidents involving the aircraft type.
The 737-8 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people in total within five months in 2018 and 2019 and triggered a hailstorm of investigations.
Following investigations, a faulty flight handling system, known as the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, was identified as a principal cause of both crashes.
Since last year, the aviation authorities have been progressively giving the green light for the planes to take to the skies again. The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore lifted its flight ban on the planes in September this year.
On how the airline expects safety concerns among customers to affect demand, Mr Lee said regulators have put in place the necessary changes to make the plane safe for operations.
SIA has also complied with the safety requirements.
"At this point in time, the 737-8 is already back in operation globally and there has not been significant reaction from customers," he said.
"We are not yet back in action, we are awaiting regulatory approvals, but we will obviously observe the situation and react accordingly."