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 The Brancatelli File

joe HOW TO FLY 18 HOURS
IN COACH--AND LOVE IT


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

July 8, 2004 -- Only mad dogs and business travelers would consider the introduction of 18-hour nonstop flights an improvement in their lifestyles. And only masochists and frequent-flying maniacs would voluntarily do an 18-hour ride in coach.

Which pretty much explains what I was doing in Singapore's Changi Airport last Friday morning. I had flown over in business class on Singapore Airlines' first-ever Newark-Singapore nonstop that arrived on Wednesday morning. At about 10,300 statute miles, it left EWR on Monday night and broke distance records set just 90 days earlier by Singapore's new Los Angeles-Singapore nonstops. Now I was ready to check out the world's newest, longest coach haul on the way back to Newark. Well, perhaps not "ready" and certainly not eager. Let's say curious.

While a wide swatch of our frequent-flying brethren wouldn't think of going 18 hours nonstop in anything but the best class available--for financial and aeronautic reasons, Singapore doesn't offer first class on the nonstops--I am not ignorant of the fact that many more of us will have to rough it down the back. So, in the name of frequent-flying equality and equanimity, back in coach I was prepared to go.

What I found was nothing short of the best coach service in the air anywhere in the world. While I thought Singapore's Raffles Class business-class service on the flight out surprisingly unimpressive, the airline's so-called Executive Economy cabins on the LAX and EWR nonstops are startling, spectacular and every other good-news adjective in the dictionary. It's so good that I can say this with absolutely no fear of contradiction: If you have to go to Asia and it has to be in coach, you'd be nuts to fly anything but one of these two nonstops.

What makes Singapore's new coach cabin so superlative? Well, stick with me as I do a minute-by-minute rundown on the entire 18-plus-hour flight. All will be revealed. The listed times are Singapore local time, which is conveniently 12 hours ahead of New York time. And I warn you: This story is long, but so was the flight.

11:30am Boarding begins for a 12:05pm departure. Singapore Air can pull this fast boarding off because it is using two doors. What a concept. Using two doors to board!

11:32am Even boarding mid-cabin, this specially outfitted Airbus A340-500--Singapore has five of them dedicated to the LAX/EWR nonstops--is lo-o-o-ng. I'm way back in Row 42 on an aisle and--surprise!--there's an antsy-looking child in the middle seat next to me. This could be ugly.

11:45am The frequent-flying gods are smiling on me. The rows behind me look like they are going to be empty, so I move back a row and spread out.

11:50am It takes a few minutes for the layout of this service to sink in. The chairs are unbelievably comfortable. At 20 inches wide, they are two inches or so larger than industry-standard coach. And thanks to the heavy weight penalty that Singapore Airlines is taking to allow the aircraft to do the 10,000-mile nonstop, there is 37 inches of legroom. That's as much as six inches more than standard coach. In fact, the entire A340-500 is a slave to weight and distance. Airbus says the plane can carry 313 passengers, but Singapore has had to trim it to just 181 seats. And only 117 of them are in coach, configured 2x3x2. (The last two rows, 46 and 47, are 2x2x2.)

11:55am Here comes a raft of flight attendants with a hot-towel service. Singapore Airlines says it has specially trained a thousand members of its cabin crew to handle the two nonstops. They don't fly for three days before and after an LAX or EWR nonstop and only get the duty once every two months. They also rest for five hours during the 18-hour flight.

12:19pm We're off, 14 minutes late.

12:21pm The in-flight entertainment system comes to life. It's stunning: 9-inch seatback video monitors with a flotilla of on-demand audio and video programming. The 64-page entertainment guide lists 60 movies, 83 television shows, 205 CD albums, 12 channels of pre-programmed music and 56 video games. And here's the kicker: It's all on demand. You can start, pause, fast forward and reverse whenever you decide. And if you want to build you own in-flight music play list, you can choose up to 30 tracks off the 205 CDs. There's even a plug to run your own DVD player through the seatback system.

12:26pm I settle on Eva Cassidy's CD, American Tune.

12:32pm It's loud in the cabin. The headphones are good for coach, but now I wish I paid attention to David Rowell when he recommended all those noise-reducing headphones.

12:37pm Flight attendants come by with a little bag of amenities: socks, toothpaste and a toothbrush.

12:40pm Menus are distributed and they are chockablock with fancy chefs (in this case, Albert Portale and Gordon Ramsey) and fancy sounding entrees. The business-class meals coming over weren't all that interesting and I'm not expecting any of the high-falutin' stuff on the coach menu to be particularly edible.

12:56pm Out come the carts with drinks and snacks. I request a Diet Coke and the flight attendant follows up with a package of crackers and nuts, a bag of tortilla chips and a little tub of salsa. Much to my surprise, the salsa is decent.

1:03pm The flight attendants are back offering a second round of drinks.

1:20pm I get up and head for what Singapore originally called in-flight passenger lounges, but now refers to as "social areas." In business class, the space is a tiny area near the lavs. Most passengers walked by it without even noticing it. But the area at the back of the bus is actually more social. It's a comparatively wide space by the rear windows with a bar-like ledge and footrail. It flows into the front of the galley, where a wall of snacks is supposed to be placed later in the flight. This won't change anyone's life, but it's nice to know it's here.

1:28pm I switch to an Aretha Franklin CD and kick back to read several of the newspapers that the flight attendants offered.

1:31pm A bit of turbulence leads to a request to fasten seat belts. How dare they interrupt Aretha while she's singing Respect.

1:40pm The flight attendants have arrived with lunch. I hate in-flight food, so I'm biased, but I sure wish they had some noodles. Alas, the offer was a Gordon Ramsey chicken dish or a "Thai style" masaman curry. I go with the curry. The tri-partite dish has bright and fresh-looking vegetables, fluffy white rice and some dreadful grey cubes of beef. But mixing it all with some chili sauce makes it a surprisingly tasty meal. And, surprise, there's a real metal knife--albeit with a rounded edge--on the tray. I skip the sides--a scallop salad, cheese, rolls--but drink the 4-ounce container of water. And an interesting note: the tray tables are not attached to the seatbacks. They come up from the seat arm. The Singapore Airlines people made special mention of that fact when I met with them yesterday. They say armchair tables increase the feeling of personal space because armchair tables are unaffected if the person in front of you reclines. Makes sense.

1:51pm The drinks cart is around again, trailed by a flight attendant offering Magnum ice cream bars. They seem to be a hit--and not just with kids. But I've never connected to in-flight ice cream. Personal quirk.

2:02pm Coffee and tea offered while the flight attendants pick up trays.

2:07pm The coffee and drinks cart is back again.

2:10pm I should start working, but the kid in the middle seat who would have been my row mate for 18 hours is watching Hellboy, a movie that got pretty good reviews for a based-on-a-comic-book flick. So, what the hell... I punch up video Channel 1, hit the start button and off I go.

2:40pm Flight attendants come through the aisle with glasses of water and juice. I grab a water, but it is foul tasting. No surprise. In another concession to weight, Singapore has been skimping on the bottled water. (They even ran out of bottles when I came over in business class.) This water is from the tanks. I'm sure glad I stocked my carry-on bag with bottles of Evian that I grabbed in the Singapore Airlines lounge.

4:10pm Flight attendants come by with glasses of juice on a tray.

4:45pm Still ducking work, I watch an episode of Friends.

5:15pm A coffee cart comes down the aisle and I realize I'm watching an episode of That '70s Show.

6:12pm After another episode of That '70s Show--Does anyone think these people can still play high schoolers?--it's time for a quick stroll, a lav break and a tour of the social area. The snack wall has been commandeered by the flight crew as an extension of the galley, but the "bar" area has been covered with snacks: containers of water; crackers; salsa and chips; a basket of fresh fruit; bags of dried fruit; cookies; pretzels; candy bars; and even pre-packaged tuna buns.

6:25pm The lights go down in the cabin and I take the hint. Might as well sleep. The coach chairs are well designed for it. Each one has an adjustable headrest, an 8-inch recline, a legrest and a footrest. There are even three personal stowage compartments on the seatback, a coat hook and a cupholder. There was a decent blanket and a pillow placed on each chair, too. I recline. Comfortable...

8:35pm I wake and I notice that the flight attendants are serving another meal. I recall the choices were a fish creation from Albert Portale or roast duck "Cantonese style" plus a pasta salad and other stuff. I pass and close my eyes...

11:11pm My notes say I woke to find flight attendants circulating through the cabin with water and snacks. They also say that I "dreamed a musical" and can't remember the plot or the lyrics. I drift off again...

11:52pm I get up, walk the aisle, hit the head, brush my teeth and wash my face. And then I remember: That musical I dreamed was mostly sung to the melody of Not a Day Goes By. Damn. Just another Sondheim wannabe.

11:56pm In the social area, I notice the fresh fruit and tuna buns are mostly gone. But shrink-wrapped chunks of cheddar cheese and crackers have appeared. I grab a container of water and some pretzels.

Midnight The water-and-juice patrol is circulating in the aisles again.

12:09am I fiddle with the My Playlist feature of the audio system. I load it with a few Nina Simone cuts, some more Aretha, a few Cassandra Wilson songs and, just for fun, some tracks from the "j-pop" (Japanese pop) and "k-pop" (Korean pop) CDs. I scribble: 'I forget how much Cassandra Wilson is influenced by Nina Simone.'

12:20am And finally to work. I break out my laptop and find the AC outlet in the armrest. That's right, the AC outlet. Singapore has fitted every other chair in coach with an AC outlet. No adapter required. What a brilliant innovation! (Every seat in business class on the A340-500 nonstops has an AC outlet.)

12:34am Water and juice come down the aisle again.

1:29am Water and juice again. I've been dipping into my stash of bottled water because I just cannot have one more glass of apple juice.

3:15am I can tell most of the passengers are sleeping because most of the video screens are dark and the personal lights overhead are mostly extinguished. But I'm happily working away and here comes the water-and-juice crew again.

4:19am I'm done working, after having written a raft of memos and marked up the galleys of a soon-to-be-published book on the airline industry that a friend asked me to read. I switch to a stack of newspaper and magazine clips that I've got to get through.

4:30am On cue, two hours before scheduled landing at 6:30pm Friday Newark time, the cabin lights come up and the flight attendants come by with a hot-towel service. Just for fun, I flick on the video system and start flipping through the Bollywood movies on offer. Two Hindi musical numbers later--weirdly, I think I've seen one of them somewhere before--I switch to Blazing Saddles.

4:49am Flight attendants are offering a "warm refreshment," which is a beverage, a container of water and a pastry stuffed with turkey or vegetables. For journalism's sake, I take the turkey and sample. Surprisingly decent crust.

6:29am Almost 19 hours on the plane, more than 18 hours in the air and just a minute from the scheduled landing time and the pilot comes on to say that congestion at Newark means there will be a 10-15 minute delay. Some things never change.

6:42am Touchdown at Newark. It's 6:42pm Friday evening in Newark and 6:42am Saturday morning in Singapore. Somewhere along the way, I lost track of the number of glasses of juice, glasses of Diet Coke and bottles of water I've consumed.

In the car on the way home, I flick through the notes of the meetings I took with Singapore Airlines executives. The spacious, ultra-comfortable configuration that has left me feeling perky after 18 hours of flying has its cost--at least for them. With a roundtrip walk-up price of about $1,465, just a few bucks more than connecting services, and with only 181 seats on a plane designed to carry more than 300 passengers, Singapore admits it will have to fill 75 percent of every flight just to break even. And the future of the ultra-long-haul service may also be limited: Singapore hasn't placed any firm orders for additional A340-500s and it has options on only five others. The airline doesn't even know if there are any other long-haul markets where it could use the planes.

But the plane and the nonstops do have some tangible marketing benefits. Singapore Airlines now offers travelers a 3- or 4-hour time savings over one-stop itineraries, which means it should steal passengers from competing carriers like United, Northwest, Japan Airlines and All Nippon. The Los Angeles and Newark flights, timed to arrive at ultra-efficient Changi early in the morning, should bring Singapore incremental connecting business, too. Seventy percent of the passengers on the LAX run already fly to other destinations in Asia after landing at Changi, the airline says.

"This nonstop saves me an entire day getting to Katmandu," Dr. Fredi Munger, a World Bank consultant, told me told about halfway through the Newark-Singapore flight. "After we land, I'm catching a flight to Nepal and arriving in time for a dinner meeting. Before, I had to spend an overnight somewhere before making the connections."

Like I said, only mad dogs and business travelers...

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.