Qantas return a boost to Changi's ambition of becoming the region's premier air hub

Qantas said on Thursday (Aug 31) that it would resume the Sydney-Singapore-London service from March 25 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Five years ago, amid talks of plans by Qantas to shift its hub for Australia-Europe flights from Singapore to Dubai, I wrote a piece saying it was a bad idea.

Singapore which sits in the heart of the world's fastest-growing air travel market, is a more critical base for Qantas. Indeed, Australia's national carrier has said repeatedly, over the years, that it is focused on growing its presence in Asia.

Yet in April 2013, the flying Kangaroo, wooed by a 10-year commercial alliance with Dubai's Emirates, decided to hop to the United Arab Emirates' most populous city.

But just four years into the union, Qantas has decided to return to a more familiar ground.

The airline, which operated its very first Sydney-London service via Singapore in 1947, said on Thursday (August 31) that it would resume the Sydney-Singapore-London service from March 25 2018. But there will be no return of the Melbourne-Singapore-London flight. Instead, a new Melbourne-Perth-London service will be launched.

Qantas will also add capacity on its Melbourne-Singapore sector with more flights and bigger aircraft - operating the Airbus 380 instead of the A-330.

With the changes, Qantas will no longer fly its own aircraft to Dubai, though its customers - as part of an expanded commercial tie-up with Emirates - can still travel conveniently on Emirates flights from Australia to Dubai, the Australian carrier said. From there, they can connect to other Emirates flights to Europe and elsewhere.

Qantas' chief executive officer Alan Joyce insists that the changes do not in any way imply that Singapore is a more valued partner than Dubai. In fact, he has stressed several times, since this morning's announcement, that the tie-up with Emirates has given Qantas customers access to the Middle Eastern carriers' huge global network.

The fact remains though, that with Qantas' decision to shift its long-haul base back to Changi, Singapore has one-upped Dubai in the race for premier air hub status.

It is an important win for Singapore. Australia is a key market for Changi - not just for destination but also transit traffic.

Of the close to 59 million passengers that the airport handled last year, about a third were passing through. And while actual numbers have never been given, Australia is Changi's biggest transit market.

When Qantas expands its services here from March 25, it is expected to add more than half a million passengers each year to Changi's traffic - not an insignificant number.

Of course the move will mean more competition for Singapore Airlines (SIA), for whom Australia is also a critical market. But as the carrier has always said, it is used to warfare in the air.

SIA and its regional arm, SilkAir, operate close to 280 one-way flights per week between Singapore and eight Australia cities - Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Darwin and Cairns.

The group's budget arm, Scoot, operates another 46 flights a week between Singapore and four cities Down Under: Gold Coast, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

As a key market, Sydney was the first destination that SIA served when it started flying the Airbus 380 aircraft in October 2007. Ten years later, SIA is said to be planning for Sydney-Singapore travellers to also be the first to experience new cabin and in-flight products that will debut on its new A-380 which arrives later this year.

Whatever Qantas does, SIA will continue to focus on the Australian market, as it always has.

As for Changi, protecting and growing its influence will continue to be challenging, with competition not just from the Middle East but also Hong Kong, South Korea and perhaps most threatening in the longer term, China.

And even as Qantas has made its decision to return to Singapore, it has also challenged Airbus and Boeing to build a plane, in five years', that can fly non-stop from Australia to London and New York. It would then take about 20 hours to get from Sydney to London, cutting total travel time by about four hours.

If this happens, Changi could once again, be faced with the prospect of a hopping kangaroo.

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