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SIA breaks United's short-lived grip with relaunch of direct flights to US from October

Singapore Airlines (SIA) will restart non-stop flights to the US earlier than expected when it launches direct services to San Francisco from October using the A350-900, which will see it going head-to-head with United Airlines.


SINGAPORE Airlines (SIA) will restart non-stop flights to the US earlier than expected when it launches direct services to San Francisco from October using the A350-900, which will see it going head-to-head with United Airlines.

This suggests a short-lived reign for United as the only carrier to operate direct flights between the two countries. The Chicago-based airline started operating the non-stop service some two weeks ago, aimed at the corporate travel segment.

Traversing around 13,600 kilometres, SIA's non-stop service to San Francisco will be the longest flight in its network until 2018, when the flag carrier relaunches direct flights to New York and Los Angeles. For those routes, it will use a new long-range variant, the A350-900ULR, which SIA pushed European plane-maker Airbus to manufacture.

The premium carrier pulled the plug on its direct services to New York and Los Angeles three years ago, operated using the four-engine, fuel guzzling A340-500, as sky high fuel prices made it tough to operate the routes profitably. An all Business Class configuration compounded the problem as corporate travel demand hit the skids in the wake of the global financial crisis.

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Since the carrier suspended the two direct services in late 2013, its US capacity has declined by some 20 per cent, estimates the Centre for Aviation (CAPA), while rival Asian airlines have been steadily adding capacity to the market.

Next generation, twin-engine aircraft such as the A350 and B787 have made direct services to the US West Coast more feasible as the wide-body planes are fuel efficient, while jet fuel prices have more than halved since 2013.

SIA highlighted that the new route was in response to feedback from customers for more US services. The direct service to San Francisco - which should be popular with premium travellers as it cuts travel time by up to three hours - also gives the airline an edge over the Gulf carriers, which offer one-stop services at competitive fares.

SIA spokesman Nicholas Ionides said: "We have been evaluating Singapore-San Francisco flights for some time and are pleased that we are able to deploy the existing A350-900 on the route before the new ultra-long-range A350-900ULRs are delivered in 2018."

SIA's A350-900 has 253 seats across business, premium economy and economy class cabins.

Flying time for the new service will be between 14 hours, 35 minutes and 17 hours, 45 minutes depending on the direction and time of year. Headwinds could mean some payload restrictions, which would result in some seats not being offered for sale.

SIA serves San Francisco twice-daily, via Hong Kong and Seoul, but will re-route the Singapore-Seoul-San Francisco flight to a Singapore-Seoul-Los Angeles service from Oct 23. This will allow it to add capacity to Los Angeles with a second daily service, complementing its existing Singapore-Tokyo-Los Angeles route.

Shukor Yusof, founder of Endau Analytics, pointed out that many Asians live in San Francisco, which is also close to Silicon Valley where thousands of Asians work. He added: "SIA's existing flights to and from San Francisco would indicate a very high load factor, hence the decision to move ahead with the non-stop flights."

Commenting on the development, a representative from United Airlines said that the carrier was confident that it would be successful on the route. "We offer a convenient daily flight schedule operated by the B787 Dreamliner and a strong San Francisco hub providing smooth onward connections to more than 40 cities in the US, Canada, Mexico and Central/South America."

SIA and United, which are both part of Star Alliance, are in the process of setting up a codeshare alliance, having filed an application with the US Department of Transportation last month.

The alliance aims to initially cover eight domestic United-operated destinations including Atlanta, Orlando, Miami and New Orleans. This enables SIA to take passengers to Houston (via Moscow) and then onward to the eight US cities with United.

The two carriers are also seeking the flexibility to potentially expand the alliance to cover other United flights, SIA flights beyond Singapore as well as flights between the US and Singapore.

In response to a BT query, Mr Ionides said: "This new (Singapore-San Francisco) service is not currently planned as part of the codeshare agreement, but we are open to expanding the partnership in future."

For Changi Airport, the new service strengthens Changi's position as a gateway between South-east Asia and the US. Counting SIA's expanded US operations, Changi will be linked to six US cities through 61 weekly services.

Highlighting that the US is a key long-haul market that Changi Airport Group has been cultivating, CAG senior vice-president (market development) Lim Ching Kiat said: "We will continue to work with our airline partners to leverage the new opportunities in this market."

From Oct 23, SIA's direct, daily flight to San Francisco will depart Changi in the morning, while return flights from San Francisco will also depart in the morning, touching down at Changi in the early evening.

Meanwhile, SIA also plans to axe services to Sao Paulo, Brazil - operated thrice weekly via Barcelona - from Oct 20 due to "sustained weak performance" but will continue to operate the Singapore-Barcelona service. Analysts have suggested previously that SIA could end up leveraging its alliance with United as a gateway into Latin America (via Houston).

Amid soft demand, other carriers cutting flights to Brazil include Korean Air and Air France.

In the stock market on Thursday, SIA shares closed at S$10.50, down two cents.

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