It’s no longer headline news that Singapore Airlines’ full-service regional division SilkAir is being dovetailed into the mainline carrier over the coming years. A merger we first rumoured in late 2017, the marriage was then confirmed by the group in May the following year, and will ultimately result in a disbanding of the 28-year old SilkAir brand.
Embracing SilkAir into Singapore Airlines wasn’t going to be an easy ride though. Repainting the planes was one thing, but the cabin crew wear different uniforms and service on board is not 100% consistent.
Perhaps most crucially though, the seats don’t have in-built entertainment systems, nor does SilkAir’s Business Class currently offer a flat-bed option.
That was all about to change, but before we break the bad news, let’s take a look at how the merger between SilkAir and Singapore Airlines hasn’t exactly been “plane” sailing.
The SilkAir merger: Plan A
You have to cast your mind back to May 2018 when it was announced that SilkAir would be merged into its parent company’s mainline carrier Singapore Airlines.
Happily for many, it was a process that included flat-bed Business Class seats and seat-back in flight entertainment across both cabins on the regional carrier’s Boeing 737 aircraft, as part of a S$100 million upgrade.
“SilkAir is to undergo a significant investment programme to upgrade its cabin products as part of a multi-year initiative that will ultimately see it merged into SIA.
“The programme will comprise investment of more than $100 million to upgrade the wholly owned subsidiary’s cabins with new lie-flat seats in Business Class, and the installation of seat-back in-flight entertainment systems in both Business Class and Economy Class. This will ensure closer product and service consistency across the SIA Group’s full-service network.”Singapore Airlines, May 2018
It wasn’t until February 2019 that Singapore Airlines confirmed it had selected the Thompson Aero Vantage seat in a forward-facing staggered arrangement for SilkAir’s Boeing 737 8 MAX aircraft fleet. May 2020 was slated as the rollout date for the first refitted aircraft.
The same product had already been selected by Emirates-owned flydubai, with 10 seats in the forward section of its Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets in a 2-2, 1-1, 2-2 layout.
With SilkAir (somewhat unnecessarily) making space for exactly the same number of seats on its Boeing 737 MAX aircraft as flydubai had installed, by increasing Business Class legroom with its existing recliner seats by 10 inches per row, it seemed inevitable that this plan had been put in place well before the aircraft were first delivered.
At the time of the announcement, SilkAir had five of the 737 MAX aircraft in service, with a sixth arriving the following month, out of a total order for 37 aircraft that still stands today.
That was great news since with SIA’s Airbus A330s and older Boeing 777s gradually leaving the airline and the carrier’s new Regional Business Class boasting flat beds with direct aisle access, the luxury product was looking to have consistency across the fleet for the first time.
Sadly almost exactly a month after SilkAir announced its seat choice, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed after takeoff from Addis Ababa, the second fatal Boeing 737 MAX accident in a short time period, soon prompting a worldwide grounding of the fleet.
The SilkAir merger: Plan B
The grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft left SilkAir seriously stretched for resources. With six aircraft affected, the carrier had to call overtime on its existing Airbus A319, Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800 aircraft. It even offloaded some routes to Singapore Airlines itself, including selected Kuala Lumpur, Phuket and Yangon flights.
Months dragged on with the 737 MAX aircraft grounded, but a contingency plan was in the works to keep the SilkAir – SIA merger on track.
Despite originally only intending to absorb the newer Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, Singapore Airlines announced in a financial update that it would take some of SilkAir’s older Boeing 737-800s, and simply fit the new flat-bed seats to them instead.
At an analyst briefing in November 2018, the airline’s executives said the refit timetable remained fluid, with the first half of calendar year 2020 in their sights for these Boeing 737-800 aircraft starting to move across.
At the time of writing, all six of SilkAir’s Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft are stored at Alice Springs Airport in Australia, with the aircraft type still undergoing assessment for possible recertification later this year.
The SilkAir merger: Plan C
As if an almost unprecedented fleet grounding wasn’t enough, COVID-19 then came along.
By early 2020 that meant most cash-intensive projects across the Singapore Airlines Group had been throttled back or put on hold entirely. It now seems likely the refit of SilkAir’s Boeing 737-800s, part of a S$100 million upgrade based on 2018 estimates, was one of them.
Aviation Week recently confirmed with SIA that the first repainted Boeing 737-800 destined for the Singapore Airlines fleet will retain its current cabin configuration and seat types.
“The Boeing 737-800 aircraft does not have the lie-flat business class seats and they will retain the same seat products as the SilkAir 737-800s. Specific details will be announced progressively as the program develops and timelines are finalised.”SIA Spokesperson
Here’s how the aircraft, 9V-MGA, looks in full Singapore Airlines livery:
Sadly it now seems like at least the first few Singapore Airlines Boeing 737-800s will not have any flat-bed product installed, nor receive a cabin-wide seat-back entertainment system upgrade.
In the current COVID-19 recovery, it seems like the group is now focused on how operating much cheaper narrow body aircraft can help with building up the business efficiently, rather than the 2018/19 “flat-bed promise”.
“The integration of SilkAir into SIA will also deliver greater economies of scale for the Group, and allow it to deploy the right aircraft to meet the demand for air travel as it returns.”Singapore Airlines, FY20-21 Q1 Results Announcement
That’s an understandable approach, and will allow the group to “right size” capacity on routes as demand builds up again in the coming years.
For example, Singapore – Perth was supposed to receive five wide body SIA aircraft per day since June 2020. That never happened, but there would be nothing to stop the group in future building up with perhaps two wide body and three narrow body (Boeing 737) flights each day.
It could then progressively swap out smaller aircraft for Airbus A350s or Boeing 787s in peak season, or as demand returns.
The downside, at least initially, will be the disparity between the cabin products offered, especially in Business Class.
What can you expect?
Once Singapore Airlines begins operating its first Boeing 737-800 aircraft in early 2021, you’ll almost certainly find:
- 12 Business Class seats in a 2-2 configuration
- 150 Economy Class seats in a 3-3 configuration
While there’s no seat-back entertainment or in-flight internet connection available, SilkAir’s Boeing 737-800s do have an ‘internal Wi-Fi’ service called SilkAir Studio, allowing you to stream pre-loaded content to your own mobile device, or through a tablet provided in Business Class.
In catering terms we’re not sure what changes SIA intends to make, however we were perfectly satisfied with our meal and wine when we flew from Da Nang to Singapore with SilkAir in February 2020 (little did we know it would be our last flight for a while!).
Another aspect we have never had cause to complain about is service on SilkAir. Their crew have always been friendly, knowledgable and passionate about their job in our experiences over the years, and should make great ambassadors for the SIA brand when then begin to don the kebaya (and kebaya tie) in 2021.
Singapore Airlines has not yet announced how many SilkAir Boeing 737-800s it will be transferring into its fleet from SilkAir, or what routes they will be initially deployed on.
Much may depend on whether the Boeing 737 MAX is re-certified this year, with six of those aircraft due to be returned from Alice Springs and a further eight already built but not yet delivered, stored in the USA. One of those, 9V-MBN, was painted in Singapore Airlines colours from the outset.
With this announcement, the promise of Singapore Airlines offering flat-beds in Business Class fleet-wide is now inevitably a more distant reality.
The carrier’s Airbus A330s and Boeing 777-200s with older Regional Business Class seats have already been put out to pasture, while the handful of Boeing 777-300 (non-ER) aircraft remaining in the fleet look seriously time-limited.
Those retirements, in conjunction with the plan to refit SilkAir’s Boeing 737s with brand new cabin products, were paving the way for a consistent flat-bed experience in the Business Class cabin across the airline, whatever route you were flying on and wherever your journey began or ended.
This latest news, confirming that at least the first few former SilkAir aircraft will in fact retain their old recliner Business Class seats and undergo minimal modifications, means taking pause on the end goal for a 100% flat-bed future in SIA’s Business Class cabins.
Nonetheless COVID-19 (not to mention the Boeing 737 MAX grounding) has brought new dimensions on what probably seemed a relatively simple and relatively inexpensive task for SIA back in 2018.
While much newer Airbus A380 aircraft with the latest Suites and Business Class products are parked up in the Australian desert, fitting (expensive) brand new products to these older Boeing 737-800 aircraft is probably an unjustifiable expense.
Let’s hope in the longer term SIA’s narrow body fleet will eventually get the promised flat-bed treatment, though for now it looks like SIA’s Boeing 737s will be ones to avoid for redemption bookings if there are wide body alternatives on the same route.
(Cover Image: Singapore Airlines)