Singapore Airlines (SIA) is the current title holder of the world’s longest flight – the 19h Singapore-Newark – which has helped it reach near-monopoly status on the Singapore-USA market.
The Star Alliance carrier has four non-stop, ultra-long-haul flights to the USA under its belt, along with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and most recently, Seattle. Ranging from 16h to 19h, these are some of the world’s longest flights.
Its only direct competition in the non-stop market is Star partner United Airlines on the San Francisco route using Boeing 787-9s.
Cirium schedules data via FlightMaps Analytics
SIA also flies one-stop services to Houston, New York JFK, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is now the sole carrier to do so, after Delta Air Lines ceased its Singapore connections from Narita in September.
But history shows that this market dominance has not come easy – nor cheaply – for SIA.
BACK IN TIME
The carrier first launched Singapore-Newark and Singapore-Los Angeles in 2004, offering 117 premium economy and 64 business class seats on its Airbus A340-500s.
Amid rising fuel costs and possibly to capture a bigger share of the business travel segment, SIA opted to reintroduce the service with 100 business class seats in June 2008.
This turned out to be an ill-timed move, as companies cut back on corporate travel in the years after the global financial crisis. High oil prices also made it difficult to sustain the fuel-intensive four-engine A340-500s that flew the route.
Introducing the non-stop services placed SIA ahead of its time, but business realities meant both services had to be ceased by the end of 2013.
It was three years before SIA resumed flying non-stop to the USA, with a San Francisco service in October 2016.
Fast-forward to 2018, where Singapore-Newark was relaunched to much fanfare, just as ultra-long-haul flights were gaining popularity due to the introduction of more fuel-efficient aircraft against the backdrop of much lower oil prices.
All of SIA’s non-stop US flights are now operated with the twin-engine A350-900, which is estimated to burn 25% less fuel than the A340-500s.
The relaunched Singapore-Newark route, operated by the ULR variant, now offers 67 business class and 94 premium economy class seats, fewer seats than in 2004, but the split between classes reflects how air travel has become more accessible over time.
And while SIA is certainly more aggressive than its US counterparts when it comes to brand marketing, it has not always been the first mover.
Cirium schedules data shows that SIA’s Singapore-San Francisco non-stop service began at least a quarter after United Airlines launched the same in June 2016. Likewise, SIA only started flying Singapore-Los Angeles non-stop in November 2018, after United ended a 13-month run in October 2018.
After ending its non-stop Singapore-Los Angeles service, United doubled capacity on its non-stop Singapore-San Francisco route from November 2018. The following month, SIA increased capacity on the same route by one and a half times.
“The [Singapore-USA] route is a niche which Singapore Airlines can most effectively fill, given its wide market access at the Singapore hub,” says Peter Morris, chief economist at Ascend by Cirium.
SIA also dominates connections out of Singapore, which from the US carriers’ point of view, means difficulty in securing onward feed of traffic beyond Singapore.
The distance and time taken to fly from the continental USA to Singapore requires a specific aircraft type and configuration, and US carriers are averse to developing bespoke fleets tied to specific destinations.
In contrast, SIA has one of the youngest fleets in the world and procures aircraft according to its needs.
Cirium fleets data shows that SIA had the largest A340-500 fleet among carriers, operating five of 28 jets ever delivered. Following its unsuccessful repositioning to 100% business class seats, the carrier soldiered on with the non-stop US routes until the retirement of its A340-500 fleet.
Likewise, the carrier took delivery of its first 10 A350-900s in 2016, the same year it relaunched non-stop flights to the USA. It is in prime position to expand its reach in the non-stop sector, with 41 A350-900s in service – including seven -900ULRs – and 26 on order.
Essentially, the US carriers view the Singapore-USA route quite differently.
To serve their passengers, they are well-covered by a number of connecting points in areas such as Japan and Taiwan, where air service agreements for onward connections are more open, says Morris.
This is further enhanced by their belief that their networks are competitive, and that the direct market for specific US airports is not big enough to justify a service.
“Whereas the USA is a significant potential market for either connecting traffic via Singapore Airlines from Singapore or for Singapore residents, the Singapore market is tiny in comparison with China, Japan, Korea, etc., where their core business focus lies,” says Morris.
And while ultra-long-haul flights reduce travel time and cut out transfers, some passengers prefer shorter journeys. US passengers have access to many options in Japan or South Korea, which serve more points in their home country and add only 2-3h to their journey. As such, it may be a cheaper and quicker way to travel onward to their destination, rather than via the fixed points offered by SIA.
This further suggests that SIA’s success in the Singapore-USA routes is firmly rooted in the Singapore market, and its continued dominance and success relies strongly on its brand equity, which extends through the wider Southeast Asia region.
The carrier regularly refreshes its marketing campaigns to update its image and maintain top-of-mind awareness. This would explain how it was the most recognisable brand in Singapore for the fourth consecutive year in 2018, edging out lifestyle brands like messaging tool WhatsApp and video sharing website YouTube, according to YouGov’s annual survey of public perception.
Martin Roll, business and brand strategist, opines in a January report that SIA has contributed around 20% to the overall nation's brand equity – which he describes as brand positioning in the minds of its citizens, international stakeholders and global customers.
“This is remarkable, as over 90% of the passengers on SIA never immigrate into Singapore but only use Singapore Changi Airport as a transit hub.”
With Delta leaving the market, Cirium’s Morris does not expect any new entrants to fill the gap. While Singapore might allow another carrier from another nation to fly from Singapore potentially, US regulators are likely to adopt a more protectionist stance.
Furthermore, the market is too small to allow multiple airlines to serve directly.
It remains a useful niche market for SIA, he says, although it is far from carte blanche for the carrier.
“By the nature of airline route network competition, if they raise prices too much, then passengers will use alternative routings or airlines.”