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.


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

  1. Bobber says:

    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 to be tough to beat from a passenger perspective.

  2. Phil says:

    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

  3. Matt Weber says:

    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 on the A340-200/300.

    The original requirement from Singapore Airlines was fly SIN to LAX against prevailing winds with 200 revenue passengers.

    The best the aircraft was ever able to do was 183 seats IIRC, and even that was suspect. SQ never put an F cabin on the aircraft because of the weight problems it represented (and that leads to yield problems since you cannot put the highest yielding seats on the aircraft), and ended up taking out the economy seats because they usually couldn’t fill them anyway because of load restrictions. With 100 J seats, there is no way to make money. The other problem with these flights was there is no shortage of airlines that can fly you from SIN to LAX with a single stop, and since the ASM costs on these one stop flights are a lot lower, that makes it difficult to charge a substantial premium for the non-stop service. The results is that the yields on the non-stop fllights were probably only marginally better than one stop or connecting services.

    These extreme long haul operations have horrifying ASM costs. This results from increased crew requirements, reduced payload because of the extra fuel carriage, and the cost of the fuel burned carrying the fuel. I thumbnailed SQ’s ASM cost on the SIN-LAX and concluded it was close to 3 times what it cost for a 3 class 747-400 making a stop at NRT. So there is the proverbial ‘double whammy’ here. The ASM costs are higher than the proverbial kite, while yields are, at best, only marginally higher.

    This was much less of a problem with the 747SP, because while the ASM costs were in the stratosphere, the yields were often in outer space! QF used to operate the 747SP on the LAX-SYD run with 28 P (Premium First Class) Seats, and rarely had trouble selling them all. In fact IIRC, the QF 747SP initially only had 185 seats, most them P or J. Of course the fact that there were only 2 airlines that offered LAX-SYD service during that period didn’t hurt the yields either.

    One of the lingering questions about SQ’s A340-500’s was: did SQ ever pay for them. The original contract apparently had a ‘walkaway’ clause if the aircraft didn’t make guarantees. It never did. It has been suggested that Airbus effectively ended up giving the A340-500’s to SQ to avoid the negative PR of having SQ refuse the aircraft!

    All that aside, the A340-500 never sold very well, and as CF suggests, the ones that are out there are likely to have a very short service life. They ASM costs tend to be non-competitive with the 777-300ER, and the 777-200LR (which has even longer legs than the A340-500).,The 777’s have engines that are effectively two generations later than the Trents on the A340-500/600, so get significantly better fuel economy.

    The extra two engines on the A340’s increase the weight of the aircraft substantially, while also adding to the complexity and maintenance costs. Reliability often suffers a little as well from the extra equipment Unless you can make the engines and other equipment twice as reliable (no likely).

    I suspect most A340-500’s will end up where many of the 747SP’s have ended up: In VIP fleets.

  4. Scott says:

    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.

  5. Brian Lusk says:

    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, the DC-10-30 was much more successful commercially than the other variants.

  6. 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.

    • 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 says:

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

    • 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 says:

      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?

      • CF says:

        Albert – Well there’s never “zero” probability but it is very low, low enough for regulators to be comfortable (and pilots as well).

        The only real 4-engined airliners being sold today are the biggest airplanes – 747 and A380. I can only assume, especially in the case of the A380, that there aren’t two engines powerful enough to get that big bird flying.

  7. 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 the SP when AA operated 2 of them for a short time for DFW to Tokyo before the MD-11 took that route over.

    • Chris Roberts says:

      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

  8. Andrew says:

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. Fred says:

    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.

  11. 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.

  12. malbarda says:

    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!

  13. yo says:

    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.

  14. davywavy says:

    “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 as anything but “mediocre.” It stretched the concepts of commercial flight (and it was a wonderful ride), as SYD-LAX did all those years ago – and the Connies and the Stratocruisers on London/New York decades before that. The world became more accessible right before our very eyes.

    Okay, so SIN-EWR is gone and the A340-500 is probably consigned to history. But – mediocre? That’s too blasé for this old aviation romantic.

    Or has it all become just a relentless search for the bottom line?

  15. Axelsarkis says:

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

  16. around for a number of different reasons.

  17. but too expensive for follow up.

  18. Robert says:

    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.

  19. Pingback: Los aviones de ultra largo alcance, una competencia sin sentido | Aviación y turismo

  20. km says:

    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!

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