SIA flying direct to US with new plane

International air traffic market 'much bigger' now than before when US non-stop flights halted

Singapore Airlines has ordered seven A350-900 aircraft for non-stop flights to the United States.
Singapore Airlines has ordered seven A350-900 aircraft for non-stop flights to the United States.PHOTO: AIRBUS

Bringing back non-stop flights to the United States is a "game changer" for Singapore Airlines, said one of its top officials.

While other airlines have added services to the US in the three years since SIA stopped its non-stop flights to the US in 2013, the airline "is not concerned at all", said Mr Campbell Wilson, acting senior vice-president of sales and marketing.

Even in relatively weak economic times in the past four to five years, international air traffic has grown at an annual compounded rate of 4 per cent to 5 per cent, he noted.

"The market is much, much bigger now than when we served it," Mr Wilson told reporters yesterday ahead of an event today to mark the delivery of SIA's sixth A350-900 aircraft from the Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France.

SIA will use the new plane for its non-stop flights between Singapore and San Francisco, which will be launched on Oct 23.

The direct flights, which will take about 141/2 to 171/2 hours, will save up to three hours of travelling time compared with indirect services. SIA now flies to San Francisco twice daily, via Hong Kong and Seoul.

These will be SIA's longest flights until 2018, when an ultra-long- range variant of the A350-900 is launched. SIA has seven A350- 900ULRs on order, which will allow even longer flights - to Los Angeles and New York.

SIA had axed a nearly 19-hour trip to New York and direct flights to Los Angeles in 2013 due to high fuel prices and weak demand.

"We did it very reluctantly," said Mr Wilson. "Ever since we stopped flying those non-stop services, we have been looking for a way to resume them."

The move allowed SIA's rivals to raise the competition. In June this year, United Airlines started a non-stop flight between San Francisco and Singapore. Others, including Middle Eastern airlines such as Emirates, had also - since 2013 - added flights from Singapore to their home bases and from there, to the US.

Analysts have also noted that SIA's pullout in 2013 gave other airports in the region an edge over Changi when it comes to Asia-US air links.

Changi Airport Group (CAG) told The Straits Times that air travel from Singapore to the US has grown at a compounded rate of 2 per cent in the past three years.

Currently, SIA, Delta Airlines and United Airlines operate over 100 weekly Singapore flights to and from six cities in the US - Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco.

While traffic to the US forms a small part of Changi's total traffic - the bulk is on routes to South-east and North-east Asia - "CAG works hard to secure connectivity and boost flight options to long-haul destinations, including the US", said a CAG spokesman.

Yesterday, Airbus' head of marketing for the A-350XWB aircraft, Ms Marisa Lucas-Ugena, introduced to reporters its features.

The plane has wide panoramic windows, while its in-flight entertainment features a 12-inch screen in economy class. Its larger overhead stowage compartments can take more hand luggage - more than one roller bag per passenger.

The A-350 is also more fuel efficient, burning 25 per cent less fuel - and emitting 25 per cent less carbon dioxide per passenger - than the Boeing 777, she said.

But will the more fuel-efficient aircraft lead to cheaper fares?

Said Mr Wilson: "In this particular case, the aircraft itself won't be a significant factor. It is more the price of oil."

But the A-350, which also flies from Singapore to Amsterdam, Johannesburg and Dusseldorf, "allows us to fly routes that otherwise would not be viable", he added.

The A-350 will replace some of SIA's older planes such as its Boeing 777, said Mr Wilson.

Captain Aloysius Wee, deputy chief pilot for the A-350/A-330 fleet, said 160 pilots have been trained to fly the A-350.

Capt Wee, who will pilot the A-350 from Toulouse today, said it takes just under a month for an A-330 pilot to transition to the A-350.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2016, with the headline 'SIA flying direct to US with new plane'. Subscribe