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SIA cuts some A350 ULR flights from October 2020. Is Chicago coming?

A complete withdrawal of SIA's Airbus A350 ULRs to San Francisco and a frequency reduction to Los Angeles paves the way for a brand new non-stop route to the USA

SQ A350 Takeoff Large (Victor via Flickr).jpg

An unexpected schedule change for Singapore Airlines cropped up in the last few days, as the airline started loading flights for the winter 2020/2021 season from late October 2020. A couple of Airbus A350 ULR flights to the USA have either disappeared from the timetables, or have been replaced with 3-class A350s instead, freeing up capacity in the ULR fleet for another non-stop route.

With rumours of a new destination in the USA, it’s looking likely that the reshuffle is to make way for this yet unannounced city.

Los Angeles drops

The non-stop Singapore – Los Angeles route is currently served 10 times weekly by the Airbus A350 ULR, a daily SQ37/38 flight plus a three times weekly SQ35/36 flight on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, as shown below.

Current non-stop Los Angeles Schedule (summer 2020 timings shown)
Flight From / To Aircraft Days
SQ36 SIN0830 – LAX0915 359 ULR ··3·5·7
SQ38 SIN2055 – LAX2140 359 ULR Daily
SQ37 LAX0015 – SIN0815* 359 ULR Daily
SQ35 LAX1110 – SIN1910* 359 ULR ··3·5·7

* Next day

From the start of the winter 2020 / 2021 schedule on 25th October 2020 the ‘additional’ three-times weekly SQ35/36 flights will cease, leaving Los Angeles with a daily non-stop A350 ULR service.

This will also remove the morning departure options in both directions on the non-stop route, with only the late evening takeoffs from both Singapore and Los Angeles remaining each day.

Non-stop Los Angeles schedule from 25th October 2020
Flight From / To Aircraft Days
SQ38 SIN2045 – LAX1955 359 ULR Daily
SQ37 LAX2225 – SIN0815** 359 ULR Daily

** Two days later

Note: The daily Boeing 777-300ER flight from Singapore to Los Angeles via Tokyo Narita will continue as usual, but is not shown in the schedules above.

Overall this represents a 14% drop in weekly capacity on the airline’s Los Angeles route, with the biggest impact in Premium Economy (down 25%) and Business Class (down 20%).

San Francisco shifts

Like the Los Angeles route, San Francisco is served non-stop 10 times per week. There’s a daily 3-class Airbus A350 (SQ31/32), plus a three times weekly Airbus A350 ULR (SQ33/34).

Current non-stop San Francisco Schedule (summer 2020 timings shown)
Flight From / To Aircraft Days
SQ32 SIN0925 – SFO0940 359 Daily
SQ34 SIN1505 – SFO1520 359 ULR ··3·5·7
SQ31 SFO1130 – SIN1910* 359 Daily
SQ33 SFO2205 – SIN0545** 359 ULR ··3·5·7

* Next day
** Two days later

From 25th October 2020 the A350 ULR flights SQ33/34 will also be operated by a 3-class A350, instead of the ULR variant.

This change means there will be no SIA Airbus A350 ULR flights to or from San Francisco at all from late October 2020.

SQ A350v2 SFO (Sinagapore Airlines).jpg
There will be no Airbus A350 ULR flights serving San Francisco from late October 2020. (Photo: Singapore Airlines)
Non-stop San Francisco schedule from 25th October 2020
Flight From / To Aircraft Days
SQ32 SIN0920 – SFO0750 359 Daily
SQ34 SIN1520 – SFO1350 359 ··3·5·7
SQ31 SFO0930 – SIN1905* 359 Daily
SQ33 SFO2010 – SIN0540** 359 ··3·5·7

* Next day
** Two days later

Note: The daily Boeing 777-300ER flight from Singapore to San Francisco via Hong Kong will continue as usual, but is not shown in the schedules above.

The higher total capacity of the 3-class Airbus A350 means this equipment swap represents an 8% increase in total weekly capacity for the airline at San Francisco, though there will be a drop in the number of Business Class and Premium Economy seats with the big gain seen in the additional 561 Economy Class seats in each direction per week.

2013 J A350 (Singapore Airlines).jpg
SIA’s Airbus A350 ULR aircraft have 67 Business Class seats. Replacing them with a 3-class version will reduce overall capacity in this cabin on the San Francisco route from October 2020. (Image: Singapore Airlines)

Newark is unaffected

One thing is staying the same and that’s the regular daily SQ21/22 service to and from Newark. It continues as usual into the winter 2020/2021 season, operated by the Airbus A350 ULR.

What does this mean?

San Francisco loses the A350 ULR altogether, and as you may know the non-stop Seattle route has always used the 3-class A350, which continues to be the case next winter.

In a nutshell, from 25th October 2020 the airline’s seven-strong Airbus A350 ULR fleet will only be used for two flights – a daily Newark service and a daily Los Angeles rotation.

That schedule can be flown by only four aircraft, operating an average of 17.4 hours per day, with a fifth aircraft used as a standby. Incidentally that’s exactly how the airline previously ran its five-strong Airbus A340-500 fleet on these two routes from 2003 to 2013.

A359ULR Delivery 3 (Singapore Airlines)
A fleet of five Singapore Airlines Airbus A350 ULRs is all that’s needed to run the schedule from late October 2020, leaving two aircraft for alternative deployment. (Photo: Singapore Airlines)

It still leaves two of the airline’s Airbus A350 ULR jets doing nothing at all from the end of October 2020.

Two aircraft is enough to cover a new daily service to a city on the US east coast, while still retaining the standby aircraft described above, the latter being essential to resolve any technical or operational disruptions within the small fleet and maintain schedule integrity.

Is Chicago coming?

We’ve been hearing rumours lately about a resumption of Singapore Airlines’ Chicago O’Hare route in 2020, though we understood this was more likely to be via an intermediate point – possibly Seoul.

The airline last served ‘the windy city’ in 2003, via Amsterdam, but the route was cut as a result of the economic downturn during the SARS outbreak.

It does make some sense for the airline to strongly consider going back to Chicago – the largest hub for Star Alliance carrier and SIA codeshare partner United Airlines, which has an extensive route network for feeder connections to a potential non-stop Singapore service.

Chicago (Conner Freeman).jpg
Chicago could be SIA’s next non-stop A350 ULR destination. (Photo: Conner Freeman)

SIA currently looks like the ‘odd one out’ by not serving O’Hare, with major Asia-Pacific carriers like ANA, ANZ, Cathay Pacific, JAL, Korean Air and EVA Air all regularly flying to the city from their respective hubs.

Qantas will also start a Brisbane – Chicago service next year, a route coming in only around one hour shorter than a Singapore – Chicago link would be.

In fact Chicago would come in just short of the Singapore – Newark flight in distance and therefore timing, likely pushing close to 18 hours 30 minutes at certain times of year. That’s comfortably within the range of the Airbus A350 ULR, however.

Changi Airport also identified a direct Chicago route as “low hanging fruit” earlier this year, saying to Flight Global:

“Some of the future long-haul markets we are looking at because of all these viable long-haul aircraft technology, hopefully we will see demand in Vancouver to Singapore, so hopefully that will become a reality. Another example is Chicago. These two are some of the lower hanging fruits that we see from the long-haul perspective.” Liew Zhong Yao, associate general manger air hub development at Changi Airport

Vancouver does not require the range of the A350 ULR and would much more likely be served by a 3-class A350 if SIA were to consider it.

Singapore – Chicago is only realistically served non-stop by an Airbus A350 ULR, making Singapore Airlines the only operator in the world that could currently operate it without any significant payload limits.

Other candidate cities for the airline aside from Chicago might be Boston or Washington D.C., both of which would require the range of the ULR.

Alternative theories

While it certainly looks as though these schedule changes are designed to support a new non-stop North America route, there are some possible alternatives.

  • A frequency change: We understand the non-stop Newark route is performing strongly, especially in Business Class, so Singapore Airlines may think there is sufficient demand to go double-daily on this key city pair. These two ‘spare’ aircraft could be used to achieve that.
  • An aircraft refit: The airline could use the downtime to refit two A350 ULRs to a different configuration (perhaps a more Business-heavy one for the Newark route). The airline has been struggling to command high fares in the (large) Premium Economy cabin on ULR routes outside peak season.
  • A configuration change: SIA could refit these two aircraft to one of their other A350 layouts. This would return the USA non-stop services back to the way they operated between 2003 and 2013, with five aircraft supporting only the Newark and Los Angeles routes. It’s an option Airbus lauded when the first ULRs were delivered, but would be an early admission that the ULR project isn’t really working for a second time.

“The A350-900ULR can be ‘reversed’ into a standard -900 if the airline decides. From an airframe perspective it is ‘paperwork’ and you need to re-activate the forward cargo hold…and install the cargo-loading system.” François Obé, Airbus A350 marketing director, talking to FlightGlobal

We don’t think any of these alternatives to a simple new route announcement are particularly likely, however they are not impossible.

Summary

Singapore Airlines isn’t going to revert to flying only four of its seven A350 ULR jets from late October 2020 and leave the other three sat around doing nothing, so a new route or alternative deployment is almost inevitable.

Chicago has been mooted and would fit the bill – far enough to need the ULR’s range, a large Star Alliance (United) hub, and a market SIA has served before. If announced, it would be the fifth US city to be linked by the airline non-stop from Singapore.

UA Planes at ORD (United Airlines).jpg
Chicago O’Hare is home to United Airlines’ biggest base of operations, and is a major Star Alliance hub. (Photo: United Airlines)

Changi Airport has already identified the city as an obvious target route and we would be surprised if SIA chose another US city to serve instead, though there are some other options of course.

Another theory is that the fleet will be reconfigured or reduced (with two aircraft ‘reverted’ to standard A350-900 configuration) however we believe these are unlikely scenarios just two years after the ULR project restarted.

What do you think Singapore Airlines’ plan for these two ‘spare’ A350 ULRs is? Let us know in the comments section below.

19 comments

  1. Andrew, I’m really enjoying your factual and logical insight balanced with analysis, miles & promos opportunities. A great read whenever a new article comes up. Well done and keep up the fantastic work. Keep flying high.

    1. +1!

      Too much capacity to US West Coast.
      If so, why wait almost a year to make changes?

      If ORD = low ballin’ fruit + UA biggest hub (really .. not SFO/EWR?)
      Then what’s CEO Goh waiting for?

      High demand to EWR mainly in J, but a re_config to J heavy layout will revert to old A340 model & similar issues in case of downturn ( up until 2013 etc. …)

  2. With Singapore Airlines having served Los Angeles via Tokyo (Narita) for a long time and considering how profitable that route is, it does make sense for it to retain that one-stop route. If it does confirm another ULR route, hopefully more details will be released.

    1. That’s definitely an option I agree. Question is if they are going to do that why don’t they just load the extra flights and start selling them now?

      Maybe they don’t have the slots yet…

      1. I’m really hoping for a doubling of EWR flights. Should have enough business demand to sustain the route unless there’s a downturn.

    1. I don’t think it makes sense to do 2x daily EWR if NY is where they want to be. It would be more logical to do JFK/EWR, JFK flight leaving in the day as alternative to SQ26/25.

  3. I think it’s about time they fly direct to Canada. Given the sizable ethnic Chinese populations in both cities, SIN-YVR would make sense, though the standard A350-900 could do the same job. If they’re going for *A hubs then Toronto would make a great candidate apart from Chicago.

    1. Yes Toronto is definitely an option for them. Taps in to extensive AC links on the East Coast.

      YVR though would be better as a standard A359, as you say.

  4. Andrew, just thinking out loud. You mentioned about doubling SIN-EWR-SIN service and you also mentioned about how J-class on that route is popular and how the sales of PE class is not as good during low season given the PE class capacity is high on SQ flights with ULR configuration. Another thing you mentioned about was reconfiguration of ULR to cater more business class. Given all the facts above, is there any chance that SQ considers to reconfigure those 2 aircrafts by adding more J-class (premium heavy) but still maintaining PE class by reducing its capacity, and use those two reconfiguration aircrafts to double SIN-EWR-SIN service? This would create seating arrangement of the ULR version 2 (similar like previous ones they had on A340-500 planes before they reconfigured them into all J). Or would this create inconsistency and inflexibility of aircraft utilization?

    1. I’d think that just getting rid of the A350-900ULR subfleet altogether (by converting them to 3-class config) and sending 3-class A350s to LAX with seat blocking would be a better idea.

      To offer more J and maybe even some F service to the US East coast, they could get some A350-1000s or 779s with the ULR modifications instead.

  5. Apparently, it will be for 2nd non-stop New York flight, but instead of EWR, it will be SIN-JFK-SIN (SQ17/18 pair). When they start this service, SQ will replace A380-800 (SIN-FRA-JFK) with B777-300ER (for SQ25/26 pair).

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