Singapore Ditches the A340-500, An Airplane That Was Destined for Mediocrity at Best

Singapore Airlines has announced a big order for a slew of new aircraft from Airbus including more A380s and some new A350s. But buried in the release is the news that Airbus will take back the five A340-500 aircraft in the Singapore fleet. That means the end of the nonstop flights between Singapore and both LA and Newark, the latter being the longest flight in the world. While this may just end up being a footnote in history, it’s worth looking at the A340-500 and how it, like the 747SP before it, was doomed to have a very short lifespan from the beginning.

Shrinking to Gets More Legs
The 747SP and the A340-500 were two peas in a pod. They were both designed specifically for ultra long haul flying and they were made obsolete very quickly by other airplanes. The 747SP was originally developed because Pan Am wanted to be able to fly nonstop from New York to Tokyo and it couldn’t do it with the 747s in service at the time. So what Boeing did was take the 747-100 and shrink it. The result was a smaller airplane with similar fuel capacity so it could fly further. Problem solved.

A340-500

But then, engine technology improved, and they were able to create a normal-sized version of the 747 with the same range. All of a sudden, the 747SP lost its usefulness. Sure, sometimes you might not want all those seats on a full size 747, but the shrunk body made for an expensive airplane to operate. It’s the same reason very few airlines have picked up on the 737-600 or the A318. Those end up being very inefficient for how few seats they have because they still carry most of the guts of the larger airplanes from which they were shrunk.

The A340-500 was the same kind of thing. It was developed in tandem with the A340-600, a much longer version that didn’t quite have the range to reach every destination that Airbus clients wanted to reach. So they shrunk the thing, and there you go. More range.

Rapidly Declining Usefulness
The A340-500 was always going to be limited in its market, but it was hurt by not even meeting initial range plans. Then the introduction of the 777-200LR with two fewer engines and even better range hurt, but it was the 777-300ER that simply killed the thing. The LR was introduced in 2006 and could do everything the A340-500 could do for less, but that in its own right wasn’t the most efficient airplane around and had limited appeal. But the 777-300ER was the true rock star. It has been a wild success in that it can serve almost every market you could ever imagine wanting to serve.

I say “almost” every market, because there are some that it can’t reach, like Singapore to LA and Newark. But those truly ultra long haul markets are very difficult to make money on. Thai tried it from Bangkok with the A340-500 and walked away in favor of a 777 that stops in Korea. Singapore, however, already runs both single-stop flights and the nonstop. But there wasn’t much of a reason to keep the nonstop going other than pride and the fact that it had A340-500s lying around with nothing better to do.

Ultra Long Haul is a Tough Sell
Why is ultra long haul flying hard to make money on? Well you do use a ton of gas, and that’s always painful. But the schedule advantage isn’t that great either when you fly so far.

In LA, you could leave at 345p and be in Singapore at 255a with a stop, an elapsed travel time of 20h10m. The nonstop leaves at 915p and arrived at 540a for an elapsed time of 17h25m. That less than three hour difference might mean something on a shorter flight, but the advantage simply isn’t that important on ultra long haul options because you gain very little.

It was made even worse by the fact that the A340-500 couldn’t even carry a full load. Originally they tried to use a mix of business and premium economy. Then they switched to all business with only 100 seats. But they could never do what they wanted because the range wasn’t there.

Few are Left Flying
Today, I imagine Singapore is thrilled to be getting rid of the A340-500 from its fleet, because it just doesn’t serve a purpose anymore. I’m not sure if Thai still has the A340-500 still flying but it can’t be long for this world. That leaves three commercial operators using the remaining airplanes. There weren’t even 40 built originally.

One is Nigeria’s Arik Air which probably liked the airplane because it was very cheap to acquire. It may be expensive to operate but if you don’t have the capital to buy the airplane you want, then your options are limited.

The others are Etihad with a small subfleet that flies today (to airports including New York and Frankfurt) and Emirates, which still has the bulk of the airplanes that are still operational. I can’t quite figure out why Emirates uses this airplane, because it doesn’t even use it on long haul flying. It goes from Dubai to Dar es Salaam, for example. That flight is only 2,458 miles and could even be flown with a 737 (not that Emirates flies any narrowbodies). It may very well be that Emirates is simply growing so fast that it needs to use whatever airplanes it has instead of being able to use the airplanes it wants. That will change over time.

Eventually, the A340-500 will be just a memory (or operated until it falls apart by countries with trade embargoes like the 747SP in Iran). Singapore is just doing what it probably wanted to do years ago.

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31 Comments on "Singapore Ditches the A340-500, An Airplane That Was Destined for Mediocrity at Best"

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Bobber
Guest
Sounds sensible. I never liked the A340, and agree that the 777 is a vastly superior aircraft, certainly for the passenger. The A380 is another matter altogether, and I love flying in them – two trips next month with SQ coming up. I wonder whether that whole era of A330/340 development was a case of Airbus getting ahead of itself, realising it could compete with (and out-compete) Boeing, and as a result they produced more fly-by-wire plans because they could? I’m hoping for a better product with the A350 – can’t wait to fly the 787, and expect that’s going… Read more »
Phil
Guest

Flew the Etihad a340-500 this week in F (wonderful product) and after walking the length of the plane I was left wondering why they don’t use a 777-300 for the flight. I presume the 340-600 does not have the range

matt weber
Member
The A340-500 was never an especially attractive aircraft, and was made even more unattractive by its failure to meet guarantees. The aircraft was seriously overweight (A problem that has plagued the A340 family since day zero). The A340-500 and -600 both also suffered from some fairly serious reliability problems early on. Airbus changed vendors for some key systems in the aircraft when they went from the A340-200/300 to the -500/600, and a number of problems that were on the early A340-200/300’s reappeared on the early -500/600’s much to the chagrin of the operators who had lived through these problems originally… Read more »
Scott
Guest

Just for the record, the 777-300ER actually debuted two years before the -200LR. Also, the LR has the range to fly EWR-SIN (and other such routes) though I agree we are not likely to see these ultra-long-haul routes return with newer aircraft anytime soon for all the other reasons you detail.

Brian Lusk
Guest
I think the class of specialized ultra-long range airliners with their unique modifications is a fascinating one from an avgeek viewpoint. It really goes back to the Lockheed Starliner, the ultimate version of the Constellation. Instead of messing with the fuselage they stretched the wing for more lift and fuel capacity–it flew regularly scheduled nonstop flights of 21hrs+ from Europe to the West Coast. The L1011-500, like the 747SP, was a shorter version of the standard Tri-Star to give it intercontinental range. The DC-10-30 (and the rarer DC-10-40) needed an extra landing gear to support the added fuel. Of course,… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

I never flew on a A340, but did like the long sleek 4-engine look. Reminded me of the 707/720/DC8 days.

Personally I still don’t care to fly over water a long way with just 2-engines.

DesertGhost
Guest

I could be wrong, but wasn’t ETOPS certification harder to get when the A340 was developed? I also don’t like the idea of two engines over extremely large stratches of water, but …

Todd
Guest

You do have to admit that an emergency landing on Midway Island would be pretty cool though…

Nick Barnard
Member

The ironic thing is 4 engined planes have a lower dispatch reliability, since there are two additional engines to have issues.

AFAIK, the ETOPS maintenance rules really push reliability up.

Albert Hu
Guest

ETOPS sounds great if, and I mean if, there is “zero probability” that both engines of a twin-engined airliner fail at the same time, or one engine fails first and the other one fails later, before the airliner can reach its destination or an alternative airport. So, why do you think there are still 4-engined airliners (such as the A380) flying today (and perhaps way into the future) over long-range, especially over-the-water, routes?

Chris Sloan
Guest
The business case is there, but many US destinations such as Miami will now be 2-stops to Singapore. I flew this flight once and really loved the convenience. Interestingly at the time, they said the weight prohibited them from installing First Class seats and it was years before the SpaceBed was replaced with the Flat Beds. Here are my pics from the SIN-EWR segment. http://tinyurl.com/8ozjex2 BTW, the SP was originally designed for the JFK-Tokyo Haneda nonstop. Pan Am was the tail that wagged Boeing’s dog back then. I think Iran Air is the last regularly scheduled passenger operator. I flew… Read more »
Chris Roberts
Guest

There will still be one-stop options to Singapore from MIA…even one’s that are faster than taking SQ!

Using November 6 as an example:
1) UA to EWR, SQ to SIN – 25 hours total travel time
2) AA to LHR, SQ to SIN – 22 hours 35 min total travel time
3) AA to CDG, SQ to SIN – 23 hours 30 min total travel time
4) VX to LHR, SQ to SIN – 25 hours 35 min total travel time
5) LH to FRA, SQ to SIN – 25 hours 30 min total travel time

Nick Barnard
Member

The first option is going away since SQ is ending their EWR service, but that leaves all the options as long hauls via Europe..

Andrew
Guest

I understand the business thinking, but from an aircraft geek perspective, sad to see them fade away. I always thought the A340-500 was the sexiest of the A340 family…The engines on the -300 look too small, and the -600 looks unbalanced (visually) with it’s length. The -500 seemed to have all the right proportions, and the perfect mix of length and big engines to make it look good.

Kiwicanuck
Guest

Wow – I agree with tha comment 100%! The -500 was the best looking of the bunch.

thomas.jaeger
Member

Thai has parked three of them at Don Mueang, the old airport in Bangkok now mainly used by low-cost and charter airlines, but also still one of two Thai Airways maintenance bases.

The fourth one is used for government charter flights.

Fred
Guest

Might they just be used for spare parts (either by airlines or Airbus)? If they have enough in common with other A340 aircraft, this could be at least some use for them, like Allegiant or Delta buying old MD88/MD90 aircraft and using some of them for parts to keep the others flying.

Peter Richards
Member

This CF long haul airplane story is somewhat similiar to this story in the WSJ today,

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203937004578076560046135292.html

Who is spying on whom ?

Interesting notes on the price of jet fuel in WSJ article, in 2008 fuel got as high
as $ 4.81/gal. dropped to $ 1.32/gal. at the end of 2008, with the financial
crisis. Now it is back to $ 3./gal.

malbarda
Member

As far as I know China Eastern, Iberia and Lufthansa also fly the 340. And perhaps South African. I actually quite like it – very quiet plane. The one thing though was those ridiculously long take-off’s from the runway. This plane needs space for taking off!

Hunter
Guest

They operate the 600…not the 500.

yo
Guest

I love the 747SP, got to fly it once, of course, it meant going from Capetown to Joburg to Frankfurt instead of just going directly to the US, but it was worth it. Peppy take-off on that plane.

Davywavy
Member
“Mediocrity” seems a cynical word. It is an aircraft capable of the longest commercial route in the world and, like the Boeing 747SP can arguably be called a pioneer aircraft. Yes, the 747-400 totally eclipsed the the need for the SP, but that was later. I can easily recall the buzz around the first non-stops – on Pan Am’s 747SP – Sydney to Los Angeles. For this Australian it helped to break the tyranny of distance which affected my country for so long. There was some of that same buzz about non-stop Singapore-Newark – a route which I would describe… Read more »
Axelsarkiss
Member

Unsurprising—I’m merely astounded it took this long.

Doug DeNunzio
Member

around for a number of different reasons.

Doug DeNunzio
Member

but too expensive for follow up.

Robert
Guest

I never quite understood the A-340-500. Thai Airlines was flying them from Bangkok to New York and Los Angeles, but the only time I did the flight from LAX to BKK they used the A340-600 nonstop.

I was surprised the A346 could do that flight.

km
Guest

When a corporation buys a fleet of Jumbos for their airline or a Telco buys chips for its phones it does extensive testing of its own before placing orders.
Only a pathetic idiot believes newspaper headlines are able to have much influence!

Raoul
Guest

The 747SP was bought by Iran Air in 1976 and for many years flew the only non-stop between the U.S. and the Middle East: JFK to Tehran daily in 13 hours. It is still operated by Iran Air on its flights to Bombay (Mumbai). The SP remains with Iran Air because of embargoes (the airline is not allowed to buy new aircraft); it did not end up with the airline from some other source.

Doug DeNunzio
Member

a380 fleets replace the current a340-500 aircraft because of its declining use around the world