Visiting With SilkAir Upon Delivery of Its First 737-800

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of SilkAir, but you most likely know its parent company, Singapore Airlines. SilkAir has effectively grown into the role of Singapore’s regional carrier, but it’s a much more complex relationship than that, and it’s different from pretty much anything we have in the US. Last week, SilkAir took delivery of its first 737, and I was invited up to Seattle to join in the festivities.

[Disclosure: SilkAir paid for this trip]

SilkAir 737 Delivery Side View

Before the festivities began, however, I found myself in a conference room tucked away in an office building somewhere in the Seattle area. We spent a couple hours with Boeing and SilkAir execs learning about the airline and its plans.

SilkAir began life as a charter subsidiary using old Singapore Airlines aircraft to fly to leisure destinations under the Tradewinds name. Nearly 25 years ago (on Feb 21, 1989, actually) it began operating scheduled services as well. Then in 1992, it took on the name SilkAir. Today the airline has 24 A319/A320 aircraft, but it has 54 737s on order (23 737-800s and 31 737 MAX 8s) which will see the airline more than double in size. The current plan is to bring on 8 737s and retire 4 Airbuses a year. By 2020, it will be an all-Boeing fleet.

Though SilkAir is Singapore’s regional arm, it flies under the SilkAir brand. In fact, only about 50 percent of the airline’s traffic comes in under the Singapore Airlines SQ code. The rest is on its own or from one of its limited codeshares with other airlines (like Bangkok Airways).

If you think of SilkAir as a regional carrier in US terms, you can forget that. SilkAir is like a super-sized regional player, and one that provides an upscale product in a market saturated with fast-growing ultra low cost players. It’s a tough niche to occupy. In its most recent quarter, SilkAir earned $6 million, down from $34 million the year before. What happened? Capacity is growing fast, outstripping demand, but air travel demand continues to grow throughout the region. It may just be a matter of things catching up. For what it’s worth, CEO Leslie Thng is convinced that SilkAir’s full service model is the right one for the airline.

The airline really is a full-service airline and it is old-school, including nearly everything in the fare. You get a 30kg free checked baggage in coach (increased from 20kg recently), you get a meal, you can assign your seat, and you get to earn miles. They even hand out amenity kits. It certainly fits with the Singapore Airlines premium brand, just on a regional scale.

SilkAir Delivery with Super Bowl

After meeting with SilkAir and Boeing people all morning, it was time to go to the delivery ceremony itself. It was a cold day in Seattle, so the ceremony was held in a heated hangar with the door closed. The airplane was shined up and looked stellar. The room was filled with Boeing factory employees who had a hand in building this airplane. Highlights from the Super Bowl the night before were being projected on a big screen while they waited.

When we arrived, those in the crowd were being repeatedly drilled on how to do their part in the ceremony. Since this was during the Chinese New Year, Boeing had a whole thing set up to celebrate with a lion dance and a little greeting from the employees. Here are some video highlights (1m00s).

Once the formalities were done, the ribbon was cut and we were allowed onboard the aircraft.

The decision to switch to the 737 was a big one for the airline, but they liked the aircraft being offered with the number of seats onboard (the 737-800 carries more than the A320). They called Boeing “a better fit.” Having to retrain the entire flight crew on a new aircraft type isn’t a small feat, but it was apparently worth it. Of course, we’ll never know exactly what they paid for each airplane, but Boeing seemed very excited to have won this business back from Airbus so I’ll assume it was a generous deal.

SilkAir Business Class 737

Onboard, the first impression was strong. Business Class is better than what you find in the US with a recliner-style seat with a legrest on it. It’s also kind of old school in that it’s controlled manually with levers on the seat.

The new 737s are outfitted with overhead screens and audio, but the airline is also in a test to have wireless streaming entertainment. Yes, there is in-seat power. This will all be included in the ticket price when it rolls out fleetwide.

SilkAir Coach Legroom

If there’s anything that’s not premium on the airline, it’s the legroom in coach. Seat pitch is set at 30 inches, and it felt tight sitting there for a just a few seconds. That’s going to be an increasingly big issue as flight times increase.

SilkAir has three primary focus markets, and those are India, Indonesia, and China. Some of the possible flights to those countries can be pretty lengthy, so SilkAir seems pretty happy to have longer legs on the 737 than it has with its current fleet. The longest flight in the system today is to Kathmandu at just over 5 hours and 1,900nm. The extra range of the 737 should open up new opportunities in those countries beyond the current range limits. That’s a long time to sit in that kind of seat pitch, and there is no premium economy available. Though I can only imagine that the onboard service far exceeds anything we’re used to in the US.

Once we were off the airplane, the ceremony had wrapped up and everyone had gone back to work. That evening, we had a dinner held at the Museum of Flight. Before I flew home the next day, they took us on a factory tour. I’ll cover that in a later post.


17 Responses to Visiting With SilkAir Upon Delivery of Its First 737-800

  1. David says:

    CF – always interesting to read your blog… but I’m not quite sure what your point or message that you’re trying to convey is on this post.

  2. Xnuiem says:

    I couldnt make it in 30″ pitch for that long. I have problems in 32″ for more than 2 hours. But, also think about the size of the average customer in that part of the world. Not a lot of people my size walking around (6’5″ 225lbs). So maybe the 30″ doesnt matter.

    Cranky, was this in Renton? I was at Everett the same day for some business, and I know I missed this happening.

    • CF says:

      Xnuiem – The ceremony was at Boeing Field, though of course the airplane was built at Renton. I took a tour of Renton the next day and have some good photos from that to share later.

  3. MeanMeosh says:

    I flew SilkAir from HYD to SIN and back in 2009. We paid something like $285 roundtrip, which was an absolute bargain, and you are correct in your guess that the onboard service is far superior to what you would receive on a US domestic carrier. While the service was more basic than SQ, the lack of on-demand IFE being the biggest difference, the service standards of the ground crew and FAs were just as high as the mother ship. I didn’t recall the seat pitch being exceptionally tight, but then again, most of the Indian LCCs have standard pitch in the 29-31 inch range, so I probably just didn’t notice it.

    In regards to flight length to India, DEL is about 5 hours and 45 minutes on SQ, and that’s probably about as long a flight you can get to India from SIN, unless they plan to serve some much smaller secondary markets like Amritsar or Jaipur (and even then, that’s adding maybe an extra 30 minutes of flight time), so they won’t really have to extend the range of their planes THAT much. Regarding the pitch being an issue for that length of flight, keep in mind that the average Indian/Asian passenger is a bit smaller than the average American/European one. While 30-inch pitch might not be luxurious, it’s also not as much of a problem in the markets that SilkAir serves as it would be stateside.

    • CF says:

      MeanMeosh – I would think that SilkAir would primarily be looking for smaller Indian markets and not a place like Delhi. Same goes for China. While they might not need a huge gain in range, the 737 doesn’t really provide THAT much more. But it’s enough to include more cities in there. And then in the long run, the MAX will extend it even more. I think we’ll probably see more longer haul flying than we do on them today.

  4. SilkAir has been around for a long time, but you never hear of them, so you know they must be doing something right. In todays world we only hear news of the bad things people/companys do and not the good.

  5. A says:

    Need more on-board photos/info about the product. This post seems like fluff. While I’m sure it was super fun to attend some more hard data would be nice. BTW, I think it would be super awesome if airlines invited select customers to events like this. Maybe a lottery or something so it’s not just to million milers that get to go. I think that would be great PR for an airline.

    • CF says:

      A – Hard data? About what? This isn’t a hard data kind of post. And more photos of what? It’s a pretty simple product. The photos I show pretty much tell the story.

  6. Hey folks, quit ragging on the shiny airplane porn!

  7. Peter says:

    Very good article, thanks. It’s refreshing to hear of an airline harking back to the times when real service was provided beyond a seat and a bag of peanuts. Hope they are real successful, especially with Boeing aircraft instead of McPlanes from France. BTW there was a good size cargo carrier based out of GSO a number of years ago named Tradewinds. They flew L1011’s CL44’s and some A330’s. They seemed to disappear from here and wondered whatever happened. Someone suggested they were bough by FedEx but, can’t nail that down. Any relationship?

  8. tharanga says:

    when does Boeing plan to deliver these MAX 737s to Silk?

    • CF says:

      tharanga – I can’t find it in my notes, but I thought it was starting in 2017. I could be wrong on that – might be 2018?

  9. TheSsalty says:

    I flew with silk air from Hyderabad to Singapore and I was impressed but like you say, legroom has yet to be desired. Its nice to see some 737s being introduced to the fleet although I feel as though the airline would benefit if they got some a330-300s. Great article by the way!

  10. ptahcha says:

    One thing you might want to clarify is that, unlike SQ flights, SilkAir flights only earn miles on KrisFlyer and not on any Star Alliance airlines since it is not part of *A. Sames goes for lounge access (or lack of) under *A Gold scheme.

  11. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Touring Boeing’s 737 Factory in Renton | The Cranky Flier

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