If you want the 4-1-1 on business class on any airline, SeatGuru offers nitty-gritty data on every model of plane for each airline, with charts noting seat pitch, seat width, video type, power source, Wi-Fi access and seat type. This will help you decide which model of plane you like best, where you’d like to sit (seatguru.com color-codes good seats, bad seats and “be aware” seats) and where the toilets are located.
But to get a complete picture of what experience you can expect on any airline, you’ll want to go beyond the data and read the reviews that both passengers and professionals have written, and check the airlines’ own publicity which, although certainly not objective, can fill in some interesting details.
That’s what we’ve done here. Our aim is to put some life into the data by comparing business-class offerings on two Asian-based airlines that are often considered standard bearers in the industry – Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
Our reviews cover three aspects – comfort, food and wine, and extras – to help you make your choice based on what’s most important to you.
Former pilot Patrick Smith, the man behind askthepilot.com, has written about the two legs of his flight from Hong Kong to Amsterdam via Bangkok on Cathay Pacific’s business class. He compared the first three-hour leg of his flight – pre-takeoff champagne and hot towels, then hot dinner with choice of three wines and beverage service before landing (all accompanied by “buttery mood lighting”) – to what he says would happen on a similar length flight in the United States: “I’d probably have been wedged into a 70-seat regional jet with a bag of pretzels.” Smith says that the second leg of the trip was essentially an expanded version of the first one – “an excellent experience overall.”
A review in The Telegraph online was just as positive: “Set in a 1-2-1 herringbone style configuration, the seats have a width of 21 inches so there’s plenty of space during daytime flights” and, for sleeping, they are “easily adjusted by an adjacent electronic controller to convert into a fully flat bed measuring 82 inches.” No pajamas or sheets for business class passengers, though. Sorry, they’re reserved for first-class flyers.
“The seats don’t feel like coffins or sardine cans,” says Jonny Clark, founder of thedesignair.net. And Clark likes that the seats are configured so that you can face away from other passengers, adding to the sense of privacy. Seats are designed so that if you open the cupboard door, you can screen off the passenger next to you – a feature good for business, as Abi King, of insidethetravellab.com, says, but “not if you fancy more of a snuggle” with your travel companion.
King loves all the storage available: “an elephant and its offspring” could fit in. Hyperbole aside, there’s a laudable amount of space: an overhead locker, side cupboard, foot locker, water bottle holder and side storage area. She says it helps make it all feel like your own “private cocoon” and means that you don’t have “to be in bed with your laptop.”
King had just one teeny-tiny complaint: “The glare from your neighbor’s screen in the few minutes before it powers off….” And, she adds, tongue-in-cheek, the fresh-cut orchid at her seat wobbled during takeoff.
FOOD AND WINE
The pre-departure champagne was Billecart-Salmon Brut on the flight taken by a reviewer for The Telegraph, no Krug or Dom as in first class.
King calls the meal service “unhurried” but she liked it that way. According to blogger Ben Schlappig at onemileatatime.com, “unhurried” means a two-and-a-half-hour meal service but he said that the crew was “friendly if a little slow.” The menu on King’s flight included whiskey-smoked Loch Fyne salmon, apple celeriac remoulade and horseradish crème fraîche, followed by a cheese plate, seasonal fruit and a chocolate mirror delice.
Schlappig likes the way the main courses are displayed on a cart that is rolled through the aisles. It lets you see what you’re getting and makes for a more informed choice. The steamed cod he chose was “fantastic” and equal to anything he’s had in first class on Cathay Pacific. Having the cheese and fruit plated at each seat was another extra that he appreciated. The snack menu was a bit of a disappointment, he writes: The cheeseburger and barbecued duck in lai fan noodle soup couldn’t compete with the first class choices. He did like the snack basket with nuts and chips and fresh fruits that was available all flight long in the galley.
Clark writes that the steamed fish with jasmine rice at dinner was “so fresh and flaky as if it had been cooked in a fine-dining restaurant.” He dubbed the food “exceptional.”
According to the company promotional literature, besides using the usual criteria that would be applied to wine choices, “the impact of high altitudes on people’s palettes and cabin humidity are also taken into consideration.”
The live orchids in the roomy bathrooms may compensate for the lack of pajamas, plus, King reports happily, there are “lotions, potions and proper towels.” She loved her amenity bag, too, which had “socks, foam ear plugs, tissues, Murad pomegranate lip protector SPF 15, Essential C Night moisturiser, Revitalizing body cream, a dental kit, an eye mask plus a 30% discount voucher for a Murad signature facial.”
Clark was blown away by the “brilliant original art works on the bulkhead walls,” [by Hong Kong artist Maria Lobo]. Design is his thing, he says, praising the “neutral colour palette used, meaning the cabin colour mimics the mood lighting flooding the cabin that changes in colours throughout the flight…” He summed up the service: “When you need something it’s there, when you need privacy you have it.”
King described the mirror that was tucked into one of the seat-side cabinets: “It’s to remind you that your surroundings look better than you do.”
When it comes to comfort on any long-haul flight, it’s (almost) all about the seat. On the B777-300ER, the 42 business-class seats are 76 inches long when fully extended and 30 inches wide. On the A380, they are the same length but four inches wider. Smith flew from Singapore to Amsterdam on the 777. “The seat: oh, it’s big all right. The widest I’ve ever seen, with a 15.4–inch video screen and lots of storage space. So big, in fact, that I laughed out loud when I settled into it.”
The problem came when he unlatched the seat back and the seat became a bed. “To maximize room for sleeping, your leg space is offset from the rest of the chair. The cubicle faces forward but in the bed position you’re at about a 30-degree horizontal angle. In the nonbed position, the only way to stretch your legs is to aim them sideways...when you’re dining or watching a movie, the seat becomes extremely uncomfortable, something that is not a problem on the differently configured seat on the A380.”
For Jo Karnaghan, “chief frugalista” at frugalfirstclasstravel.com, the seat seemed “the same as in first class on most other airlines.”
Smith liked the “roomy lavatories stocked with amenities” and the fact that Singapore Airlines doesn’t wrap its pillows and duvets in clear plastic “as too many carriers do. I get the need for hygiene, but let’s not overdo it. It’s a little declassé, not to mention wasteful, to have to unwrap your bedding and shove all that plastic into a seat pocket.”
The interior of the business class cabin is designed by the same group that designed the first class cabin, James Park Associates, the designer who gave the Eastern and Orient Express its opulent interior.
The inflight entertainment system offers more than 1,000 on-demand options and an adapter-free in-seat power supply is available to make working on board easier.
FOOD AND WINE
In an April 2016 press release, the airline announced the rollout of new “Deliciously Wholesome” meals on first and business class, available through its Book the Cook option, which allows passengers to order their meal up to 24 hours before their flight departs.
By “deliciously wholesome” the airline means meals that are prepared with real ingredients – fish, seeds, nuts, herbs, spices – and are rich in nutrients to “nourish the body” and “help alleviate travel-induced stresses such as dehydration, fatigue and jetlag.” The choice includes Western and Asian-style meals – sousvide miso-simmered beef yamato-style with nimono vegetables or citrus-steamed sea bass with lettuce purée, for example.
Smith termed the food on his flight just “so-so”: portions were small and the crew’s attentiveness adequate at best, he reported. “My wine glass was taken before I could ask for a refill and walk-throughs were so infrequent that I twice had to walk to the galley and ask for water.”
Karnaghan, who flew on an A380 from Sydney to Singapore – an eight-and-a-half-hour flight – was pleased with many of the features of the flight but, like Smith, lukewarm about the food. She liked the “encyclopedic menu with biographies of consulting chefs” that she kept close to her “like a bible” throughout the flight, but was a bit disappointed in the dinner. Her flight began with a glass of Taittinger champagne before takeoff, followed by the airline’s signature Silver Kris Sling – orange liqueur, gin, orange and pineapple juice topped off with champagne – and ended with a cup of Illy espresso that she ranked “probably the best coffee I’ve ever had on a plane.”
But, she says, the main dish didn’t “quite live up to the expectation set by the service and my cocktail. I went for the Matt Moran “created” grilled Riverine beef with horseradish butter (mainly because I love beef and am a big fan of Matt’s cooking). OK, the beef was perfectly pink inside, but it tasted a bit stewed, and it’s what I always describe as ‘airline food.’ Perfectly decent, but nothing to get excited about.”
Karnaghan characterized the service as “military precision with a smile.” In more than 20 years of travel it was the first time that anyone took her coat as soon as she boarded, “a small but thoughtful touch.”
Smith liked the welcome that he got from the flight attendants, known since the 70s as the Singapore Girls and dressed in sarong kebayas designed by Pierre Balmain during the first days of commercial flight. “Who am I to judge women’s fashions, but these are the most fetching uniforms in the industry, bar none,” reports Smith. (In case you’re wondering how the male flight attendants are referred to, the company puts it this way: “On joining SIA, Singapore Girls and their male counterparts undergo 17 weeks of training….”) Fun fact: A full-scale model of a Singapore Girl (Balmain-designed sarong kebaya and all) was added to MadameTussaud’s wax museum collection in 1993.
There’s no amenities package – just eyeshades and sockettes in what the airline calls a “stylish pouch” but judging from photos on Karnaghan’s website, “stylish” may be hyperbole. Toothpaste and toothbrushes are available in the bathrooms.
One of the things that Karnaghan liked best about her flight was that she didn’t feel “like I was on a plane that seats 500+ people. It’s quiet, and feels exclusive and relaxed.”
The Bottom Line
Business class, in general, offers more comfort and amenities than domestic first class, according to seatguru.com. Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines show up regularly in “best of” lists so you won’t make a mistake choosing either one if you do your homework and check out the model of the plane and online reviews of the specific flights before you book. As Smith says, “Asia still does air travel right. The planes are always wide-bodies and there’s always a full meal.” And they’re pretty great at attending to the smaller details.
You may also be interested in reading Top 5 Differences Between Business and First Class and Time to Move from Business Class to a Private Jet Charter?