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.
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.