Flying into Quarantine: Singapore Airlines SQ600 – Singapore to Seoul-Incheon (31 December 2020) by Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner

Flight Review: Singapore Airlines SQ600 – Singapore to Seoul-Incheon (31 December 2020)

This trip to the Republic of Korea was made on 31 December 2020, and at the time of travel, no COVID-19 PCR test was needed. Holding a valid Overseas Korean (재외동포) F-4 visa and Residence Registration Card (외국국적동포 국내거소신고증), there was no need for any further pre-departure documentation. As this trip was not made under the provision of the R.O.K.—Singapore Fast Lane for Essential Travel, there was no exemption from quarantine in Korea. Please note that individuals with other visa types may encounter very different conditions for their entry to Korea.

Border control measures are current in place for entry to the Republic of Korea. Only Koreans and foreigners with valid visas are permitted to enter the country. Short-term visas issued by the Korean Embassy in Singapore before 5 April 2020 have been invalidated, and there is a suspension of visa waiver agreements and visa-free entry to the Republic of Korea with effect from 13 April 2020, till further notice. Holders of diplomatic, official and service passports, flight attendants, seamen, and APEC card holders are exempt from these visa restrictions. If you need to apply for a new Korean visa, the latest visa application fees, which comes into effect from 1 January 2021, can be found at this link.

Due to the worsening COVID-19 situation, all foreigners travelling to the Republic of Korea by air, as of 8 January 2021, must submit polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results to airline personnel at the airport, or boarding will be denied. As the number of infections are increasing, the situation on-the-ground is evolving rapidly. Please refer to your home country’s travel advisories, as well as the travel directives issued by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in your home jurisdiction, for the latest updates if you are flying during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Upon arrival in Korea, Korean nationals and long-term residents of Korea must either quarantine at the government quarantine facility or self-quarantine at their home. Self-quarantine may involve a residence (such as an Airbnb rental apartment) if the owner allows it to be used as a self-isolation facility. Short-term visa holders are only allowed to undertake the 14-day quarantine at the government quarantine facility. Koreans and foreign nationals who are long-term residents in Korea also have to download the Korean Government’s “Self-Quarantine Safety Protection App” prior to entering the country.

Please note that the information in this article was experienced on 31 December 2020. The information in this article including travel restrictions may have changed whenever you are reading this. Always check the latest Government(s) and airline travel advisories for your own flight and nationality if you are flying during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pre-flight

I had two options for making this trip to Seoul. One was the red-eye Asiana Airlines flight OZ752 on 30 December 2020 (arriving the next morning), and the other was Singapore Airlines flight SQ600 on 31 December 2020.

OZ752/30DEC20 — Scheduled Departure at SIN: 2330L; Scheduled Arrival at ICN: 0650L (+1 day).
SQ600/31DEC20 — Scheduled Departure at SIN: 0805L; Scheduled Arrival at ICN: 1530L.

SQ600 was a daytime flight, and I decided on this option as it would be more comfortable to arrive at Seoul (Incheon) in the mid-afternoon. With more than 150k Asiana Miles, I wanted to do a mileage redemption on the Singapore Airlines flight, but Singapore Airlines has since blocked partner airlines from allowing mileage redemption for award tickets. Thus, I made a redemption booking for award travel with KrisFlyer miles. Given the latest news that Asiana Airlines is likely to be taken over by Korean Air and its holding company Hanjin KAL after the deal with Hyundai Development Co. fell through, I was slightly worried about holding my Asiana Miles, and I fully intend to redeem them for subsequent award tickets.

Mileage redemption is usually best done for premium classes. For this flight, SQ600, it cost 25,000 KrisFlyer miles + taxes for the Economy Saver award ticket. The taxes amounted to SGD41.50. The redemption chart for Singapore Airlines can be found at this link.

The booking was made on 23 December 2020, and I was able to select my seat during online check-in 48 hours prior to departure. I selected seat 41C, which was the first row in the forward Economy Class cabin on the Boeing 787-10, as my preferred seat, 58A, was not able to be selected online.

For the inflight meal, my default selection was a special meal — the Kosher Meal (KSML) option. KSML, which conforms to the standards of kashrut, typically have larger-than-normal portions, but they also tend to be either really bland or exceedingly salty. On past flights with Malaysia Airlines and Asiana Airlines, I did not have good experiences with the kosher option, and I really did not want to spoil my breakfast for this flight.

Having looked at what was offered in the standard inflight menu — Gammon Ham with Corn Pancake, and Chicken Bulgogi — I decided to change my choice to meal to the Seafood Meal (SFML). Little did I know, this was to be a big mistake.

Frequent flyers with Singapore Airlines may be aware of a special initiative, though this is something that is not publicised on the airline’s website. If this special service is put through to the airline when flying on one’s birthday, a cake, as well as a glass of champagne (and a cute Singapore Airlines teddy bear?) is offered to the birthday passenger. During normal times, the service is provided to passengers in Economy Class if his/her birthday is within +/- 1 day to the date of travel. For passengers in the various premium classes, this can be within +/- 3 days to the date of travel. If you are flying with Singapore Airlines and are eligible for this service, you may request for it by emailing your booking reference number and flight details to SQ Social (sq_social@singaporeair.com.sg), or via a call to KrisFlyer Membership Services.

As I was travelling on the date of my birthday, I called up KrisFlyer Membership Services to ask if a birthday cake can be uplifted for my flight. But due to the pandemic, I was told that this special service was not being offered. This is completely understandable as safety is the primary concern for crew and passengers, and contact should be limited as much as possible.

My intention for requesting this cake was because only one meal would be served during this flight, and I knew that it would be dished out right after take-off. I feared that upon landing at Incheon Airport at 03:30PM local time, the immigration and customs process, as well as the document review and medical checks, would take hours. In addition, travelling from Incheon Airport to the COVID-19 testing facility in my residence’s district, before heading to my Airbnb, would take over three hours in heavy traffic and I truly believed that I might only reach my Airbnb around 8PM local time. By then, I would be really hungry. I hoped that by having some sweet stuff right before landing, it would give me the energy to get through a long day.

With the understanding that there will not be much food onboard the flight, I decided to have a heavy breakfast on the morning of the 31st of December.

But on that day, it turned out that I had made an overly conservative estimation of the entire travelling time.

Check-in

Check-in for this flight was conducted at Terminal 3. Having reached the completely empty terminal building at 5AM in the morning, I proceeded straight to the counter to have my travel documents verified and boarding pass issued.

Upon receiving my passport, the SATS counter staff greeted me and wished me happy birthday. It was a pleasant surprise and good start to the trip.

The document review process took a long time. The check-in counter staff needed to ascertain my residency status in Korea, and crossed out a long checklist that had been provided to them. As she had not seen an example of the Overseas Korean (재외동포) F-4 visa and Residence Registration Card (외국국적동포 국내거소신고증) before, she had to consult their superiors and call her counterparts at Incheon Airport to confirm that no other medical documents or paperwork were needed. Prior to my trip, I contacted the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Singapore and embassy staff mentioned that no other documents were needed. I knew I was in the clear, but I fully understood why the airport check-in staff took their time to conduct their due diligence before issuing a boarding pass. No airline would want to bear the cost and responsibility of repatriating a passenger if he/she is denied entry to the destination country.

Not many counters were open at 5AM. When my boarding pass was issued, I was told that there would only be ten passengers onboard this flight.

After about 40 minutes, my passport was returned to me with my choice seat of 58A (Extra Legroom Seat). This is a window seat in the rear Economy Class cabin of the Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner.

I exceeded the 30kg luggage allowance by five kilogrammes, but the check-in staff was kind and decided not to charge me for the excess baggage (that could have been US$100) and I was very grateful for that.

With boarding pass in hand, I decided to head to the Kopitiam at Terminal 3 for a hearty breakfast.

After Security

At 6:40AM, I proceeded through empty security counters at the departure level and passed through immigration within two minutes. I headed to Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to have an early morning drink, and also bought a small cake to enjoy onboard the flight.

This picture was taken at 7AM. Have you seen Changi Airport Terminal 3 this empty before?

The boarding gate for SQ600 was A12. While the gate was open from 7AM, boarding did not start till much later, at around 7:25AM.

It is sad to see the flight schedule pared to this degree. The Singapore Airlines Group is running a heavily reduced schedule across its three airlines due to low passenger loads during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Gate holding room

After a short walk from Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, I reached gates A11 and A12. It was interesting to see that transit passengers were segregated at the gate so that they did not come into contact with ex-SIN passengers.

And the call for boarding was made around 7:30AM. Transit passengers were invited to board first, followed by passengers in Business Class and Economy Class. It seemed to appear that most, if not all, of the other passengers were Korean, because none of the ex-SIN passengers understood the English announcement that boarding had commenced. They just sat in their seats while I made my way down the aerobridge. I assume that staff at the gate had somehow gesticulated to them that boarding had commenced.

The view from seat 58A on Singapore Airlines’ Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner. The adjacent plane is an Airbus A350-900, and Singapore Airlines is one of the largest operators of this aircraft type. Unlike Boeing 787s which have raked wingtips, the Airbus A350s have blended winglets. But both devices have the same purpose — to improve the efficiency of the plane by reducing aerodynamic drag.

Boarding

The aircraft for SQ600/31DEC20 was 9V-SCG, a Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner that at the time of departure was 3 years and 7 months old. This plane was delivered directly to Singapore Airlines from Boeing, and it is powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 high-bypass turbofans. With a good cargo capacity of up to 13 pallets, this plane is a good fit for high density regional routes in the airline’s network.

Prior to entering the aircraft, passengers are requested to take a pair of earphones, a water bottle, as well as a Care Kit, which contains a face mask, hand sanitiser, and disinfectant surface wipe. It was quite a surreal experience to board an empty aircraft knowing that it will stay pretty much that way for the entire flight.

The Airbus A350-900 at gate A11 was bound for Manila as flight SQ910.

I believe the crew complement is 9 or 10 for Singapore Airlines’ Boeing 787-10. With only ten passengers, the ratio of cabin crew to passenger was probably 1 to 1! One would expect very personalised service under normal circumstances, but we are travelling during extraordinary conditions and it is best to have minimal contact with other passengers/crew.

Seat

I headed to my seat, 58A, in the rear Economy Class cabin. As I approached my seat, a stewardess greeted me. Handing over the box containing the cake I bought at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to the stewardess, I requested for her to keep it for me in the chiller, and I loaded my hand carry luggage to the overhead bins.

Perks of a bulkhead seat — extra legroom!

There is perpetually unlimited legroom to stretch out. For bulkhead seats, the inflight entertainment screen is stowed below the seat and the tray table is tucked in between seats, and this means that the handrest cannot be moved. This reduces the width of the seat by a little bit.

Mood lighting in the cabin greatly enhances the in-cabin experience. Also present in the Boeing 787 is the electrochromism-based smart glass, which allows flight attendants and passengers to adjust between five levels of sunlight and visibility to their liking. The settings allow for the reduction of cabin glare while maintaining a view to the outside world, but the most opaque setting still retains some transparency.
Singapore Airlines’ Boeing 787-10 Dreamliners are fitted with 36 Business Class seats and 301 Economy Class seats.

In Economy Class, what really matters is the space at shoulder-level. This is the critical factor for comfort in this class of travel. The seat was well padded and was sufficiently comfortable for this daytime flight.

Business Class onboard Singapore Airlines’ Boeing 787-10s feature a 1-2-1 seating configuration while the Economy Class cabin has the standard nine abreast arrangement. On this flight, the rear cabin only had two passengers (including myself), which means that social distancing came as standard onboard this flight.

Without many passengers onboard, the cabin felt airy and spacious. But because I did not have a person seating next to me, my experience is probably not a good gauge for seat comfort.

Pushback and Takeoff

While boarding was completed relatively quickly, the pilot only announced that doors were closed at 07:51AM. Standard pre-departure announcements were made, and the First Officer noted the expected flying time of five hours and fifty minutes to Incheon. Pushback was made at 07:57AM.

The Leading Stewardess (in green kebaya) came to me to confirm my name and special meal order.

Given the reduced aircraft movements on the tarmac, we had an early departure under good weather conditions. I guessed that the plane’s cargo holds were loaded to capacity, but the extremely low passenger count for this medium-haul flight should mean that the plane was far from its maximum take-off weight (MTOW). With a right turn made onto the active runway, the engines spooled up and we had a rolling take-off.

Inflight

Meal service started almost immediately after reaching cruising altitude of 36,000 feet. On Singapore Airlines flights, pre-ordered special meals are usually served before the standard options, but there was no difference on this particular flight due to the extremely low loads.

I did not expect the Seafood Meal (SFML) to have noodles. It is also interesting that the food was listed as being catered for SQ910, which seemed to be for the Manila-bound flight which was parked at gate A11.
The SFML looked good (nice lighting), but the noodles were rubbery and somewhat salty. I only ate the prawns, fish, vegetables, and left the noodles untouched.

I was somewhat disappointed with the SFML. Gone are the salad and fruits, and there were no sides except for the bread and yoghurt. The crew were proactive in asking for my choice of drink, and I had a couple of cups of apple juice.

Due to regulatory requirements, all passengers above the age of six must wear a face mask throughout the flight except while eating and drinking. This is common sense regulation, as travellers in this pandemic have a moral responsibility not just to protect themselves but their fellow travellers as well.

The airline states on their website that their aircraft are thoroughly cleaned, with extra care taken to sanitise common surfaces. This was most evident by the stewardesses’ frequent cleaning of the aircraft’s lavatories throughout the flight with high-strength disinfectants. The airline has also implemented measures to minimise contact with physical objects and surfaces as much as possible. In light of this, I decided that I would not use watch videos on KrisWorld, the airline’s inflight entertainment system.

After the meal service, I tried to use my laptop to access the inflight WIFI. Thanks to a Boingo connection provided by a friend, I was able to connect to the WIFI onboard.

Download speeds were high but the uploading speed was not. Nonetheless, I was able to send and receive images via messaging applications such as KakaoTalk and WhatsApp.
For #AvGeeks, the best inflight entertainment can be said to be the view from one’s window.

I used the time to do some reading and productive work, and I am pleased to report that there were no interruptions of the network throughout the flight. My productive was greatly aided by the fact that there was not much turbulence on this flight.

Cabin crew members did not come over unless I pressed the call bell. But the few interactions that I had with crew members were positive. They noticed that I was working on my laptop and proactively offered to turn down the electrochromism-based small glass windows in front and behind me so that I would not be affected by the sunlight. That was a nice touch.

As an airframe primarily made of composite materials, it also has extensive use of electrical systems. The Boeing 787 is also externally recognisable by its four-window cockpit, raked wingtips, and noise-reducing chevrons on its engine nacelles.

The lavatories were kept clean throughout the entire flight. While my seat was right behind the mid-cabin lavatories, there was not much footfall due to the low passenger loads. There was a noticeable sanitisation regime for the toilets, and flight attendants will frequently disinfect the toilets after passengers used them.

About an hour and a half prior to landing, I went to the tail of the plane where the crew were congregating, and requested for the boxed cake and a set of cutlery. Upon realising that I was actually flying on my birthday, the crew served me a cup of apple juice, the cake (still in the box), the cutlery, and also passed me a set of SIA playing cards as a souvenir. It was a nice gesture that I did not expect.

Inflight amenities

No amenity bag was offered for this flight. On Singapore Airlines flights, shaving kits and toothbrushes are usually found in the lavatory, but there was nothing there.

Flight path

The flight path for SQ600/31DEC20 was due east out of SIN, with the plane climbing to an initial cruising altitude of 36,000 feet.

After overflying the Natuna Islands and some of the islands in the South China Sea, the plane flew north of Luzon Island at 37,000 feet, before crossing the western portion of Taiwan at around 39,000 feet. As more fuel was burnt and the weight of the plane was reduced, we finally attained the final cruising altitude of 41,000 feet before entering Korean airspace.

There was also a good tailwind, with ground speed clocked at 1,039km/h while over Taiwan.

After entering Korean airspace, we flew over Jeju and then mainland Korea, finally touching down at Incheon Airport with a feather-smooth landing after 5 hours and 41 minutes of flight time.

The southern approach to Incheon Airport yields some pretty spectacular views of some of the islands surrounding the airfield.
Our Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner holding short of an active runway at Incheon, with a VietJet Air Airbus A321 heading back to Vietnam.

The plane parked at a gate at Incheon Airport Terminal 1. Previously, Singapore Airlines’ flights to Seoul (ICN) parked at the Concourse Terminal, and one would need to take a shuttle train.

Disembarkation and the whole process at Incheon Airport

Disembarkation was swift given that there were only ten passengers onboard.

Having filled up the various medical declaration forms and entry cards to Korea on the plane, I passed through the first round of temperature screening without incident. As SQ600 was the only flight to arrive at that time, there was no queue, and arriving passengers were directed to booths set up by state officials.

As I did not present any symptoms, the official at the booth guided me to install the Korean Government’s “Self-Quarantine Safety Protection App”. I was then moved to another booth, and this time, the quarantine supervision official called the owner of the Airbnb I was supposed to stay at to confirm my self-isolation at the Airbnb. No in-airport testing was conducted, and I was then asked to head to the immigration official where my medical declaration forms and entry cards were scanned. I was then given a “Restriction Order on the Scope of Activities (활동범위 등 제한통지서)”. This document marked out my status of sojourn and address of my self-quarantine location, and laid out the punishments levied for breach of the restriction order.

It is vital to not breach such restriction orders. If one does not abide by the restriction order, he or she may lose his/her status of sojourn and/or have the visa revoked, as well as be subject to fines, deportation, and/or entry-ban pursuant to the Republic of Korea’s Article 94, 11, and 46 of the Immigration Act!

After signing all the papers given to me by the immigration official, I was then ushered to another counter for the final stage of the immigration process, before heading one level down to claim my checked baggage. All in all, the entire process from disembarkation to baggage claim took 45 minutes.

At the public area of the Arrival Hall at Incheon Airport, arriving passengers were guided to yet more booths set up by the various regional (provincial) authorities. Passengers who do not have a car must take special quarantine vehicles such as regulated buses, “quarantine taxis”, or call-vans to their place of residence. As I was staying at an Airbnb in Mapo-gu, Seoul, I was told to cough up about KRW67,600 for a call-van (essentially a MPV or SUV). There was not much of a price difference between the call-van and the “quarantine taxi”, so I elected to take the larger vehicle as I had a lot of luggage.

Heading into self-quarantine

Barely an hour after arriving in Korea, I was in a vehicle hurtling down the expressway connecting the airport with Seoul at 150km/h. It was bringing back memories of crazy fast drivers on the Korean highways, but that all came to end when we encountered heavy traffic while entering the city limits of Seoul. The driver proceeded to the Mapo-gu Public Health Center, which was an official screening facility for residents staying in the district.

After a painful nasal swab and receiving yet another “Care Kit” by the officials, I was then sent back to my driver with a “Notice of Isolation/Quarantine”. This document identified me as a person subject to isolation/quarantine under Articles 43 and 43-2 of Korea’s Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, and I was made to understand that I could only exit my place of self-isolation/quarantine at 12noon after the 14th day.

The driver then took me to my place of residence and I arrived at around 6PM local time, well before what I expected, and this marked the beginning of my 14-day self-isolation in Seoul, Korea.

Please note that the information in this article was experienced on 31 December 2020. The information in this article including travel restrictions may have changed whenever you are reading this. Always check the latest Government(s) and airline travel advisories for your own flight and nationality if you are flying during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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