Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are perennial winners on Skytrax, a rating and reviewing website that hands out annual awards it has immodestly dubbed the “Oscars of the aviation industry.” (Since the awards are based on passenger surveys, they are more like the people’s choice awards.) In the 2015 list of the Skytrax Top Six airlines in the world, Singapore came in second, with Cathay Pacific right behind at third.
But grading airlines is a tricky business, according to Patrick Smith, a former pilot who blogs at askthepilot.com. “Experiences can vary tremendously flight to flight depending on the temperament of the crew, the aircraft type and configuration.”
With Smith’s caveat in mind, we compare first class on these two “award-winning” Asia-based airlines. We’ve based our report on three in-flight categories – comfort, food and drink, and those little (or not so little) extras. (To compare business class on these two airlines, see Best Business Class: Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific?)
Singapore Airlines First Class
Singapore Airlines uses three different names for its first class – Suites, First Class and New First Class. Suites is available on A380-800 aircraft while First Class is available on older B777 aircraft; the New First Class, standard on all new B777 aircraft, is gradually being retrofitted to existing B777s as well. In the U.S., the new first class is available only on flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong.
First class and new first class have seat-to-bed setups that open up to a flat 80 inches on first class, 82 inches on new first class. The fixed-back shell design of the seat on new first class gives the compartment a more private feel than the older version.
In this post, we’ll concentrate on the Suites Class.
The airline’s promotional materials boast that “It’s more than just a seat, it’s a suite.” It’s a luxurious one at that, designed in soothing shades of cream and brown leather and wood by French yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste. Each suite has its own seat – one of the widest in the sky at 35 inches – and a separate bed and coat closet. No seat-to-bed conversion necessary. And, as a treat for couples, the beds in the middle two seats can be converted into a double bed.
If you want to work, the suite has a wide table that can be a workstation or meeting table and when it’s time to dine, it can convert to a generous sized dining table. An aviation journalist, reviewing the suite for The Telegraph, calls it a “mini-room with Italian leather walls and plantation-style shutters. Some people like being behind walls... while others prefer to see and be seen.”
Matilda Geroulis, who blogs about air travel with her sister at thetravelsisters.com, loved her Suites class flight from Singapore to Shanghai. She and her sister took the middle seats with the double-bed option, but, she said, it wouldn’t suit someone who likes to look out the window. She also warns that the privacy isn’t complete: “Part of the blinds are sheer so flight attendants can see inside.”
FOOD AND WINE
Singapore takes its dining and wining (and champagning) seriously. An international culinary panel oversees the meals, and a panel of wine consultants handpicks the wines and champagnes. (The Geroulis sisters drank Krug and Dom.) Passengers can preorder their favorite dishes with the airline’s “Book the Cook” program, which lets you choose your favorites up to 24 hours before your trip.
Food is served at the whim of the passenger – no scheduled mealtimes as long as your flight is at least four hours long. Your meal and snacks are served directly from the galley (no trolleys), on bone china plates specially designed by Wedgwood.
“Grand Cru” red Burgundy labels have been added to the first class menus, making Singapore the only airline to offer these onboard. A sample lunch menu on the Geroulis sisters’ flight included Asian and international foods: thick pumpkin soup with crabmeat and quail egg, poached chicken roulade with wolfberries (more commonly known in the U.S. as goji berries), enoki mushrooms in Chinese wine and a bed of marinated jellyfish salad.
For kids ages 2 to 7, who may not so crazy about that jellyfish salad or quail egg, there’s the Yummy! service: Families can preorder perennial kids favorites such as spaghetti and meatballs and seafood fried rice.
If you get tired of watching the 23-inch video monitor and want to write home, a stationery drawer contains writing paper, postcards, envelopes and pens. The amenities kit has products from Ferragamo, including Signorina eau de parfum (“jasmine with the unexpected and delicate sweetness of panna cotta”) and a men’s eau de toilette with “ Mediterranean aromatic and woody notes.”
The sisters particularly liked the Bose noise-cancelling headphones, the Givenchy blankets and the attention of a “fun crew” who had posed Teddy bears all around their suite.
Cathay Pacific First Class
Ben Schlappig, who flies 400,000 miles a year as the man behind onemileatatime.com, recently flew first class from JFK to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. One of the things he likes best about this airline are the international crews: On this flight, “the captain was Australian, the two first officers were Chinese women and the second officer was an American man.”
Schlappig pronounced his 80-inch-long flat bed on the B777-300ER “one of the most comfortable beds in the sky.” The 500-thread count duvets are a nice touch, as is the possibility of an in-chair massage. The configuration in first class is two rows, each with three seats across. Even though there’s no sliding door as on the Singapore Suites class, Zach Honig, editor in chief of thepointsguy.com, says that there’s plenty of privacy: “The only time I made eye contact with another passenger was when I was waiting for the lavatory.” Honig also likes the extended dining table option –you can sit and have a meal with a companion, who can sit on the ottoman, and even if there’s turbulence, they can stay put – the ottoman has a seat belt.
FOOD AND WINE
Schlappig settled into the flight with a glass of Krug and an amuse-bouche of mango and prawn. A little later, as an intro to lunch, more champagne, this time accompanied by a tin of caviar served with blinis, crème fraîche and chopped egg. Menu choices were international and Chinese – wild mushroom tortellini with goat cheese and silkie chicken, chinese yam and wolfberry (there they are again) were some choices. Schlappig reports that a salad of salmon and quinoa was “one of the best salads I have ever had on a plane.” On the other hand, his grilled halibut was “dense and chewy” although the Sauvignon Blanc that came along with it was “excellent.” The airline redeemed itself with the pre-arrival dinner, 90 minutes away from the landing in Hong Kong – sea bass so delicious that Schlappig is “going to ask for it next time as my main meal.”
Honig had three desserts in the course of his flight: blueberry and butter bread pudding, Häagen Dazs ice cream (served in its original cup) with a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue (it retails at $200 a bottle on land) and a pear-and-chocolate mousse cake.
On this flight, Schlappig was disappointed with the service: “The crew had no charisma, no charm, no smiles.” But, that, he says, is an exception. On a flight just two months earlier from Chicago to Hong Kong, he described Helen and Kath as “two spectacularly fabulous flight attendants…friendly, constantly smiling, and super attentive.”
When Schlappig’s blog readers complain about the service on Cathay Pacific first class, he offers this insight: “It’s important to understand Cathay Pacific’s first class service mentality. While the crews are very attentive during the meals, they stay out of your way as much as possible during the rest of the flight, to allow you as much undisturbed rest as possible. If you push the call button they’ll be there in a split second, though.”
He compares that to the service approach of Singapore Airlines, “where flight attendants are through the cabin every 10 or so minutes during a long-haul flight to see if passengers would like anything. I almost feel bad pushing the call button on Singapore, since some crews view the need for that as a failure on their part...in the U.S. we’re taught to think of the call button as being for emergencies only but if you’re flying Cathay Pacific, don’t be shy about pushing the call button.”
As for the amenities, Schlappig didn’t find the kit especially memorable, although it was filled with Aesop products (the Australian cult beauty brand). Honig liked the pajamas, which are too nice to leave behind. (It’s okay to take them with you).
Both Schlappig and Honig liked the entertainment system. Schlappig listened to some good music. Honig said there were “plenty of new release movies and recent TV shows” – enough so that you don’t need to bring along your own.
The Bottom Line
If you’re flying first class and choosing between these two airlines (or any others for that matter), consider what is most important to you. If you’re flying with kids, the Yummy! meal service on Singapore may win you over; if you want the unusual option of a double bed, Singapore Suites again. If you want to try out what Schlappig dubs “one of the most comfortable beds in the sky,” consider Cathay Pacific. Keep in mind that, as Smith says, every flight experience will be different, and reading one review is never enough.