MIAMI— Singapore Airlines is set to retake the title of operating the world’s longest flight. The carrier announced today that it intends to be the launch customer for the Airbus A350-900ULR and acquire seven of the type to bring back service from its hub at Changi airport to both Los Angeles and Newark. Those routes were previously operated with A340-500 aircraft beginning in 2004 but were dropped in 2013 amidst high fuel costs and limited demand.
The new –900ULR will have an increased fuel capacity of 165,000 liters, 17% higher than the base –900 model. That expanded range is below the theoretical –900R which was a possibility when the A350 project was launched but still sufficient for the Singapore Air routes. The announcement also ups the A350 order book from the carrier by four aircraft to a total of 67.
The prior iteration of the flight offered a number of different cabin configurations, including one of the earliest iterations of a premium economy product to grace the skies. At the time it was necessary to keep passenger count (and weight) down so that the A345 was able to make the longer flight. In its final days the route was operated in a 100 seat business class configuration. There is no indication that the A350-900ULR will have similar weight restrictions requiring a lower cabin density. Flying more seats on the route could mean higher revenue compared to the A345 version (no word on the specific cabin interior, other than a rumored new business class seat), plus the A350-900ULR has a lower fuel burn rate. And there’s the part where fuel prices have dropped significantly from their highs in the 2013 time frame. There is a very real chance that the route could once again be profitable rather than simply a prestige service.
Airbus has also indicated that many of the improvements for the ULR model are not contingent on the higher fuel capacity. As such the aircraft can be converted back to a traditional A350-900 configuration should the ULH operations falter. Similar promises have been made about the A321neoLR, with Airbus suggesting that it is a low-risk means for an airline to experiment with increased range operations. This is in stark contrast to the A340-500 or Boeing 777-200LR which are stuck with that LR configuration and the attendant weight other challenges should airlines want to convert them back to short-haul operations.