Singapore Airlines pushes Boeing, Airbus for 18-hour flights

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Will an airline ever again fly nonstop between the US and southeast Asia? Singapore Airlines would certainly like to bring back the all-business flights it decided to cut in 2013, from its Changi hub to Newark and Los Angeles. The carrier has this summer been pushing Boeing and Airbus to offer long-range premium cabin configurations of the 787 and A350, and earlier this month Airbus’ Kiran Rao spoke to Bloomberg about Airbus’ work to do so.

It’s all about making the most of new-generation composite twinjets, which are a significant step forward from the four-engined Airbus A340-500 aircraft designed and built during a previous (and now superseded) ETOPS paradigm, which Singapore Airlines used to use for its ultra-longhaul all-business nonstops (pictured above).

With Boeing recently adjusting the advertised example ranges of its own composite twinjet 787 family downwards — the 787-9 stretch officially dropped to 7,635nm from 8,300nm, in comparison with the Newark-Singapore polar Great Circle route at 8285nm — and the A350-900’s example three-class range of 7,600nm, the two aircraft would appear roughly neck-and-neck. Will the compact size of the 787 or the bigger fuel tanks of the A350 make the economic difference?

Airbus' example range map illustrates Singapore Airlines' US geography problem

Airbus’ example range map illustrates Singapore Airlines’ US geography problem

Singapore Airlines’ successor flights to the nonstops, using the Airbus A380 to New York and LA with upper deck business class cabins that feel very similar to the A350, have to stop — the former in Frankfurt and the latter in Narita — which can feel disjointed, particularly on the eastbound redeye leg from New York. The sub-eight hour flight (especially with tailwinds in winter) and 9pm departure can mean night owls only have a couple of hours’ opportunity for a nap after dinner before arriving in Germany the next morning.

A fully flat bed with direct aisle access is a must for an eighteen-hour flight

A fully flat bed with direct aisle access is a must for an eighteen-hour flight

I flew on the world’s longest ever commercial nonstop flight, SQ21, aboard SQ’s all-business 100-seater A340-500, shortly before it was cut, and the odd thing about the experience was that the nineteen-hour nonstop wasn’t all that markedly different, #paxexwise, from the fifteen-hour flight returning from Taipei to New York later that week.

Dinner on departure from Newark was the usual impressive Singapore Airlines fare. How the carrier manages to get even halfway decent food out of a New York area airport is beyond me, not least because the month before I had flown to Helsinki in Finnair business from JFK and experienced a meal I called the Prawns of Misery and the Asparagus of Despair; upon showing a photo of the meal to Finnair’s service team, the response was sighs, shaken heads and an unprintable selection of epithets about outstation US catering operations.

Somehow SQ manages to do great things even with New York catering

Somehow SQ manages to do great things even with New York catering

Second dinner — after a seriously good and much-needed eight-hour sleep and a generous helping of Bollinger Champagne — was a selection of perfect noodle soups or rice dishes, ideal to slurp at while enjoying a film.

Scallop and prawn rice for breakfast got me in that Singapore mood

Scallop and prawn rice for breakfast got me in that Singapore mood

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And it’s that second dinner-and-a-movie phase that was the uniqueness of the flight for me. Over the polar regions, half-watching a film and then spotting a glorious sunset and switching to music while staring out the window, it was that twilight period between first sleep and second sleep, with no noise but the quiet thrum of the A340-500’s Rolls-Royce engines that brought the passenger experience magic.

Of course, many of my fellow passengers on that flight slept through the night, and that’s the beauty of an ultra-longhaul nonstop compared with two shorter connecting flights: sleep is up to the passenger, their body, and the schedule they want to maintain on arrival. It’s the absence of the discombobulation often experienced by passengers blearily transiting a network carrier megahub in the middle of the night, and the need to pack up, disembark, walk around the terminal for a bit, and then reboard and unpack again.

NYC-Singapore used to be the longest flight in the world, with that record currently held by Qantas’ DFW-Sydney Airbus A380 flights and soon to be supplanted by Emirates’ Dubai-Panama City Boeing 777-200LR service. Can Singapore Airlines regain that title with a newer aircraft?

A late night departure from Newark and an early morning arrival into Singapore 18 hours later is a big plus for business class passengers

A late night departure from Newark and an early morning arrival into Singapore 18 hours later is a big plus for business class passengers

8 Comments

  1. Intriguing article, It was tried before, but not with this new generation of equipment. Having two crews and diminished seating capacity, it would take a high density of high rollers for each trip. Are there that many high rollers coming from Malaysia to New York or the West Coast?

  2. JKT

    I’m confused as to the problem. Is the A340-500 too inefficient to keep running the route? Or are Singapore beancounters too greedy to understand that they can still make money on the route, perhaps just not as much as they want to? It’s not as if the 340’s *have* to be retired…

    • Jason

      JKT, at the time the flights were cancelled fuel your prices were only going in one direction and that was up. So yes, the A340-500 became uneconomical to fly that route.

      The problem with these ultra long flights is that you are in effect operating a glorified fuel tanker. The planes need to carry a massive amount of extra fuel which is very heavy and penalise performance greatly. This is why, despite its range, the B777-200LR (or “Worldliner” as Boeing Marketing liked to call it) didn’t sell well, and those airlines that do have them, rarely make use of its full potential.

      Singapore Airlines couldn’t have known that fuel prices would drops so dramatically.

  3. If SIA wants SIN-EWR back it’s not a problem to fly with B77L. If they want something smaller I understand that but will A or B design long range version for a single customer?

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  5. matt weber

    Ultra long range operations have horrible operating costs because you have to haul so much fuel, and extra staff to service the operation. The A340-500 was ordered by SQ with great fanfare, however it was no secret what the performance guarantee was. 200 pax SIN-LAX against 85% winds. The aircraft never met guarantees. SQ only put 188 seats, and never offered an F cabin (The F cabin seats weighed too much). My own thumbnail puts the A340-500 at about 7000 pounds over OEW guarantees, Weight has been a problem on a number of Airbus Aircraft. It is especially unpleasant on ultra long range aircraft because it increases fuel burn, while reducing fuel carriage and/or revenue. EK was so unhappy with the performance of the A340-600, they canceled all of the -600’s they had on order,

    It has been reported that SQ had a ‘walk away’ clause in the A340-500 contract for non-performance. My own belief is that Airbus heavily subsidized the A340-500 operation to avoid the disaster that SQ refusing to accept the A340-500 would have been. Most of these deals have finite life expectancy, and I suspect the subsidy from Airbus ended, and that ended the A340-500 operation.

    Ultra long range operations always have serious cost problems. Basically you get a huge dead weight per passenger from the shrunken cabin (which shrinks the OEW a lot less than it shrinks the capacity). One of my thumbnails put the ASM cost on the SIN-LAX operation at close to twice the cost of a 747 flying SIN-NRT-LAX.

    I had access to the ASM cost when QF was flying the 747SP LAX-SYD. It was scary. the only saving grace was that QF was able to effectively charge a premium for the non-stop. So while the costs were in stratosphere, the yields were in outer space.

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  7. survivor

    Just a little correction on the first paragraph, an airline already flies non-stop between mainland US and Southeast Asia..

    Philippine Airlines (PAL) flies non-stop daily from MNL to LAX and SFO. They also fly to JFK albeit via YVR, and also to YYZ.

    The Philippines is located in Southeast Asia. I think the writer meant mainland Southeast Asia.