Singapore Airlines Wants a New Longer Range Aircraft to Overcome Disadvantages in the US Market

Singapore flew non-stop Newark – Singapore as the longest flight in the world onboard an Airbus A340-500. They also flew Los Angeles – Singapore non-stop, and Thai Airways flew New York JFK – Bangkok using that plane type.

The Singapore Airlines ultra-long haul flights were originally operated in two cabin configuration, and changed to all business class service. The goal was selling fewer seats at a significant premium. The economics didn’t work.

The A340-500 was more or less a flying gas can. And carrying so much fuel for such a long distance means carrying more fuel to handle the weight of that fuel. As the price of avgas rose, operating costs of the plane became worse and worse.

Eventually all three of those flights came to and end.

Singapore Airlines of course offers a fantastic product. Onboard their A380 they pioneered ‘Suites Class’.

They have what I consider to be the best main meals in the sky, especially with their ‘Book the Cook’ program (though I believe they’re lacking in midflight snack service).

The staple of their fleet, the the 777, has an outstanding business class as well.

Singapore, though, is at a real disadvantage in the U.S. market because of the distance between the US and Singapore. Singapore is an inferior option compared to Cathay Pacific flying between the US and Southeast Asia. That’s because from any city that Cathay Pacific serves it’s two flights to anywhere — for Singapore Airlines it’s three flights to reach destinations other than Singapore and the cities the airline flies to enroute to Singapore (Frankfurt, Houston, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong).

From everywhere except Houston (which Singapore serves and Cathay Pacific does not), Cathay Pacific gets you where you’re going with the same or fewer flights than Singapore Airlines does — because Singapore, no longer operating the A340-500, cannot fly non-stop to Singapore.

So Singapore Airlines is talking to both Boeing and Airbus about the possibility of an aircraft with the range to fly non-stop between the US and Singapore — new ‘longest flights in the world’.

Delta flies a Boeing 777-200LR Atlanta – Johannesburg, and pushes the envelope on that plane’s range. Los Angeles – Singapore is a few hundred miles longer, with greater stretches over ocean and greater distances from a diversion airport. Newark – Singapore would be over a thousand miles longer than Atlanta-Johannesburg. So the 777-200LR, while an amazing aircraft, doesn’t quite work for Singapore. (Qantas flies an A380 Sydney – Dallas, two hundred miles shorter than Los Angeles – Singapore.)

A new plane isn’t going to make economic sense for Singapore Airlines alone, they aren’t going to drive the market for aircraft based on their US flights alone. Perhaps they’d ultimately take delivery of a dozen or fifteen planes, not enough to justify the development costs. Other carriers would have to show interest in ultra long haul flying for relatively thin markets.

Singapore’s other option is a hub in a city (and country!) other than Singapore. They do have investments in several airlines. But the size of Singapore itself, and its location, is naturally limiting as far as growth in certain markets. The airline realizes that, seems to be frustrated by it.

Now if only the US would eliminate foreign ownership restrictions and we could get a little Singapore Airlines goodness in the US (alongside, in all likelihood, Ryanair — so it wouldn’t all be a passenger experience improvement).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I was always under the impression that the 777-200LR has more range than the A340-500 at a lower fuel cost….


  2. I’m sure that the 777-200LR would work, but they’d have to order the version with extra fuel tanks in the cargo hold…

  3. You are incorrect in your premise that the EWR flight “didn’t work.” This was cited in the media often, but is mistaken.

    The flight was typically sold out (i.e.: essentially all paid pax) easily four nights a week. There were multiple times when trying to book a week out for a paid ticket, I couldn’t get on the flight. Every carrier wishes they could fill 90+ paid J seats on a flight. The math for the operation worked well.

    While more fuel was needed to handle the longer range, the plane itself was sparsely populated…1/3 the normal pax and roughly a corresponding reduction in luggage….so the weight of the extra fuel was somewhat offset. The math of the route is further augmented with being all premium pax. If you can’t make an A340 work with 80-100 paying premium pax, there’s no way the average carrier could make an A340 work in a typical configuration….and all would be grounded by now.

    The actual reason the service was cancelled was due to A350. I’m sure you’re aware that the residual value of A340s generally is very low. Who wants a used, slow four-engine single-level plane? Made worse, the -500 variant was designed for very few cycles (one a day?) and it dropped in value by an even greater amount than other A340 models. While SQ’s planes weren’t worthless, the capital cost (in terms of actual depreciation) from buying the dedicated fleet for the -EWR and -LAX routes turned out to be brutal.

    As luck would have it, the folks at Airbus didn’t initially find a strong take up for the A350 and needed to lure a high profile carrier like SQ into the program. SQ was interested in the aircraft…and Airbus made it worthwhile by buying back the A340-500 fleet at significantly inflated values. This is the reason that SQ sold the fleet.

    If the -EWR route was losing money, SQ would not have announced its cancellation and kept it running for months and months. They would have cancelled it with much shorter notice. Instead, the actual end of the route was determined by just how far out they could push Airbus in terms of time to deliver the trade-ins.

  4. @NYBanker if the flight was making enough to earn its cost of capital they wouldn’t have sold the planes back. Don’t kid yourself. They didn’t kill the route because they could get Airbus to take the planes back at an inflated value. They could have gotten other concessions from Airbus instead if that were the case.

  5. I’ve been surprised with fuel prices being lower that SQ hasn’t yet tried to reopen LAX-SIN or start SFO-SIN service using their A380. As the article notes, LAX-SIN (8772 mi) is just 200 mi more than the SYD-DFW A380 route (8590 mi) flown by QF, and SFO-SIN (8448 mi) is less than the QF SYD-DFW service. I would think that SFO UA feeder traffic would also benefit SQ, since both are *A.

    If SQ wants to have nonstop service to the USA, the already available A380 seems reasonable for that service distance–and I’m sure Airbus would be willing to sell a few more at discount. I’m sure that SQ would never fill the A380, but it would likely give it the loss leader to compete with CX for US-SE Asia travel. As long as fuel prices stay lower, SFO seems the better bet for SQ to try.

  6. How about Honolulu? Last time I looked this was part of the USA and you could then fly to all US cities without the need for any ‘new’ aircraft.

    SQ could fly to major destinations such as LAX, Chicago, Newark and use use code shares with United for other destinations. Sounds better than my current 24 hour journeys.

  7. My understanding is that the 777x will handle these routes without a problem, although this is still a number of years away.

  8. I love to fly Singapore…great airline!

    I feel sad but I think their best days are behind them. Geography, the rise of the ME3, the rise of LCC’s in Asia, and planes like the 787 and A350 are not working in their favor. Singapore is a great spot for shipping but not totally wonderful for airline traffic.

    Is it any wonder that their KrisFlyer miles are so easy to get?

  9. Actually, it looks like the 787-8 range is 9439 mi, so I don’t know why SQ couldn’t simply buy those for the SIN-SFO, SIN-LAX, and possibly SIN-ORD and/or SIN-EWR routes to get the nonstop activity they want.

  10. You al wait and see, I can’t wait till the day Southwest flies nonstop to SIN on these sweet 737-800s!! I have been saving my Southwest points for 9 years now and can’t wait to redeem my 2,535,000 points for an empty middle seat on that flight.

  11. I think now that Singapore Airlines has invested in the new Indian airline ‘Vistara’, they might look at having a hub in New Delhi as the city is geographically well placed to serve North America and other markets.

  12. I don’t see the connection being that big an issue, because of the length of the flight. Really, what’s the difference between an 18 hour flight (LAX – SIN non-stop), and the current routing, a 19 hour flight, with 90 minutes to stretch your legs in Tokyo? It’s not like making a connection in the US where it adds a significant % to your travel time, and with over 50% of the passengers going through, there’s no chance of a missed connection. Plus, SQ’s 5th Freedom rights to pick up additional passengers in Tokyo generates more revenues for them.

    That said, a non-stop SIN-LAX would be very popular and could get a premium, even for economy. If the A380 could do it economically, without offloading a ton of passengers, I think it definitely would have a high load factor. I know I’d buy 8 round trips on it a year…

  13. My comments aren’t speculation.

    If the routes didn’t turn an operating profit, SQ would have ended them (a) well sooner than ten years or at least (b) immediately upon the trade in deal with Airbus. They did neither.

    “Trade in” allowance is the area where manufacturers can best mask deal subsidies from other carriers. Getting SQ as a lead customer was very valuable for Airbus.

    Now SQ is talking about new aircraft for this route.

    Beyond the “non-speculative” nature of my comments, all of the actual facts are consistent with my comments.

    The general media hype is the only thing that is different.

  14. @George – The Newark flight shaved off roughly four hours of travel time versus connecting itineraries via Asia or Europe. Yes, the connection might only be 90 minutes, but the time for approach, taxi, landing, going slightly out of the way, etc, all adds up. Plus, you also introduce the risk of a missed connection.

    While four hours on an 18 hour route doesn’t seem like a big deal, when you are traveling to Singapore for just one day of business (as I’ve done a number of times), those four hours become more critical.

    The EWR flight left very late from EWR, so I could do a business dinner in the city then head out to the field for the flight and land in Singapore 5:30am or so…get cleaned up, do a full day of meetings, then take a redeye up to Tokyo or down to Sydney for meetings the next day.

    Not my favorite by any stretch, but sometimes it needs to be done. Taking out a variable (a connection) and the shortest travel time were important to me.

    The flight also fit as an “arb” in many company travel policies. Many companies (in finance at least) allow business for international flights. While they may have a preferred carrier, few US companies had SQ as a preferred. That said, every bank I’ve worked for had a proviso in the policy which said you could always take the lowest cost non-stop, even if a lower cost connection was available on a preferred carrier. So, SQ was actually able to command a premium on this route from corporate pax.

    Most of the time on the flight, I’d estimate that 75% of the pax were some sort of banker/finance type or other senior exec. There was invariably one family with kids (thats a toughie!) and a few leisure pax.

  15. @NYBanker,

    LIke I said, the LAX – SIN non-stop was 18 hours, and the flight with a transfer in Narita takes around 19 hours- that’s a difference of 1 hour, or about 5% of the flight time. Eva via Taipei does it in 18 hrs and 45 minutes. There’s no issue with “missing your connection” as most of the passengers are going through.

    Most of the speculation in this article and the comments are about a new SIN-LAX or SIN-SFO non-stop. Sorry, but you are very unlikely to ever get back your SIN-NYC non-stop- it was uneconomic (says Aviation Week, the Sydney Center of Aviation, the Airline Business Magazine, and my friend who works as a controller at SQ). Sure, if fuel prices had been lower then, the economics might have been different, but no one is going to relaunch that route anytime soon…

  16. From the Boeing website, the 777-200LR with tanks in the back looks to be at the limit of making NYC-SIN happen. Obviously this assumes perfect conditions but this could be offset with running an all biz setup like before or just not running 314 passengers with baggage. The capability is there and the 777 is more fuel efficient then the A340. However the only issue here would be ETOPS that Singapore would have to apply for

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