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.
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.