Qantas Airways / 17 Oct 18 / A380-800 / QF1 SYD-SIN / First class / 5F
I had the rare chance to experience the Qantas A380 first class, when I return from my business trip to Sydney. While I usually take the A330 business, this time round due to some meetings I had earlier in the day so I ended up having to take the last flight of the day back to Singapore: the flagship QF1 service which goes onwards to London. By a stroke of luck, I managed to sneak a seat in the forward most cabin!
Qantas operates six services from Singapore daily, two each to Sydney and Melbourne, and one each to Brisbane and Perth. The Sydney and Melbourne services are both served by an A330 and an A380. I usually prefer the A330 as it’s a smaller aircraft with an incredible business class product (read: less people, less crowd), but the A380 is also amazing in its own right.
The A380 needs no introduction; it’s a perennial favourite with many travellers due to its size and stability. For Qantas, the A380 is its flagship aircraft, with the First Class product found exclusively on its fleet of 14 A380s.
Qantas operates a four class product on the A380, with 14 first class ‘suites’, 64 business class seats, 35 premium economy seats and 371 economy seats.
Note that I use quotes around the word suite, because unlike the Singapore Airlines A380 suites – both old and new – that have been very well publicised (and reviewed), the Qantas First class is more of an open seat product that offers a fair amount of privacy.
The first class cabin is at the front on the lower deck, with economy seats taking up the remainder of the deck. Business and premium economy takes the upper deck, and also a very small section of economy class seats at the rear of the upper deck which makes it feel rather exclusive. These seats are often blocked for Qantas platinum (and above) frequent fliers due to its popuarity.
Qantas calls its 14 First Class products as ‘suites’, which will make you feel hugely disappointed if you are thinking of First Class products such as Singapore Airlines’ Suites, or Etihad’s First Class Apartments.
These suites are in fact open seats in a 1-1-1 configuration, with 5 seats on each side of the plane (seats A and K), and 4 in the middle (seats F). The product is more similar to the first class product you find on Cathay Pacific’s B777, which also boasts a 1-1-1 configuration in its first class.
Each of the seat is designed to face forward during take off and landing, but while in the air, the seat can be rotated to an angle for you to stretch out and for more privacy. The window seats swings towards the window, while the middle column F seats swings towards the left.
That also means that access to the middle seat is on the right-hand aisle, sharing an aisle with the K seats. Hence, the A seats typically is a lot more private as they have the exclusive use of the left aisle and also the overhead cabins, so be sure to choose those seats if they are usually very popular.
For this flight, I had seat 5F, which was the middle seat in the last row of the First cabin. The middle F seats have a privacy partition that will come up when the aircraft reaches cruising altitude.
Upon getting to my seat, I noticed that there were no overhead bins above the middle seat for my bags. I had to stow them above seat 5K, which was not ideal because that means retrieving any item from the bin will mean disturbing another passenger. But given that the seat was large enough for me to dump whatever I need at my seat, this was hardly a problem.
When the seat gets turned down into the bed, this is when magic happens. Qantas uses bedding and quilts from Sheridan, which includes a thick memory-foam sheepskin mattress as well as a fluffy duvet. There was also a pillow menu, but I was very much happy with what was already on my seat. While I usually don’t sleep well in the air, this is one of the rare instance where I fell asleep really quickly and took a really long nap, because it was that good.
The flight I was on today was delayed at Sydney by an hour. While we were waiting at the gate, the pilot made the effort to come out and explain to the passengers the cause of the delay (the aircraft was released late from maintenance) and gave an estimated time of departure and I thought this was a very good move.
Most people stayed around at the gate, most some decided to head off to walk around the terminal some more. I headed out for a cup of coffee, before returning to board the aircraft close to the new departure time.
As I was one of the first passengers to board, the cabin crew serving the First cabin, Nestor and Jenny, came around to introduce themselves and also offered drinks, amenity kit and a set of pyjamas. The amenity kit and pyjamas were branded Martin Grant.
Quickly, I went to change into my pyjamas despite it being a day flight. The pyjamas were incredibly comfortable, although a tad short for the torso even for my Asian build. There was no personal coat rack, but the crew was quick to collect my clothes to hang in the common coat rack at the head of the cabin.
My choice of pre-departure drink was of course the champagne, and the bubbles on board today was the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blance de Blancs 2006, a very crisp and tasty vintage. Very delicious, so I had two even before we got to the runway. Along with the bubbles we were offered olives and almonds to go along with the drink.
Later on, another crew, Jayson came around introducing himself as the galley operator and also helped handed out hot towels, before coming around to keep them again.
Just before take-off, the cabin crew came around to clear the drinks and soon we took to the skies.
Once we are in the air, that’s when dinner service began. The dinner menu was dished out, along with a wine list. And this is what’s on offer tonight:
Caviar on toasted brioche with cauliflower puree
Green pea and mint soup with snow pea salad
Caramelised oinion tart with anchovy, roasted cherry tomato, goat’s feta and basil
Tagliolini pasta with spanner crab, garlic, chilli and parsley
Warm salad of harissa spiced turkey with quinoa pilaf, citrus and pistachio
Our signature steak sandwich with tomato and chilli relish
Polenta with chargrilled radicchio, baby carrots, green bean pistou and hazelnut crumb
Seared blue eye with green beans, snow peas, lemon and olive oil
Jiangsu style steamed blue eye with bacon and mushroom broth, wheat noodles and Asian greens
Crumbed pork cutlet with salmoriglio, shaved fennel, potato, asparagus and herb salad
Rockpool Bar & Grill style beef fillet with green beans, mac and cheese and your choice of Neil’s barbecue sauce, seeded or hot English mustard
Selection of cheese served with accompaniments
Gingerbread with baked rhubarb, meringue, and vanilla yoghurt
Chocolate malted tart with creme fraiche
Maggie Beer ice cream
Koko Black hand made chocolates
While the in-flight kitchen got busy, Nestor came around pretty quickly with the canapes and my third glass of champagne.
Now, I’m not a big fan of caviar, but unlike the generous serving of caviar offered by Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific in their first class, Qantas offers only one morsel served on a tartlet. What if I really liked it and wanted more? Obviously I never got around to ask that question.
The prawn cocktail was more of a boiled prawn on some iceberg lettuce and an unknown citrus-y dressing, which was still good. The combination results in pretty much a juicy and crunchy bite which was incredibly enjoyable.
Another crew, Jenny came around to take orders for dinner. My choice for the evening was the signature steak sandwich, and the steamed blue eye (which was a fish) with wheat noodles. She then asked for my choice of wine to go along with the meal, and I decided to risk it by letting her decide.
While she came around to set the table a couple of minutes later, she told me that she will bring along a chardonnay and a pinot noir to pair with the food. She also asked if i’d like some bread on the side, but since I was going to have the sandwich, I declined the bread. I have had bread on Qantas flights before, but not a terribly big fan of it as they serve sliced bread rather than whole buns which I usually prefer. Having said that, if you ever fly out of Australia on Qantas in first or business, the butter Qantas uses is from Pepe Saya, a locally made butter which is incredibly tasty and fragrant.
The sandwich I ordered as a starter came along some time later. I have heard quite a bit about this sandwich: it was a long-time menu item in First on Qantas, and story has it that when Qantas tried dropping the item, it met with protest from its customers so they brought it back as a staple.
The sandwich was a fairly simple dish of a wedge of steak, rocket leaves, and the famous tomato and chilli jam. And this jam was clearly the wow factor: slightly sweet, slightly tangy, slightly spicy, full of flavour. The steak was surprisingly tender, although the bread was a little too hard for my liking. I gave up on the bread after gnawing through half the sandwich.
Next up was the Jiangsu steamed blue eye with bacon and mushroom broth, wheat noodles and Asian greens. While I love a good fish dish, I am usually quite wary of steamed fish in-flight given that in-flight meals are prepared almost a day before the flight, so anything steamed would have become stale by the time they are loaded onto an aircraft. However, this fish was a surprise: it has a firm touch on the outside, while soft and tender yet not to the point of mushiness on the inside. Best part of it? It doesn’t smell fishy.
At this time I need to mention the wines. The chardonnay was good, but the pinot noir blew me away. It was the Tolpuddle Vineyard 2017 Pinot Noir, which to me was light on tanin but so full on flavour. I’m no wine expert, but I think this one instantly became my favourite red for the moment.
By the time I was done with the fish, I was surprisingly rather full, even though I was rather famished when the flight first took off. I took a glance at the time, it was about three hours into the flight and that means about 9pm in Sydney, which was way past dinner time. But of course, I needed to finish off the night with some dessert first. I went for the Maggie Beer affogato ice cream. For those who are not familiar with the brand, the ice cream is really more like a frothy thick cream that is easy to scoop, rather than the frozen cream that you may find in a typical tub of ice cream.
While it is rather delish and makes for a great finish to the meal, I was honestly expecting more for a first class cabin dessert rather than having a cup of ice cream dished out to me as-is.
And shortly after that, the crew swiftly came by and offered more wine (which I declined), before keeping everything away. I ended the evening with the remainder of my pinot noir (and another), before reclining my seat to rest for the rest of the flight.
The pre-arrival meal was not on the menu, but Jenny came by about an hour before landing, offering a choice of fried rice (I didn’t manage to catch the accompaniments), the signature steak sandwich that I had earlier, as well as fruits. As I wasn’t feeling terribly hungry, I went for the fruit plate as well as a pot of T2 peppermint tea.
After I was done with supper, Nestor showed me where my clothes were, and I went to get changed in preparation for landing.
Forget the IFE, let’s talk about something more critical first: there was no in-flight wifi.
Just last year, Qantas made news when it introduced high-speed wifi on its domestic flights in Australia, which was supposed to be so fast that you could stream Netflix on it. On the other hand, they have been slow in offering wifi on its international services and I’m still waiting for them to even offer basic wifi to begin with.
The in-flight entertainment was probably the weakest link of the first class offering. Qantas introduced the A380 First suites back in 2008 (this is a 10-year old product!), which came with these huge screens for its time. However, the screens were never upgraded and by today’s standard, I think they were sorely lacking in speed and resolution. The software was sluggish, and every click through the remote took a while to register.
In terms of the content mix, there were hits and misses. Qantas made a big play last year when they introduced box sets to provide full season entertainment as other airlines typically carry only a couple of episodes each month. I took a browse, but disappointingly I didn’t recognise most of the shows, save for a couple.
As an Asian film buff, I took a browse at the Asian movie offerings. 25 movies, I saw, but when I delved deeper, about half of them were Indian films. I wonder why, given that Qantas does not even fly to India!
So naturally, I gave up on the IFE and watched a couple of shows on my iPad that I’ve downloaded before the flight before heading for a nap.
The Qantas First cabin was definitely an experience to hold. It is pretty remarkable that a 10-year old product still work incredibly well, and this is in part a continual upgrade of the softer products such as the introduction of Sheridan bedding, the Martin Grant designed amenities that are tasteful and functional.
Where the food is concerned, at first glance, one may feel that the sizes of the dishes aren’t fit for a royal banquet, as most airlines will go over the top to stuff their best customers. Of course, really seasoned travellers will know better than to stuff their faces with food, but in the Asian context, having an abundance of food is a symbolic sign of hospitality, rather than practicality. For instance, on Singapore Airlines, every meal was essentially a five to six course dinner, and I had to skip some courses to complete all of it.
However, the gem comes in the service: it’s attention yet not over the top, in its signature casual Aussie style but not rude. The menu, while relatively simple, the magic behind it is in the service offered by the cabin crew as they explain that the menu is indeed scalable for the customers of all appetite sizes, where you can order one or more from every section in the menu.
The quality of food is definitely tip-top, my steak sandwich definitely delivered, and the main was definitely of restaurant quality, which is a feat to achieve in the skies. All these, accompanied with an excellent wine list.
The weakest link of the experience is definitely in the lack of wifi and the in-flight entertainment. As an airline with a significant proportion of network serving Asia, the lack of Asian content is incredibly wanting.
Having said that, Qantas has earlier this year announced a refresh of the A380 cabin products, including the overhaul of the business and premium economy cabins, and a refresh of the first class product. While not a redesign of the product, this is not a bad move — why will you want to reinvent the wheel when its not broken?