United versus Singapore Airlines: The race for non-stop USA-Singapore connections

United Airlines has stolen a march on Singapore Airlines (SIA) when it announced its launch of a non-stop service between San Francisco and Singapore beginning June 1st, onboard the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. This will be the first non-stop service between Singapore and the United States after SIA terminated its services to Los Angeles and Newark in 2013. United’s announcement came soon after SIA made known its plans to resume non-stop services in 2018, using the Airbus A350-900 ULR (Ultra long-range) aircraft.

One may wonder why United has moved so quickly to fill the void left by SIA when the poor loads experienced by the latter contributed to its suspension of the non-stop services. Apparently the passenger traffic between the two markets has since improved and is growing by an average of 4% annually. Of course, this is good news for Singapore Changi Airport, which is hoping that United could potentially bring more tourists to Singapore. Understandably, it does not matter which airline brings in the load. And since it is believed that capacity will help grow the traffic, then United has made the right move while SIA waits. The business climate changes so fast that the right time is as good as anyone’s guess.

For SIA, it is an opportunity cost. Or, an opportunity lost. When it terminated its non-stop services to Newark, regional rival Cathay Pacific moved in quickly to fill up the void, flying non-stop not only 4 times daily between Hong Kong and New York John F. Kennedy, but also daily to Newark. That also pits Hong Kong International Airport, which is only some four hours away from Changi, as an Asian gateway for onward connections. It also provides opportunities for Middle Eastern airlines, notably Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, to better compete to carry more traffic through their Gulf hubs as they expand their connections within Asia and services direct to the US.

Changi’s euphoria over United’s decision is understandable, since connections are key to hub operations. With a non-stop link between Singapore and San Francisco, it will mean more regional traffic feeding into Changi to take advantage of the trans-Pacific connection and the support of United’s extensive network within the US. United vice-president of Atlantic and Pacific sales Marcel Fuchs said: “Those arriving in San Francisco will have dozens of options to connect to other cities across the Americas.” Changi Airport Group senior vice-president (SVP) for market development Lim Ching Kiat echoed the same sentiment, adding that it will strengthen Changi’s position as the preferred gateway between Southeast Asia and North America.

Image Courtesy of Ryan Johnson

Image Courtesy of Ryan Johnson

United’s domestic network may be its edge over SIA when the time comes for the latter to mount its planned non-stop services. But SIA can always rely on its partnership links with US carriers such as JetBlue, not excluding too United which is a Star Alliance partner. And SIA has always competed on the strength of its superior service. For the long haul, especially for one that flies such a great distance, it is an important customer consideration.

United’s non-stop flight from San Francisco to Singapore is an estimated 16-hour-20-minute journey. At 8,446 miles, it is the longest Boeing 787 Dreamliner route ever flown, displacing the carrier’s own Los Angeles-Melbourne service, also operated by the -9 stretch variant. Singapore’s erstwhile non-stop flight in the same direction but from Los Angeles to Singapore clocked 17 hours 30 minutes, and from New York Newark non-stop to Singapore, 18 hours or longer. In the past, SIA was operating the Airbus A340-500 but will be converting seven of 63 A350-900s on order to the A350-900 ULR variant for the resumed services – the reason for the delayed plan. Referring to the new variant aircraft at the time of its announcement to resume the services, SIA chief executive Goh Choon Phong said: “We are pleased that Airbus was able to offer the right aircraft to do so in a commercially viable manner.”

Perhaps too, little did SIA suspect that United would spring ahead to operate its service using the Dreamliner. The Boeing 787 could possibly be the most comfortable aircraft by far to travel the ultra-long distance, designed to limit jet lag. Among the reasons cited: the 787 has a better air filtration system and more humidity than comparable planes, so passengers are less likely to land with chapped lips or dried skin and nasal passages; the windows are larger so the cabin looks brighter and roomier; and the ride is promised to be smoother and quieter. United vice-president Ron Baur said: “Our passengers will arrive less fatigued, and most experience a significant reduction in jet lag,”

The industry will have to wait to see what SIA has up its sleeves. There may be surprises yet. SIA’s previous services were configured as an all-business-class flight, and while the target market is still very much corporate and business travellers, SIA is not revealing details about how many seats the new business class cabin will have. However, weight limitations are likely to suggest more leg room, if not fewer seats.

High fuel costs were a major reason why SIA suspended its previous non-stop operations. Fortunately for United, today’s low oil price favours its early move and affords the American carrier precious lead time to consolidate its market. Come June, it will steal the record of world’s longest non-stop commercial flight from Qantas, whose service between Dallas-Fort Worth and Sydney takes just under 17 hours over a distance of 7,454 miles. SIA will have the honour when it resumes its 19-hour Singapore-New York (Newark) flight, covering 9,536 miles. Until then, the game belongs to United.

Trackbacks and pingbacks

No trackback or pingback available for this article.

14 comments

  1. Have UAL said what the 787 seating will be in cattle class? 9 abreast in the 787 for 16 hours would be torture.

    Reply
  2. You've made an error saying that SFO-SIN will be longer than SYD-DFW. You've quoted the SFO flight length in statute miles, and the SYD flight in nautical miles. Considering Emirates' 2 new flights from DXB to Panama City and to Auckland, the SIN-SFO flight will be the 4th longest.

    It's odd that SIA is waiting 2 years for an aircraft that will trade range for payload when they could have already flown to SFO with their own 787-9s, now allocated to Scoot. United's 787s will have 252 seats, while the larger A350-900ULRs to be operated by SIA will have only 170 seats, which doesn't seem very competitive. SIA could also have used 777-200LRs, which were designed for these kinds of flights, with full payloads to the west coast. That aircraft is offered with optional fuel tanks which would have made SIA-JFK flights possible as well.

    Reply
    1. Correction to the last sentence above - SIN-JFK, not SIA-JFK.

      Reply
    2. Thanks, I stand corrected.

      Reply
      1. But then again, note that United's flight time is estimated at 15 hr 30 min eastbound and 16 hr 20 min westbound. Qantas' A380 Sydney-Dallas is 16 hrs thereabout.

        Reply
        1. Flight times are obviously affected by winds. Within the past week, Air India flight times from Delhi to SFO, for example, have varied by more than an hour.

          Reply
    3. Singapore Airlines does not have 787s, for your information.

      Reply
  3. 16 hours in 9 abreast 787. Too tight for too long for me. For Singaporeans it might be different though.

    Reply
    1. FYI, United will have 252 seats comprising 48 BusinessFirst and 204 Economy (including 88 Economy Plus).

      Reply
  4. My wife and I just returned from NZ and Australia, Air NZ to Auckland and AA Sydney, from/to LAX, 12-13 hours, on -300ERs 10 abreast economy. Each flight was very good because: We bought all three seats next to windows for the two of us, cost about $2400 each way, far cheaper that premium economy or bus class; the pitch was OK; and most of all each airline had very good entertainment systems worthy of Neflix. Assuming that the same would be true of UA's 789s, these trips would be bearable, although for us the jet lag going east is tough.

    Reply
    1. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
      1. David, what's happened to you? I've enjoyed reading your blog, but you haven't posted now for quite some time. Hope you're Okay.

        Reply
        1. Hey Nick, Thanks. Yea, Aspire is taking a long, long break.... You can continue to read my articles on Airlines & Airports at airlinesairports@wordpress.com

          Reply
  5. I just completed a trip from SFO-SIN on United 787-9 direct flight last week. My seat was at the first row of economy section with plenty of leg room. The flight was quite good mainly due to the fresh air. I purposely walked all the way to the very back of the aircraft and found out the same good freshness of air quality throughout the plane. I have never experienced any other aircraft with this kind of fresh air quality towards aft, though I have flown over 250,000 miles a year for the last 20 years. Upon arrival at SFO in the return flight, while waiting for our luggages I happened to have a conversation about the on board air quality with a fellow passenger who is a teacher from Oklahoma transiting at SFO. She said she felt the same as she sit at the very back of the aircraft and did not feel usual fatigue as on other types of aircrafts. I believe it is all due to the non-bleed air system. The combined contribution of United and Boeing gave general public like us who could not afford to fly business class a better option.

    Reply

Leave a reply