Over the Pacific Ocean, west of Guam, on board flight SQ31
On October 23, 2016, Singapore Airlines (SIA) started nonstop service to San Francisco (SFO) from Singapore (SIN) using the airlines’ newest Airbus A350-900. With flight duration between 14 and 17 hours (depending on season) and a distance of about 8400 miles, this is SIA’s longest flight.
Flight SQ32 was significant in many ways. Not only it relaunched nonstop service between Singapore and the United States for SIA, it also marked the start of A350 flights by any airline to the west coast of the U.S. Aircraft 9V-SMF (msn 54) that operated the flight was the 10,000th aircraft built by Airbus.
Since Singapore Airlines terminated ultra long range flights between Singapore and Newark and Los Angeles in 2013, customers have been asking the airline to resume service. The fuel-inefficient Airbus A340-500 that operated the service was unprofitable inspite the fact that they were configured with only 100 Business Class seats.
By popular demand, the San Francisco nonstop from Singapore marked the return of long range flights to the U.S. for SIA. It is the first of many to come. SIA’s Regional Vice President Americas Mr. Sek Eng Lee explained to Airways, “it is our commitment (and demonstrates) the importance of the U.S. market”. The delivery of the A350-900ULR [Ultra Long Range] variant in 2018 will allow SIA to restart nonstop flights to Los Angeles and New York from Singapore.
The airline launched the A350-900ULR in October 2015 with an order for seven aircraft. With range of up to 8700 nautical miles and maximum takeoff weight of 280 tonnes, existing A350-900s can be fitted to become the ULR variant without additional fuel tanks. This is achieved by configuring a higher capacity fuel system within the existing fuel tanks, increasing fuel capacity from 141,000 liters to 165,000 liters.
The standard A350-900 model currently used for San Francisco is payload restricted. This means the aircraft would not be able to fly the nonstop route with a full load of passengers and/or cargo. Due to strong headwinds, payload restrictions would be realized in the winter months. However, it is anticipated the flight would not be payload restricted in the summer months. The ULR variant would overcome that. According to Mr. Lee, the airline is currently planning to use the A350-900ULR for Los Angeles and New York, however, he “would not rule out SFO”.
SIA’s A350-900s are configured with 253 seats: 42 in Business (1-2-1 layout), 24 in Premium Economy (2-4-2 layout), and 187 in Economy (3-3-3 layout).
Much has been reported about SIA’s award-winning Business Class product and service. Premium Economy, on the other hand, is a product unique to the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York markets.
Launched in 2015, Premium Economy offers additional space – width and pitch, with legrests and footbar. A large 13.3-inch personal monitor compliments the distinctive seat styling. SIA’s famous “Book the Cook” service has been extended to Premium Economy where passengers can pre-order their (albeit Economy Class-style) meals.
On ground, premium benefits over standard economy are capped with a dedicated check-in line, priority baggage handling, and increased baggage weight limits. For comparison, on the inaugural flight from San Francisco to Singapore, a round-trip ticket in Premium Economy cost about $1,500 inclusive of taxes, a 50% premium over the $1,000 Economy Class fare.
Onboard the inaugural flight from San Francisco, the airline did not have a problem filling the Premium Economy cabin; all 24 seats were filled. With Premium Economy in service for just one year, Mr. Lee said the airline is “very pleased with the results; cabins are full”. When asked if the airline plans to expand the cabin, Mr. Lee replied, “if the demand justify it and continues to be as strong as we are seeing, then it is something we do not rule out.”
Airbus delivered its 10,000th aircraft to SIA earlier in October. It was a milestone over 40 years in the making. The European aerospace manufacture delivered its first aircraft, an A300B2, to Air France in May 1974. Since those humble beginnings with just one wide-body model, Airbus has experienced exponential growth.
It has since expanded to a full-range product line and created a best-selling narrowbody aircraft with the A320 family. According Airbus, at current production rates, the company expects to deliver its 20,000th aircraft in approximately a decade – taking about one fourth of the time to produce its second 10,000 aircraft as compared to the first 10,000.
SIA and Airbus also have a long-standing relationship. The airline received its first Airbus, an A300B4, in 1981. Since then, SIA and its subsidiaries have operated every Airbus model produced.
SIA’s nonstop service between Singapore and San Francisco came as a response to defend the home market against United Airlines. In a surprising move, United started nonstop flights between San Francisco and Singapore on June 1, 2016 using the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. That route is currently the longest flight served by the Dreamliner. Westbound departing San Francisco, United’s flight is a night flight, arriving Singapore early in the morning. SIA’s flight departs San Francisco in the morning, arriving Singapore in the early evening. Eastbound, both airlines depart and arrive in the morning, which allows for connections at the Star Alliance hub at San Francisco.
Will the SFO-SIN market be large enough to support two airlines? As both airlines are Star Alliance partners, it will be interesting to see which airline will ultimately win over a similar customer base flying this route. With the 787 Dreamliner having a head start in service, will the A350 deliver advantages promised to help SIA be successful? Only time will tell.