Singapore Airlines Ltd. introduced movies and music on demand and satellite-based telephones to make its flights more enticing. It was the first major carrier to offer free headsets and drinks to passengers flying coach.
But after years of creating innovations to entertain its customers, the carrier aims to put them to sleep with its newest amenity: the ultimate flying bed.
Singapore’s “luxury suite” -- really a seat that can unfold into a bed -- is reserved for the privileged few who can afford the first-class $10,000 round-trip airfare.
The bed is so wide that it has prompted a thorny if perhaps inevitable question:
“Since there is room for two in one of those seats, what would the airline’s policy be if people decided to share it overnight?” asked a CNN correspondent who was among the nearly 100 journalists and other guests who gathered here recently for the unveiling.
“The seat is for one person only,” a deadpan Singapore Airlines executive answered sternly.
The next question for many travelers might well be “Why?”
For Singapore Airlines, the $360 million and four years it invested in creating the new seat is simply the cost of doing business its way.
“We firmly believe in bringing back the romance of travel,” said Bey Soo Khiang, Singapore Airlines’ senior executive vice president for operations and service. “That’s what these products are all about.”
The carrier is considered one of the industry’s most influential trendsetters. It was the first airline to order the Airbus A380 double-decked super-jumbo jet, and it offers the world’s longest nonstop flight, 18 hours from New York to Singapore.
Many carriers eventually follow Singapore Airlines’ lead, analysts say.
The sleeper seat is encased in mahogany and equipped with a 23-inch liquid crystal display television screen, a vanity table and comforters and pillows designed by Givenchy of France.
The first-class upgrade will be introduced on Singapore Airlines’ 19 new Boeing Co. 777-300ER jets. The first of the planes is scheduled to begin service between Singapore and Paris in December.
Representatives said the airline would roll out the seats for flights to and from Singapore and San Francisco via Seoul in the spring.
Such features “raise the bar,” said Joe Brancatelli, an independent business travel analyst in New York. The sleeper seat, he said, was likely to intensify competition by airlines for so-called premium passengers, who take up 30% of the cabin but can account for as much as 60% of carriers’ profits.
“This is an endless fight,” Brancatelli said. “Everybody wants to have the latest gee-whiz thing.”
This month Delta Air Lines Inc. announced that it would outfit its aircraft with business-class seats that can turn into beds, but they aren’t expected to go into service until 2008. Next month British Airways is expected to announce its new business-class seat, which has been shrouded in the kind of secrecy reserved for CIA covert operations.
In the race to stay ahead of the pack, Singapore Airlines also announced upgrades farther back in the cabin.
Every economy seat will have a 10.6-inch LCD screen, larger than many of the TVs that other carriers offer in first class. Each also will offer the same in-flight entertainment choices as those in first class, including 100 movies, 155 television shows and 600 audio CDs, all accessible on demand at no charge.
In what the airline says is another first, each passenger will have access to a USB port in which to plug a portable computer flash drive and will be able to use built-in software for word processing, spreadsheets or visual presentations. Passengers will be able to use the software using a tiny qwerty keyboard attached to the back of a handset.
But the biggest attention grabber was clearly the new first-class seat, which Singapore Airlines says is the widest in the world at 35 inches, equivalent to two economy seats.
The typical first-class seat in other airlines measures 22 to 24 inches across. When the sleeper seat is unfolded lengthwise into a bed, it will stretch out to 80 inches -- or enough to accommodate a 6-foot-8-inch NBA forward.
The carrier’s new business-class seat, at 30 inches wide, also can unfold into a bed. In addition, the seats will be arranged in a so-called 1-2-1 configuration -- one next to each window and two seats in the middle, separated by two aisles -- so that passengers won’t have to claw past one another to move about the cabin.
“It’s clearly the best that I’ve seen,” said Kathy Saunders, an executive at American Express Co. in Sydney, Australia. She was among several hundred of Singapore Airlines’ most frequent business fliers invited to a reception after the media conference. “It’s really amazing what they have done.”
But some frequent fliers, many of them business travelers, wondered whether companies would be willing to pay the extra 10% that the carrier is expected to charge. The wider, unfolding seats will mean that fewer will be able to fit in the 777-300ER cabin -- in first class, that means eight spots instead of 12.
“I think employees will want to fly on this airplane, but I don’t know if the employer will be willing to pay the premium,” said Saunders, who frequently travels outside Australia. “I hope they do, because it would sure make long-distance flying much more bearable.”