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Is United restarting Singapore – Hong Kong flights with Polaris Business Class?

We may see United's 'New' Polaris Business Class in Singapore sooner than we thought, as the airline seeks to resurrect its fifth-freedom Hong Kong service

United Polaris Window (United Airlines)

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that United’s non-stop Boeing 787-9 flights from Singapore to San Francisco aren’t currently operating. Indeed the twice-daily service (UA2/UA28) was suspended on 9th March 2020, with single daily services (UA2 only) continuing until 25th March 2020.

Currently GDS reflects resumption of the UA2 service from 8th July 2020, though United is not sufficiently optimistic about traffic levels to return to twice-daily operation so quickly, with UA28 not rejoining the fold until 25th October 2020 at this stage.

Note: Once United services do restart at Changi, they will operate from Terminal 3.

A familiar route may be revived

Interestingly United filed an application yesterday with the US Department of Transportation to restart its US – Hong Kong – Singapore route, last served in October 2017 as a Chicago – Hong Kong – Singapore service using Boeing 777-200ER aircraft.

SIN HKG 5th
Source: US DOT

The airline has stated that it wishes to start the route as early as this Sunday (10th May 2020), initially for cargo-only operations using its Boeing 777-300ER aircraft.

“United intends to start U.S. – Hong Kong – Singapore cargo-only service with its passenger aircraft. The flights will transport U.S. – Singapore third and fourth freedom traffic, U.S. – Hong Kong third and fourth freedom traffic, and once authorized, Hong Kong – Singapore fifth freedom traffic.

“United seeks allocation of fifth freedom frequencies on an unlimited basis and, should United cease the service, it will promptly return the frequencies to the pool for reallocation.” United’s filing with the DOT

Whilst the intention at this stage is certainly for a cargo-only operation, not surprising given the current climate for passenger demand, United is also leaving the door open to retain this routing and its approvals for passenger operation, subject to sufficient demand as COVID-19 subsides.

“Depending upon the rebound in passenger traffic, United may commence passenger service at a future date.” United’s filing with the DOT

This would include fifth-freedom passenger traffic rights on the Singapore – Hong Kong flights, once granted.

These flights were a popular option until they ended in late 2017, offering morning arrival in Hong Kong and late evening departure back to Singapore each day, conducive to maximising a short break.

Polaris Business Class

While passengers will not be able to book these flights initially, assuming they are even approved, one major benefit of United’s Boeing 777-300ERs is that they are all equipped with the airline’s latest Polaris Business Class seats.

United Polaris Cabin (United Airlines)
United Boeing 777-300ER Polaris Business Class. (Photo: United Airlines)

As we mentioned in early 2019, United is planning to refit its new Polaris Business Class seats to its entire Boeing 787 fleet by the end of 2020, inevitably bringing the product to the Singapore route even on non-stop Boeing 787-9 services, though the timetable for this refit is now uncertain.

Polaris 787 Tracker
Only three of the airline’s 27 Boeing 787-9 aircraft, the type it regularly operates to Singapore, have been fitted with the new seats. (Image: United Polaris Tracker)

If the airline later chooses to provide passenger service on this revived fifth-freedom route (and that’s still a big if), these seats could become an option from Singapore to both Hong Kong and a US destination (via Hong Kong) in the coming months.

While United last served this routing as a Chicago – Hong Kong – Singapore one, the airline has not stated which US city it plans to link upon resumption of these cargo-only flights.

If the application does receive approval and San Francisco is chosen as the US link city, that may be a good indication that United sees this as a way to progressively restart passenger services to Singapore post-COVID-19, rather than through its operationally expensive non-stop services, which would almost inevitably be loss making at least to begin with.

While air freight demand remains high due to a lack of capacity on passenger aircraft, the cargo-capable Boeing 777-300ER may also help the airline bridge the commercial viability gap on these flights.

The seats

There’s a lot of fuss around United’s new Polaris Business Class seat, as it represents a significant shift change in terms of privacy over the carrier’s older products, affording all passengers direct aisle access.

United Polaris Bed (United Airlines)
(Photo: United Airlines)

The seat itself is the Acumen / Zodiac (now Safran) Optima product, with a 1-2-1 configuration. Seats alternate at each row between being directly forward-facing and angled towards the aisle.

Acumen Optima
The innovative layout of the Optima seat. (Image: Acumen)

Couple options are available at alternate middle pairs, though of course large privacy dividers mean you don’t need to be too concerned where you’re sitting even when travelling alone.

United Polaris Seat 2 (United Airlines)
A middle pair on United’s new Polaris Business Class. (Photo: United Airlines)

In addition to eventual rollout across the majority of United’s wide-body aircraft, the product has recently been chosen for Air France’s Airbus A350s.

AF A350 J 3 (Air France)
The Optima seat on the Air France Airbus A350. (Photo: Air France)

Miles rates

Assuming United does eventually upgrade this service to passenger operation, which is by no means certain at this stage, here are the miles rates for a one-way Business Class award ticket and how they compare to flying with Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific on the same route.

Singapore ⇄ Hong Kong
Business Class
(one-way x1,000)
FFP Cathay_PacificCathay Singapore_AirlinesSingapore United_AirlinesUnited
AVIOStrans 22 n/a n/a
AStrans 22.5 25 n/a
AM Logo trans 25 n/a n/a
KF Logo trans n/a 30.5 41.5
TKtrans n/a 35 35
EVtrans2 n/a 35 35
MMtrans n/a 35 35
LMtrans n/a 36 36
TGtrans n/a 37.5* 37.5*

* One-way rate shown, but Thai awards must be booked as round-trip

Unfortunately as you can see there aren’t many good value ways to redeem a one-way Business Class flight to or from Hong Kong using Star Alliance Frequent Flyer Programmes, so for a potential United service you’re looking at Miles&Smiles, Infinity Mileagelands, Miles & More and Lifemiles for a 35,000 – 36,000 miles option.

United Polaris Seat (United Airlines)
You would have to really want to try the Polaris product to part with 35,000+ miles for a Singapore – Hong Kong trip. (Photo: United Airlines)

Those rates compare poorly to using the KrisFlyer programme on Singapore Airlines (30,500 miles), not to mention several options on Cathay Pacific in the 22,000 to 25,000 miles range, especially considering that Cathay no longer adds fuel surcharges to award tickets.

Are ultra long-haul flights dead for now?

Just this week we’ve head that Qantas has shelved its plans for non-stop Australia to London and New York flights using Airbus A350-1000 ULR aircraft, “given the impact that Covid-19 has had on world travel”.

Singapore Airlines is currently only flying one of its ‘ULR’ routes, a three times weekly service to Los Angeles, though it is using a 3-class A350 for the time being, keeping its seven dedicated A350 ULR aircraft stored at Changi.

Other ultra long-haul routes currently suspended include:

  • Qatar Airways Doha – Auckland (since 18th April)
  • Qantas Perth – London (since 3rd May)
  • Emirates Dubai – Auckland (since 23rd March)
  • United Sydney – Houston (since 23rd March)

Some of these flights may of course return after COVID-19, though they depend on high yielding traffic to be successful.

Summary

Non-stop ultra long-haul flights are expensive to operate and probably only commercially viable at the peak of aviation demand levels, like those we’ve seen over the last few years.

With COVID-19 likely to dampen demand for some time to come, we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see United opt for a more cautious return to Singapore operations by extending its Hong Kong flights, as it did until late 2017, rather than fly non-stop flights for the time being.

We could even see Singapore Airlines shun its own direct Newark flights for some time, potentially preferring a less risky (and probable Boeing 777-300ER) service on SQ25/26 to JFK via Frankfurt initially.

Assuming approval for these United cargo-only Hong Kong / Singapore operations, it will be interesting to see which US city the airline will operate them from, in terms of a potential ‘upgrade’ to passenger service in future.

United Polaris Overview (United Airlines)
(Photo: United Airlines)

Ultimately this news might mean being able to experience the new Polaris seats not only to and from the USA but also Hong Kong in the coming months, subject to the relaxation of travel restrictions.

Watch this space.

Hat tip to PaxEx.Aero

(Cover Photo: United Airlines)

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