Let me throw down: If you have to cross the Pacific in economy class, you’ll have a more comfortable experience on Thai Airways than on Singapore Airlines.
In the last six months, I’ve flown four trans-Pacific sectors on Singapore. But last week’s flight from Los Angeles to Bangkok on Thai International Airways was preferable by every measure I care about.
Leg Room. On long-haul routes, every inch is precious, and Thai is the most generous airline. As you can see on this SeatGuru comparison chart, Thai Airways gives each economy-class passenger 36 inches of seat pitch on the Airbus A340-500s it uses to connect LAX and BKK. (Seat pitch is the distance from any point on your seat to the same point on the seat in front of you.)
Singapore is tighter (by both meanings of the word) in its treatment of the people in the cheap seats. Depending on the route, Singapore laps the Pacific using Boeing 747-400s or 777-300ERs, either of which only provides 32 inches of seat pitch. That’s industry standard, but Singapore claims to be a superior airline.
The four extra Thai inches were delightful. There was room for my legs – I’m six foot one – plus my books and drinking water in the seatback compartment, plus a carryon stowed under the seat in front of me. I never felt cramped. On the Singapore flights between San Francisco and Hong Kong, my knees were against the seatback.
On this factor – the most important factor on lengthy flights – Thai prevailed handily.
Food. The Thai food was tastier and more varied, there was more of it per meal, and the first serving came on a nearly cafeteria-sized tray, not the microtrays Singapore used. Thai offers a series of special meals, including Indian and religious meals, but its web site doesn’t make a big a deal of the service the way Singapore’s does. I vote Thai on this category, although it’s a matter of taste.
Décor. My first impression of the Singapore Airlines décor was “clinical.” The economy cabin was oatmeal beige, and business class wasn't any better. It had the zest of an office park.
The Thai economy cabin was a potpourri of color: violet, lavender and yellow seats, with stitching in orange and red and other colors. The design was reminiscent of a resort, not a board room. It’s not a place to work; it’s a respite, a place to relax as you fly between workplaces. I’ll take the Thai cabin any day.
Booze. Thai seemed looser with the spirits. During dinner, there was plenty of acceptable-for-air-travel wine. After dinner, the flight attendants offered cognac. Singapore offered wine but not the digestifs. (BTW, I learned from a flight attendant that 18 is the drinking age on Thai flights, regardless of the laws of the jurisdiction over which the plane is flying.)
Cup Holder Placement. On Thai, the cup holder is mounted to the back of the tray table; when you’re eating and the tray table is down, you don’t have access to the cup holder. On Singapore, the cup holder is mounted above the tray table, so you can always use it. Advantage Singapore, I guess, but it doesn’t matter when the flight attendants are prompt with the refills, which the Thai attendants were.
Flight Attendant Attentiveness. Luck of the draw plays a large role in whether your flight attendant is Ananda-on-the-spot or lazy Suchin. I’ve had better luck with Thai. On this flight, my aisle had two flight attendants assigned to it, and we never lacked for anything. I’ve been on flights where the Singapore Girl was clearly a fill-in, unfamiliar with the long-haul product and what was expected of her.
In-Flight Entertainment. No contest: Singapore’s AVOD was fantastic, with literally hundreds of channels providing movies, television programs and games in half a dozen languages. The Thai AVOD had only a fraction of the offerings, and, on my recent flight, it barely worked.
But I didn’t care. I spent the flight reading The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, a science fiction allegory about the austerity of life in Great Britain in the decade after World War II. It was more interesting than Avatar on a tiny screen.
The Little Things. Thai excels. The Thai flight offered a rolled blanket with a cardboard band, printed with the airline logo; Singapore offered a folded blanket in a plastic bag. Thai offered its headsets in a purple pouch bearing the legend “Take Me Home”; Singapore’s headsets came in a plain plastic bag, and the flight attendants made a point of collecting them before landing. Thai passed out bottles of water to everyone before turning the lights out; Singapore didn’t.
Award Seat Availability. I accrue my frequent flyer miles to Singapore Airlines because that’s the only way I’ll experience its Business Class service. But I’m starting to think that’s a mirage. I was unable to secure a Business award seat for this trip despite weeks of effort and waiting, which is why I took Thai. Plus, the more I learn about the nature of the Singaporean regime, the less inclined I am to support it with my travel dollars. According to the road warriors at FlyerTalk, Thai award seats are readily available (if only because Thai has trouble selling out its premium inventory).
Conclusion: It’s Cultural. Here’s the cultural difference between Thai and Singapore in one factlet: The Singapore pilots turned on the seat belt signs whenever there was a whisper of turbulence. The plane had to be shaking before the Thai pilots did.
My opinion of Singapore, the airline, is similar to my opinion of Singapore, the city-state. Its reputation outstrips its reality, it’s not as efficient or luxurious as it claims to be, it costs too much, and the quirky, home-spun human element has been replaced with a stifling corporatism. People with money (business class flyers, on the plane, and supporters of the ruling Lee family, on the ground) are treated well, but the commoners (economy flyers, and working class, HDB-dwelling Singaporeans, respectively) are offered a homogenous, pared-down product that does the trick but isn’t as generous as it’s hyped to be.
I’d rather live in colorful and chaotic Thailand than in antiseptic Singapore, and I’d rather fly Thai Airways than its beige, bland, boring competitor.