Embedded in the agreement that committed Singapore Airlines to acquiring five more Airbus A380s and 20 A350s was an undertaking by the airframer to buy back the carrier's five A340-500s. Embedded in the agreement that committed Singapore Airlines to acquiring five more Airbus A380s and 20 A350s was an undertaking by the airframer to buy back the carrier's five A340-500s. In the fuss created by blue-chip endorsements of flagship airliners, this detail may have been overlooked, but it heralds an important, if unsurprising, decision. Plainly, SIA has finally opted to throw in the towel on its ultra-long-haul transpacific experiment. That will happen at the end of next year - and comes as little surprise.
It was a bold attempt to open up a new frontier with nonstop connections between SIA's Changi hub and the USA, and the innovative carrier's perseverance is to be admired. However, it was an open secret that the five-strong A340-500 fleet was failing to turn a profit when deployed on flights of up to 19h, serving Los Angeles and Newark. Even a change of strategy to all-business-class service in an effort to boost yields failed to stem the flow of red ink.
Given that SIA is not alone in its desire to abandon the A340-500 for transpacific routes - Thai Airways is also retiring its four aircraft - there is less than robust demand for the type on the second-hand market. SIA has understandably jumped at the chance to cut its losses and hand the A340s back to Airbus in return for topping up its fleets of Airbus's newer widebodies.
So what of the future for the loudly trumpeted ultra-long-haul niche? Boeing's equivalent 777-200LR twinjet - which, unlike the A340, remains in production - has achieved a degree of success serving the needs of the rapidly expanding Gulf network carriers, as well as the likes of Air Canada, Delta Air Lines and Ethiopian Airlines. However, there have been misses, too, with Air India deciding to put the majority of its -200LR fleet up for sale.
Ultra-long haul has effectively become a niche within a niche, as relatively few routes have been demonstrated to be capable of commanding the ticket-price premium that is essential to offset the fuel penalties. The concept was marginal at best when fuel was as low as $40 a barrel five years ago. At today's price of $100-plus, sustainable profits seem utterly out of reach - perhaps forever.
Meanwhile questions remain over whether the travelling public has the stomach for remaining aloft for such a long time. The world may have to wait for a "son of Sonic Cruiser" before the ultra-long haul finds a strong foothold in the mainstream.
(This article first appeared as the leading article in the 30 October issue of Flight International)