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.

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