The email from Singapore Airlines arrives at a moment of weakness, which is to say a bleak, January morning when we just happen to be dreaming of escape. In it, we discover that the airline, as of the 17th of the month, will begin flying a state-of-the-art Airbus 350 out of Houston, a plane that we have long been curious about, a state-of-the-art plane purportedly able to scoop up passengers, carry them vast distances, and then deposit them in some far-flung locale sans fatigue, sans jetlag. Would we like to see for ourselves, Singapore Airlines asks? Yes, we reply, but—
But nothing. The airline is hell-bent on showing us this plane, and to that end is offering a business class seat on its first flight for free. We will jet to one of Europe’s most exciting, up and coming cities, by which they mean Manchester, U.K., by which they mean Manchester-not-by-the-Sea, by which they mean the airline’s new refueling stop on its long-haul flights from Houston to Singapore.
We carefully draft an email to Singapore Airlines thanking them for the offer but declining, saying we reject free flights out of principle, that they violate the sacred pact we have made with readers to tell the truth without fear, favor, or conflicts of interest. How could we evaluate the A350 objectively, we write, or any plane for that matter, while drinking unlimited flutes of champagne and dining on a salmon nicoise-Kenya bean salad from a 34-inch-wide seat that reclines into a bed, a seat that cost us nothing? Oh, and by the way, if we ever did consent to such reputation tarnishing, it would not be for a trip to the third-largest city in England, a place that goes completely unmentioned in Rick Steves’ encyclopedic, 1,000-plus-page guide to Great Britain (21st edition), a tome we spasmodically lean upon, even now.
The decision leaves us uneasy. We wonder: should we really be letting our principles get in the way of readers’ desperate need for a verdict on the A350’s jetlag-less-ness? Then again, if we don’t weigh in, won’t they just turn to some other Houston writer’s opinion instead, someone who may well never reveal that the trip was funded by Singapore Air, someone who therefore occupies an even lower rung on the ethical ladder than us? Suddenly, we are inflamed by a sense of mission.
We delete the email. We go.
The atmosphere in Terminal D is chipper, the gate festooned with balloons. People are passing out little cucumber sandwiches and cupcakes. Inaugural passengers are invited to document the historical moment by signing a “I flew on the first A350 from IAH!!!” poster. As for the plane, which is indeed the first of its kind to ever depart from the city, it looks majestic and proud in the setting sun. We are feeling proud too, having curtly refused the sandwiches and cupcakes, hoping to reignite the smoking embers of our journalistic integrity. But then we enter the jetway and spot a table laden with dozens of stainless steel Singapore Airlines water bottles with blue ribbons tied around them. We take two.
The crew is solicitous, personable and charming, and for a while we suspect that the fix in, or that maybe they’ve mistaken us for someone who always travels in business class instead of never. Neither is true, it seems. Later, we will see flight attendants putting on the same show in our spiritual homeland—economy class—and our heart will be warmed by the gesture.
We are equally and instantly impressed by the high ceilings and large windows and soft lighting of the A350. We ask ourselves if they really are impressive, or only impressive because we are sipping a flute of Charles Heidseick in our private suite, otherwise known as seat 15A. We decide we would be impressed anyway.
Offering cozy, cocoon-like remove and blinders obscuring views of one’s business classmates, 15A isn’t so much a seat as a world unto itself. A short list of perks includes a 18-inch-wide LCD flat-screen, connectivity ports for every device known to man, multiple unspecified cute cubbyholes with sliding doors, a vanity mirror, soft reading lights, noise-cancelling headphones, and overhead compartments that could comfortably house a couple of medium-sized stowaways.
The takeoff is the smoothest and quietest we’ve ever experienced, and after one more Heidseick, two Singapore slings and a few cups of warm nuts—a.k.a. one hour into the flight—the A350 has reached its cruising altitude, and so, of course, have we. As befits a plane made largely of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, there is a light, graceful quality to the flight, and the thought occurs that the next seven-plus hours spent on this aircraft will not be enough. There are compartments to open and close, after all, and buttons to press for the footrest to go up and down, and unread issues of an Indian newspaper to stow and unstow. It is all unspeakably lovely, and for a moment, we seriously consider climbing in an overhead compartment and continuing on to Singapore.
With dinner comes a choice of entrées and an airborne dilemma straight out of Sophie’s Choice. What menu monster, we wonder, would ever propose dinners of roasted lamb loin, sesame chicken, and fettucine with prawns and scallops—and then ask you to pick just one? Anyway, the roasted lamb loin turns out to be the most flavorful and best-cooked we’ve ever tasted, not to mention the only roasted lamb loin we’ve ever tasted. Still, no loin should ever be held hostage to culinary provincialism, we decide, least of all one so tasty.
Perhaps most striking, however, is that lowly staple of airline meals the world over—the dinner roll. On most planes, dry air and altitude join forces to weaponize bread, rendering it useless for anything beyond beaning loud passengers three rows up, or removing calluses when a pumice stone isn’t handy. But this bread is pillowy-soft, offering the first evidence, however subtle, of the A350’s ingenuity. Or, as the old saying goes, it’s not the bread, it’s the humidity.
Airbus’s idea behind the A350—or one of them, anyway—was to create an experience that has eluded passengers from row 1 to 44 since the dawn of commercial aviation: an enjoyable long haul flight without jetlag. To that end, the company tweaked its approach to everything from ambient lighting to ventilation. The latter system refreshes and HEPA-filters all of the A350’s cabin air every three minutes while keeping its humidity level at 25%, which in addition to making dinner rolls edible, prevents the dry eyes, chapped lips and general desiccation that can cause much discomfort on transcontinental flights.
The aircraft’s cabin is also pressurized to 6,000 feet, an altitude known to cause fewer headaches and less fatigue in passengers than the standard 8,000. Even more intriguing is the way Airbus employs light in its assault on jetlag. The A350’s complex LED system is capable of producing more than 16 million different shades of color, a tool that airlines can use to mimic natural light conditions in an attempt to acclimate passenger body clocks to their destinations in advance of arrival.
Having done a bit of advance research, we know that for routes like ours—overnight flights traveling east, that is—the trick is to gradually expose travelers to light that simulates the daytime spectrum even as they soar across the Atlantic in darkness. Before our flight, this news had terrified us, conjuring up images of a high-altitude tanning bed. The actual experience is a bit subtler, shall we say. Not only do we notice no signs of night becoming day—while staring endlessly at the ceiling and walls—we fall asleep in the process.
With the nap, brief and restorative, comes a desire to break free of the isolating privilege that is business class, and a curiosity about what life is like on the other side of that heavy curtain. We take to the aisle to visit our people in steerage, the sons and daughters of economy.
First, though, we make a pit stop at the restroom, stumbling upon what we will afterwards think of as The Best Restroom On Any Plane Ever. We are fascinated. Economy can wait. The place is huge, for one thing. As in whole-family-of-stowaways huge. It is a lavatory, yes, but one fragrant of gardenias and none of the typical stank, its shelves and drawers crammed with handsome boxes of toothbrushes and the like. Several minutes of exploring later, a small crowd can be heard gathering in the aisle, and so we depart, though not before marveling at the motion-active garbage chutes, there to protect one’s hands from that other bane of airborne pottying: the germy silver plate over the trash.
The waiting throng includes a smiling Singapore Airlines flight attendant. We ask what her favorite thing is about the new plane. She thinks, then demurs. “There are so many great new things, I couldn’t possibly pick one.” She turns the question on us. We are similarly at a loss.
“The automatic garbage chutes,” we blurt out, for some reason. She blinks and stares. “Would you like some more warm nuts?” she says. Yes, we reply. She laughs nervously and turns on her heels.
The voyage to economy runs through premium economy, which in the past has always seemed to us like a cruel and expensive purgatory. Not so here. A dignified atmosphere prevails in the smallish 24-seat cabin, the passengers quietly supping on beef in oyster sauce, all the while exuding a bourgeois snootiness that would be unthinkable among the hoi polloi in the front of the plane. Moving on.
Things grow more raucous as we make our way toward the back. Relative decorum seems to prevail in rows 20 to 30, but beyond that, the plane turns giddy, the conviviality reaching a peak around row 38. Kids are contentedly glued to their screens, parents laugh with other parents, and for a time we wonder if the A350’s newfangled ventilation has rendered them all lightheaded. There is a relaxed mirth such as one only sees among those who have paid $650 for roundtrip, nonstop flights to England. Indeed, the only thing that seems to make this group cross is the sight of a guy from the front of the plane inspecting the economy cabin. Deciding that some of them have mistaken us for an air marshal, we bid farewell to the cheap seats with a kind, Sully-style smile and reassuring salute.
And as we bound up the aisle, a strange thought occurs to us: flying is starting to become fun again. It doesn’t feel like a chore or detention or something to withstand. It’s life, elevated.
The cup of nuts is waiting for us when we return, and then we land.
Or anyway, that’s how it seems at the time. Certainly, hours must have passed between that last cup of nuts and our morning descent through thick clouds onto a drizzly Manchester runway. But the time, as they say, flies. Our body does seem to have thrown off its Central time trappings, at least somewhat, by the time we hit the Greenwich Mean streets of Manchester. There is a noticeable, if not dramatic, lack of mental fogginess and fatigue. We wander the streets of the ancient city with incredible vigor, giving the Mancunians scant indication that we have just traveled 4,700 miles in less than half a day.
But to what do we owe this vigor? Is it plane or placebo? The charms of a surprisingly entertaining city or our relief at not losing a day to jetlag? The 5-minute passport line at Manchester airport or the $0 it cost to get us there?
Your guess is as good as ours.
Singapore Airlines flies nonstop from Houston to Manchester five times weekly from IAH. Roundtrip prices for the 8-hour, 50-minute flight range from around $650 for economy to $1,700 for premium economy, to $3,800 for business class.