Singapore Airlines Shakes Up Its US Route Network In Response to United’s New Singapore Flight

It may not always be news when an airline changes a couple of routes around, but when that airline is Singapore Airlines and the changes impact a huge portion of the airline’s US network? Then it’s worth talking about. Singapore appears to have responded to United’s recent introduction of a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Singapore with one of its own. But to make that work, it had to move some other chess pieces around. The result is good for some, bad for others. Regardless of how you feel, it’s an interesting move to study.

Singapore Airlines serves four points in the US today. Heading east, it has a daily flight from New York to Singapore via Frankfurt and a flight five times a week from Houston to Singapore via Moscow. Neither of those are changing. Singapore flies two daily flights from San Francisco to Singapore. One goes via Hong Kong and the other via Seoul/Incheon. From LA, the airline flies a single daily flight to Singapore via Tokyo/Narita. Those are the ones that are changing.

Singapore Airlines US Routes

What might stand out most here is that none of these flights from the US go nonstop to Singapore. As you can see via the Great Circle Mapper above, that is because Singapore is really, really, really far away from the US.

Singapore used to fly nonstop from both LA and Newark using an A340-500. That airplane was never efficient, but it also didn’t live up to its range promises and Singapore had to fly with very few seats onboard. Eventually it just couldn’t take the losses and canceled the routes. It did promise that some day with better technology it would return to the nonstop market.

Why was Singapore so concerned about flying nonstop? Well of course it wanted to provide nonstop service for those people who wanted it, but it was also hugely important for connections. You can’t fly nonstop from the US to Bali, for example. But if you fly an airline via Japan or Korea, it’s only a single stop. If you fly Singapore, you get stuck with an extra stop on the way to the hub. That is highly uncompetitive.

It was less than a year ago that Singapore said it would order the A350-900 in an ultra long range configuration (able to carry more fuel). This airplane would allow Singapore to reopen nonstop routes from Singapore to the US, but that wouldn’t be until 2018. Then United said it would use a 787 to fly nonstop from San Francisco to Singapore this year (started June 1), and that put Singapore in a bind. Could it afford to be without nonstop service to the US until 2018? The answer was apparently no.

Flying nonstop to Singapore, however, caused a chain reaction and that meant a whole bunch of other things had to change. Let’s walk through those.

Singapore announced it will begin flying nonstop from San Francisco to Singapore on October 23. It’s going to use a regular A350-900, and it says that only on strong headwind days will it have to block seats to ensure the airplane can make it nonstop. SFO is a couple hundred miles closer to Singapore than LA is, so that could be the difference. But I’ll be very curious to see how often Singapore has to block seats.

This flight will operate from SFO at 835a arriving Singapore at 620p the next day. United’s flight leaves at 1040p, so it’s very different. It will return at 830a arriving SFO 705a (100 minutes earlier than United operates). I can’t imagine that San Francisco was at the top of the list for Singapore nonstop service, but since it’s relatively close to Singapore and United was flying it, Singapore thought it needed to jump in.

But to make this work, Singapore couldn’t justify keeping both of the other flights it had from SFO, so it got creative. It kept its Hong Kong flight. That’s a good one because it leaves at the opposite time of day (1205a from SFO and 630p from Singapore). But it decided to move the Incheon flight down to LA instead.

LA used to see double daily flights to Singapore. One operated via Tokyo and the other via Taipei. But that Taipei flight disappeared a few years ago and Singapore put the A380 on the Tokyo flight instead. Now, Singapore is bringing the Incheon flight down to LA and it is retiming the Narita flight.

Singapore will now have the Narita flight leave at 9a and get to Singapore at 940p the next day. That’s an awfully early flight to get to Tokyo, but the arrival time in Singapore is much more civilized than the current 3a arrival. The Incheon flight will go at 430p and arrive Singapore at 540a two days later. The return via Tokyo will remain timed the same, leaving Singapore at 920a and arriving 1150a into LA. The Incheon flight will leave at 245a and get to LA at 545a. How does that work? Well, the flight that comes in from Tokyo turns around and goes back via Incheon and vice versa. Having double daily flights means that Singapore can offer better schedules to everyone, and it can fly twice a day.

But to fully realize the benefits of this schedule, it couldn’t keep the A380 on the Tokyo route. It needed the same aircraft type on both routes so it could turn each airplane more efficiently. Plus, with two flights, the A380 provided too much capacity in the market. So Singapore decided to cut the A380 and use a 777-300ER for both flights instead. That means no more Singapore Suites into LA. (I’m really glad I flew it last year.) JFK remains the only A380 destination in the US for Singapore.

The schedule is set, but does this make sense? Singapore is now entering the already overcrowded LA to Incheon market. Korean and Asiana both operate at least 2 A380s a day. (Asiana does on occasion use a 777 for the night flight.) At least Thai has recently fled the market, finding it too awful to remain in. So how will Singapore make this work? Well it probably won’t. I mean, yes, it is the only premium economy product in the market, but that’s a small part of the airplane. Were I a betting man, I’d say this flight sticks around only until 2018 when Singapore can fly nonstop from LA and bypass Incheon entirely.

All of these changes add up to one big change for Singapore. If the nonstop can actually operate without too many weight restrictions, then this may very well work out ok. But it’s definitely a risk.

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33 Responses to Singapore Airlines Shakes Up Its US Route Network In Response to United’s New Singapore Flight

  1. Neil S. says:

    Three things.

    1. Am I the only person who doesn’t want to be on a plane that long? I don’t mind a quick stop in NRT or HKG. Gives me a chance to stretch my legs, maybe get a quick shower – and pick up green tea Kit Kats!

    2. Are the headwinds that predictable? What happens when they don’t block seats, and midway the winds pick up? They divert and kill the reason for the nonstop?

    3. ICN may be less of an issue for SQ than it was for TG. TG didn’t have a very good hard product. SQ may have a bit of an easier time with it.

    • JayB says:

      SFO to SIN, 15 1/2 hrs most days but one day, I see, 17 1/2 hrs. No, no, no thanks! Give me a break, well a stop, whatever! I think the IAD to SFO flights on a little two-engine 739 are a bit much, too. Like are we ever going to arrive over the Front Range? Don’t need to see, ’cause on most days you can feel, but it’s only 1,500 miles from IAD, after all.

      It is interesting to compare routes taken of UA’s 1, roughly 8,500 miles, SFO-SIN, 789, with UA’s 869, roughly 7,000 miles, SFO-HKG, 744, the latter about 2 hrs shorter than the SIN route. But, the flight paths are entirely different. The SIN flight takes a fairly straight shot across the Pacific, north of Hawaii, while the HKG flight hugs the coast nearly the entire trip–SFO to HKG- beginning with the trip up over Vancouver and on to Anchorage. It really never flies over the Pacific except on a few days when it seems to skip Vancouver and fly over the Pacific, a little, direct to Anchorage.

      A window man, I, but the SIN flight has got to be just about one of the most boring routes ever, and 15 1/2 hrs. of it. Please!

      I know, the Australia flights are long, too, but at least you can imagine the South Pacific down below. I kinda like a stop every once in awhile in Fiji, but, whatever!

    • Neil S…
      1) You aren’t the only one, but there are people who would rather fly nonstop at all costs.
      2) I guess they’re predictable enough for Singapore to be comfortable flying the route. We’ll see if that changes in practice.
      3) But Korean and Asiana do have good hard products, and they have a whole lot of seats.

  2. X Man says:

    Very thorough and well written – nice work

  3. thewill.huang says:

    LAX CBP opens at 6AM regardless of the IATA summer or winter….

  4. A says:

    I don’t know Singapore’s fleet but if a non-stop from LAX into SIN is so vital wouldn’t the 777-200LR handle that? Correct me if I’m wrong but that’s the longest range aircraft available, above and beyond the 787 and A350’s. Are they reluctant after the A340 failed on that route?

    • Kilroy says:

      Not sure what the differences in winds aloft are, but if Emirates can do the ~8,800 mile trip from Dubai to Auckland on a 777-200LR, as a layperson one does have to wonder about the possibility of LAX-SIN, which would be ~50 miles shorter.

    • A – You’d think the LR might be able to make it to LA but not NYC. Also, Singapore doesn’t have any of those. The A350-900ULR can easily be converted back to a regular A350 so there’s fleet flexibility there. And it should go a couple hundred miles further than the 777-200LR.

  5. PF says:

    Is there enough traffic to support two nonstops flights SFO-SIN?

    • Roger says:

      SFO-SIN is a flight I regularly take for leisure. Load does vary, but the flights are usually close or completely full. There is some Air India code sharing going on, and many of the passengers are doing a Silicon Valley to India run. (I vaguely recall that Air India is going to start direct flights as well.)

      The stopover in ICN or HKG is somewhat annoying. They don’t allow anyone to stay on the plane (I heard some story about only refuelling when no one is on board. Plus it is easier to clean without people in the way.) So you all have to traipse off the plane, they put a sticker on you, then you have to go to the centre of the terminal (you are on arrivals level) and go through another screening (carryon etc) to get to the departures level. Often they start reboarding the plane as you get back to the gate. It is nice to stretch the legs, but it is also hurried unless you landed early (scheduled stopover time is 1 hour.)

      SQ will now have one direct and one stopover flight, so they’ll have some indication of passenger preferences. I’m quite happy to skip that stopover for an overall shorter flight.

  6. Kilroya says:

    With regards to blocking seats… Are headwinds really that predictable? I understand that they vary seasonally, but when SQ’s meteorologist realizes that headwinds for tomorrow’s flight are likely to be much stronger than expected, and that the plane will suddenly need to either cut weight or have a fuel stop, what will happen? Will SQ bump pax, or just plan for a fuel stop and a bunch of work tweaking pax’s itineraries?

    • Noah Kimmel says:

      dont forget, most full planes have non-revenue / standby fliers on them. Not all flights actually oversell or fill, even if it looks that way by seeing the gate screens. The seat blocking may just affect those passengers. In addition, certain cargo or mail carried could also be blocked or re-routed.

  7. Harold says:

    The old arrangement worked great for travel between SFO and ICN. I found some $300 one-way fares on SQ.

  8. Mark Langston says:

    I understood that Thai abandoned the market not because it was “too awful” but in anticipation of losing their FAA Category 1 certification to serve the US (and a similar potentially forthcoming downgrade by the IACO).

    For example:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/thailand/articles/Thailands-airlines-downgraded-over-safety-concerns/

  9. SEAN says:

    My father flew the JFK – FRA segment a year ago & was raving about the quality of the service as compared to the US carriers.

  10. Kilroy says:

    Any chance we’ll ever see something like SQ21 or SQ22 again (EWR-SIN)? 18 hours in a plane doesn’t sound like fun, but I guess with a good bit of sleep it might not be too bad.

  11. jgjohnson2 says:

    Love that polar map!! Feel free to use it more often, CF.

    • Kilroy says:

      GCMap.com. It is free to use and fun to play around with to see where the shortest path between two airports is, as well as visualize a radius of X distance from an airport.

      For example, I didn’t realize that it is actually shorter to go from NYC to Singapore via Frankfurt or Moscow instead of via LAX until I started playing around with the tool.

  12. Jeremy says:

    My flight this December from SFO-HKG on SQ was 14:38. The return was only 11:19. The headwinds make a massive difference. 14 hours in coach was a LONG time.

  13. Doug Swalen says:

    Interesting that SIN would flinch so much at UAL’s move that it would juggle so many routes just to add a nonstop from SFO. Yes, designating the flight UAL 001 shows UAL is serious about this route but still…it’s United. It can’t compete with SIN in the service arena and SIN has to know this. SIN also has the better business class seat. Is it really that scared of losing capacity to United? Maybe business travelers who would prefer a non-stop over a layover? 14 hours is long but anyone who has flown to DXB from the west coast in economy knows the true meaning of “long”. I would think Biz travelers wouldn’t mind 14 hours if the seat is a lie flat.

    Also worth noting is that UAL has apparently blocked Saver Award space in Business Class on this route. I have yet to find a single biz class Saver award…but lots of Standard awards. I would do this route if I had that seat…even United’s.

    If that flight’s average load factor is anywhere close to full, SIN is going to have a big big problem if it has to bump passengers in a high headwind scenario. That’s the kind of thing that ruins branding. Nobody is going to want to play russian roulette with a flight that may or may not toss you off the plane any given day because it can’t get to its destination otherwise.

  14. southbay flier says:

    I think SQ would have an advantage to UA on this route. From what I can tell, their 350 looks like a better plane than the 787 the way they will be configured. UA doesn’t have direct aisle access for all seats in J and a 17″ seat width in Y as opposed to SQ which will have direct aisle access for all seats in J and an 18″ seat width in Y along with a W cabin. I have to assume that service on SQ is a lot better than UA based on their reputations. Considering they are both Star Alliance partners, I wonder what advantage there will be to flying UA?

  15. ZuluLima says:

    Arrives at 3a? – Is that a time or a gate? Please use 3:00am like a journalist or 0300 like an aviation nerd, please. That was difficult to get through.

  16. David SF eastbay says:

    With SQ and UA both in Star Alliance you wouldn’t think it would be a big deal if UA flew it nonstop and SQ didn’t.

    • Oliver says:

      But they don’t like each other. If I recall correctly, SQ codeshared with US in the past and then VX, not UA,

  17. Screw says:

    The decision that forced Singapore’s hand (and which for some reason wasn’t singled out in this post): United declined to codeshare that new Singapore route with its Star Alliance partner. I think we’re seeing a similar dynamic at play as we’ve seen between Delta and Korean. As the American carriers get financially more healthy (and more cocky), they start to treat the Asian carriers as competition. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Singapore/United relationship fray further. This was just an opening shot.

  18. Georjet says:

    Great arrticle!

  19. Andrew says:

    I flew SQ from SFO to Bali because it was by far the cheapest ticket booked 72 hours prior to departure. The routing on the outbound was SFO-LAX (VX codeshare)-NRT-SIN-DPS. I didn’t mind the routing as I saved a huge amount of money, got my first A380 flight and experienced SIN for the first time. This routing reshuffle makes sense as SQ wants better yield and avoid bottom feeder AV geeks like me. Obviously, I’m not thrilled but it makes sense. As the SQ experience was so stellar I will still check them first the next time I head to that part of the world.

  20. lamaison26 says:

    When SQ flew nonstop from LAX to SIN ling time ago before they stopped flying (A340-500), my parents and I liked it very much. It was faster and the timing for departire and arrival was better than the one via Tokyo Narita. I cannot wait try either United or SQ again, so I can compare which one is better.

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