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SINGAPORE Airlines (SIA) has signed an agreement with European planemaker Airbus to be the launch customer of the new ultra-long-range variant of the A350, which will allow the carrier to restore non-stop flights to the United States in 2018.
This comes months after SIA - which has made no secret of its desire to resume the world's longest flight - revealed it was talking to US-based Boeing and Airbus for an aircraft that could operate the route efficiently.
SIA previously pulled the plug on its non-stop flights to New York and Los Angeles in 2013, as stubbornly high fuel prices and weak demand from business travellers made it tough to operate the route profitably.
In an announcement on Tuesday, the carrier said that it would convert seven of the 63 A350-900s it has on order to A350-900ULRs. SIA's ultra-long-range aircraft will be decked out with new cabin products, which are under development.
In addition, it is converting four options into firm orders for the A350-900s, leaving it with 16 options from the initial 20. As a result, this will boost the total number of A350s on firm order for SIA to 67 planes.
"Our customers have been asking us to restart non-stop Singapore-US flights and we are pleased that Airbus was able to offer the right aircraft to do so in a commercially viable manner," said SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong.
The move will "further strengthen the Singapore hub by providing the fastest and most convenient air connectivity between North America and South-east Asia".
It also offers the group another avenue of growth outside Asia, besides Europe, as the group struggles with a competitive operating environment in both the premium and budget segments.
With this move, SIA is likely to pip Dubai's Emirates to reclaim the prestigious title of operating the world's longest direct commercial flight. Emirates had announced that it would commence a daily service between Dubai and Panama City, which takes around 171/2 hours, next February.
The first time SIA offered non-stop services to the US was over a decade ago. Back in 2004, it launched a near-19-hour non-stop service to Newark Liberty International Airport, flying over 15,300 km. SIA also used to operate a direct service between Singapore and Los Angeles. Then, SIA was using the four-engine Airbus A340-500 for both direct services. But the combination of surging fuel prices and soft travel demand after the 2009 financial crisis forced it to axe the direct services in 2013.
The airline still operates one-stop services to New York and Los Angeles via Frankfurt and Tokyo respectively. However, analysts have pointed out that the direct US services cut travel time for business travellers - whom the flights typically target - and may enable SIA to attract new passengers who transit at other hubs besides Changi.
It may also help the airline recapture some of the passengers lost to other carriers when it ceased the direct services. In offering a one-stop service, SIA has to go head-to-head with airlines such as Cathay Pacific or British Airways which fly via their own respective hubs, sometimes at lower fares.
Besides Los Angeles and New York, SIA is also considering other points in the US for non-stop flights, the carrier said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, one question mark remains over what type of configuration SIA will go with on the upcoming A350-ULRs. When it previously operated the direct flight to New York, it started out with a mix of premium economy and business class. But it later converted the flight to an all-business-class configuration with 100 seats, in pursuit of fatter yields. The non-stop service to Los Angeles was the same.
Airbus chief executive Fabrice Bregier said: "The A350 is the perfect, flexible platform, offering unrivalled operating economics for the very longest routes. The wider and quieter cabin will provide the perfect environment for passengers to enjoy the world-famous SIA in-flight product."
The A350-900ULR can fly for up to 19 hours, with a modified fuel system to increase the fuel-carrying capacity, as well as an increase in the maximum take-off weight and aerodynamic improvements.
SIA will take delivery of the first of its 67 A350-900s next January and plans to put it on its Amsterdam service by April. In 2016, it is expected to receive a total of 11 A350s - dubbed a game-changer for the group, thanks to the enhanced operational efficiencies the aircraft offers.
The wide-body A350, which entered commercial service earlier this year with Qatar Airways, is touted to deliver a 25 per cent reduction in fuel burn as it is made of corrosion-free composite materials and titanium. In addition, it reduces maintenance costs by lengthening the time required between heavy maintenance checks.
Airbus has a total of 783 firm orders for the A350 from 41 customers worldwide.
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