History SilkAir Singapore Airlines

Farewell SilkAir, after 29 years’ service as SIA’s ‘Regional Wing’

With the final passenger flight docked in, we look back at three decades of SIA's "regional wing".

At 8.10pm on Thursday 6th May 2021, SilkAir flight MI411 touched down at Singapore Changi Airport following a 4 hour 41 minute flight from Kathmandu, Nepal. A few minutes later the Boeing 737-800 (9V-MGI) pulled up at gate G14, outside a largely-abandoned Terminal 4.

The passengers disembarked via steps to waiting busses, transporting them to Terminal 3 where they collected their checked luggage, then continued their journey into mandatory hotel quarantine.

ADVERTISEMENT

While the few passengers on board were likely unaware, they had just been the last to travel on a flight operated by SilkAir (Singapore) Pte Ltd, the ‘regional wing’ of Singapore Airlines, which ceased commercial passenger flights that evening – to little fanfare.

9V-MGI operated the final SilkAir passenger flight earlier this month. The aircraft is now for sale. (Photo: SilkAir)

Starting out over 30 years ago with a single jet and a different name, SilkAir grew to a fleet of 33 aircraft and carried 4.9 million passengers in 2019, its final pre-COVID year of operation.

SilkAir facts and figures in April 2019. (Image: SilkAir)

The airline and most of its 1,500 staff have now been merged into Singapore Airlines, but where did it come from and how did it get here?

Here’s our dedication to SIA’s “regional wing”.

SilkAir’s origin: Tradewinds Charters

SilkAir can trace its history back 46 years, to the formation of Tradewinds Charters in 1975, a wholly-owned SIA Group subsidiary company that still exists to this day.

Back then the company wasn’t even an airline – it was SIA’s hotel management subsidiary and travel agency.

In conjunction with its hotel relationships, the company began chartering Singapore Airlines aircraft for inclusive-tour flights, using SIA pilots and cabin crew, predominantly to regional leisure destinations.

Many Tradewinds Charters in the 1970s were operated by Singapore Airlines Boeing 737-100s. (Photo: R.A. Scholefield)

In 1977 Tradewinds even used its own IATA code “ST” on chartered Singapore Airlines 737-100 flights between Changi and Hat Yai, rather than the usual “SQ” code.

Tradewinds troubles

Things weren’t always rosy for Tradewinds. The company nearly collapsed in 1983 when its 40% investment in the Tradewinds Manila Hotel, worth S$36 million (around S$67 million in today’s money), was suddenly dissolved.

In 1984, however, Tradewinds was able to secure a travel operators’ licence and took over SIA’s inclusive-tour business, sealing its fortunes. By 1985, the company was recording a S$50 million turnover (S$90 million in today’s money), a significant shift from the S$1.6 million booked the previous year.

ADVERTISEMENT

By 1988 Tradewinds had adopted a new logo – depicting a soaring bird against a blue sky, with green land below.

There was a new problem for the company though. By the late 1980s, Singapore Airlines had replaced its narrow-body Boeing 727s and 737s with larger wide-body aircraft.

That meant Tradewinds charters were mostly being flown by the mainline carrier’s 180-seat Airbus A310-200s, but these were proving too big for the subsidiary’s needs, especially during the low season.

Airbus A310s were also too large to operate into some airports Tradewinds wanted to offer its customers, because they only had runways suitable for narrow-body jets.

The solution? Tradewinds needed its own smaller planes, with a more suitable capacity fit and capability to take off and land at smaller airports.

The making of an airline

In early 1988, over a decade after first forming and with the blessing of Singapore Airlines, Tradewinds decided to establish itself as an airline in its own right.

Later that year the company applied for its own Air Operator Certificate (AOC) and sourced its first aircraft – a 130-seat McDonnell Douglas MD-87, leased from Ireland’s Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA) on an initial two-year term, with the option to extend to four years.

The jet was originally destined for the Government of Tonga, but the deal fell through and Tradewinds managed to secure it, delivered as 9V-TRY on 15th February 1989. The aircraft had an all-economy configuration in a five-abreast (3-2) layout.

The first Tradewinds MD-87 on 12th February 1989, passing through Shannon, Ireland, en-route to Singapore. (Photo: Malcolm Nanson, with kind permission)

“With the lease of an MD-87 aircraft, Tradewinds is set to develop the tour market as it will have greater flexibility in its operation especially in developing new destinations in the region.”

Tradewinds Charters, 1988

Lessor GPA also supplied pilots and ground engineers to support the new carrier during its startup.

Fun fact: 9V-TRY’s lessor GPA was owned by Irishman Tony Ryan. An industry stalwart, Ryan also became a 16% investor in Tiger Airways Singapore when it was formed 15 years later, in 2003.

Tiger Airways lives on as SIA’s present day low-cost subsidiary Scoot Tigerair (the Scoot AOC was disbanded in 2017).

On 21st February 1989, Tradewinds launched scheduled flights with its sole MD-87 from Singapore Changi Airport to Pattaya, Thailand.

Though no one knew it at the time, SilkAir had been born.

9V-TRY was the first MD-87 in the Asia-Pacific region, and the first on what would eventually become SilkAir’s Air Operator Certificate. (Photo: Magnus Trippler)

Initial schedules for the new jet were:

  • Brunei: 2 x weekly
  • Hat Yai: 4 x weekly
  • Pattaya: 3 x weekly
  • Phuket: 5 x weekly
  • Kuantan: 1 x weekly
Fun fact: Two days before the official launch of scheduled flights, on 19th February 1989, Tradewinds operated a charity flight from Singapore to Phuket on its MD-87 for 60 underprivileged children and their families.

By 1990 Tradewinds had expanded services to destinations including Yangon, Kaohsiung, Jakarta and Phnom Penh.

Tioman flights

The MD-87 wasn’t the only aircraft in the Tradewinds fleet in 1989. The airline was also flying from Singapore’s Seletar Airport to Tioman in the late 1980s, though even the capable MD-87 couldn’t manage to land on the Malaysian island’s small runway.

Instead the airline leased a Republic of Singapore Air Force Short Skyvan 3M to fly the route!

short skyvan 330  Tradewinds 9V-BNJ 1988
(Photo: frolair via Flickr)

Normally used for utility transport and search-and-rescue duties, it could accommodate 19 passengers. One traveller who flew to Tioman on the aircraft in 1989 described the experience:

“Very small box inside with a rather military feel (and smell) and a big net at the back for bags. I admit it was fairly noisy but I liked it.”

Flight to nowhere

In 1989, when SilkAir was still Tradewinds, the airline took 120 passengers on a ‘pleasure flight’ using its MD-87 aircraft from Changi to Changi, over the South China Sea and back. Tickets were priced at around S$100 (S$170 in today’s money).

ADVERTISEMENT

Many of our readers will recall how Singapore Airlines opted not to engage its (grounded) customers with a ‘flight to nowhere’ as part of its Discover Your SIA events in 2020, to much disappointment.

The Tradewinds flight was part of the inaugural Travel World exhibition.

1990: The Boeing 737 era

Tradewinds’ sole MD-87 was serving the airline well, but by the following year the airline decided Boeing’s popular 737-300 model was a better fit for its growth, taking three such aircraft between July 1990 and October 1991.

The Boeing not only burned 13% less fuel on a 1,000-mile flight, it accommodated around 10 more passengers in its wider 3-3 cabin layout.

A Tradewinds Boeing 737-300 at Changi Airport. (Photo: Danny Grew)

The airline’s MD-87 was returned to its lessor at the end of its two-year lease in early 1991.

The birth of SilkAir

In 1992, Singapore Airlines decided to shift its Tradewinds operation into a regional feeder model for the mainline carrier.

US-based Landor Associates was tasked with a corporate rebranding of the airline, and the SilkAir name and logo were born on 1st April 1992.

The airline also launched a new ‘Executive Class’ cabin on the same day, later renamed ‘Business Class’. There were 16 seats in the Executive Class cabin, with a four-abreast configuration, and 106 seats in Economy Class at the regular six-abreast.

The logo retained the stylised seagull adopted in 1988, illustrated soaring against a blue and turquoise background.

Tradewinds will be called SilkAir from 1 April.
It’s more than just a charming new name. Because we’re Singapore’s only Regional Airline and we’ll fly you to nearby and faraway Asian destinations.

Advert in The Straits Times, 22nd March 1992

The Tradewinds name still lived on, as a wholly-owned SIA subsidiary called Tradewinds Tours and Travels, which still exists to this day.

On the frequent flyer side, SilkAir passengers could earn or redeem in the ‘Passages’ programme, and later of course with KrisFlyer miles, though the airline was never a Star Alliance carrier meaning redemptions weren’t possible using alternative mileage currencies.

The new business model saw SilkAir primarily provide connectivity for SIA passengers from long-haul destinations and key regional cities to smaller points in the region, while still offering capacity for Tradewinds’ leisure customers.

The expansion required more aircraft though, and SilkAir went on a buying spree, aiming to increase its fleet to 12 aircraft by 1997.

Silkwinds

Silkwinds, a combination of the airline’s original and new name, was adopted as SilkAir’s complimentary in-flight magazine when the airline was formed in 1992.

Originally produced every other month, the publication eventually became monthly and was produced until April 2020, when it was replaced with SIA’s SilverKris publication, ahead of the eventual merger between the carriers.

If you’re interested, here’s a copy of the last ever Silkwinds edition available for you to download (PDF, 35.7MB):

 Silkwinds April 2020

SilkAir briefly operated wide-bodies

In 1993 SilkAir even introduced its first wide-body aircraft, with a pair of Airbus A310-200s (9V-STM and 9V-STN) leased from Singapore Airlines.

SilkAir had a brief spell operating Airbus A310s, leased from Singapore Airlines. (Photo: CPH Aviation)

The two jets were around eight years old at the time, though their introduction coincided with (and perhaps even contributed to) the airline running into profitability issues, recording losses in 1994, 1995 and 1996.

The carrier decided to return the A310s to SIA in 1995, where they saw out a couple more years’ service before starting a new life with the Belgian Air Force.

Fokker 70s

After experimenting with wide-body capacity, which didn’t seem to be a successful strategy for the carrier, SilkAir went the opposite way with its next aircraft type, leasing a pair of 78-seat Fokker 70s to launch new routes to secondary Indonesian cities.

The first Fokker 70 was delivered in March 1995 and was used to launch flights to Padang, Pekanbaru and Lombok, while the second arrived in November 1995, launching a new service to Ujung Pandang.

SilkAir’s Fokker 70s were the smallest jets operated by the airline. (Photo: Ken Fielding)

The two aircraft remained in SilkAir service until 2000.

1997 crash: MI185

The saddest day in SilkAir’s history was almost certainly 19th December 1997.

That afternoon SilkAir flight MI185 from Jakarta to Singapore, operated by the airline’s youngest Boeing 737-300 aircraft at the time, 9V-TRF, crashed into the Musi River near Palembang on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

All 97 passengers and seven crew members on board were killed, after the aircraft left its usual cruise altitude and descended sharply, impacting the ground within a one-minute period.

“The investigation yielded very limited data and information to make conclusions possible.”

NTSC

The official report by the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee (NTSC) failed to reach a conclusion for the cause of the accident, though the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who were participants in the investigation, vehemently disagreed.

“Based on the evidence, the departure from cruise flight was likely an intentional maneuver.”

U.S. National Transportation Safety Board

On the accident flight, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder stopped operating, at different times and for no apparent reason, just minutes before the aircraft departed level flight and entered a steep vertical dive. According to the NTSB, the CVR was disconnected intentionally.

  1. No airplane-related mechanical malfunctions or failures caused or contributed to the accident, and

  2. The accident can be explained by intentional pilot action. Specifically:

  • the accident airplane’s flight profile is consistent with sustained manual nose-down flight control inputs;
  • the evidence suggests that the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) was intentionally disconnected;
  • recovery of the airplane was possible but not attempted; and
  • it is more likely that the nose-down flight control inputs were made by the Captain than by the First Officer.

Jim Hall
Acting Chairman, NTSB

SilkAir stopped using the MI185 flight number after the accident, a common industry practice. Tiger Airways briefly registered an Airbus A320 9V-TRF in April 2012, but changed it to 9V-TRG before it entered commercial service.

There are two memorials to the 104 victims of MI185, one beside the Musi River crash site in Indonesia and another at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery in Singapore.

MI185 memorial in Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, Singapore. (Photo: sleang / Instagram)

Airbus A320 family

In late 1996 SilkAir was looking to replace and expand its fleet of five Boeing 737-300s with larger aircraft that could fly further, and also plan for a higher capacity type to replace its two Fokker 70s, which were on lease until early 2000.

The airline negotiated with the three primary commercial aircraft manufacturers at the time, with interest focused on the Airbus A319/A320, Boeing 737-600/-700/-800 and McDonnell Douglas MD-90 and MD-95 types.

ADVERTISEMENT

In November 1997, the airline agreed to purchase eight Airbus A320 family aircraft for its fleet renewal; comprising five Airbus A320s to replace its Boeing 737-300s and three Airbus A319s to replace the Fokker 70s.

A SilkAir Airbus A320 on final approach to Phuket in January 2019. (Photo: Sudpoth Sirirattanasakul)

The first Airbus A320 was delivered in September 1998, fitted with 16 Business Class and 126 Economy Class seats, while the smaller Airbus A319s started to arrive the following year, in September 1999, with 12 seats in Business Class and 106 in Economy Class.

By May 2000 SilkAir had moved to an all-Airbus fleet with three Airbus A320s and three Airbus A319s in service, though the type then drove the airline’s biggest growth spurt with future orders expanding SilkAir to 24 aircraft by 2014.

By mid-2000, the Airbus A319 had become SilkAir’s smallest aircraft in the fleet, with 118 seats. (Photo: Kentaro Iemoto)

Later versions of the A319s and A320s delivered from 2004 saw the carrier move to a smaller Business Class section and additional Economy Class seats, with 8J/120Y on the A319s and 12J/138Y on the A320s.

While they were in the process of being phased out, a handful of Airbus A319s and A320s remained in service with SilkAir until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

2001: Female pilots

Believe it or not, Singapore had no female airline pilots until 2001, when Anastasia Gan Kum Yoke qualified and joined SilkAir, becoming the first female pilot in the SIA Group.

Anastasia was appointed as an Airbus A320 First Officer with the airline, later leaving in 2004 to Jetstar Asia where she became a Captain and then to Tiger Airways.

SilkAir’s Captain Vanessa Ess and Senior First Officer Sharon Walker flying to Phuket on International Women’s Day in March 2016. (Photo: SilkAir)

Vanessa Ess, pictured above, was the first female to be accepted on SilkAir’s cadet pilot programme in 2001. A former flight attendant, she rose to the rank of Captain for the airline.

Remarkably, Singapore Airlines did not hire its first female pilot until 2016, 15 years after the regional wing.

2005: Video-on-demand IFE

In January 2005, two years before the first iPhone was even announced, SilkAir became the first Asia-Pacific airline to provide portable video-on-demand in-flight entertainment systems to its passengers.

The device, a digEplayer 5500, clearly looks archaic by today’s standards, but at the time its 11 full-length movies, four TV shows, 80 audio tracks and six music videos was pioneering on a short-haul narrow-body aircraft.

SilkAir’s digEplayer 5500 was also used by other airlines including Alaska. (Photo: Jeffrey Beall via flickr)

The digEplayer was available on SilkAir’s longer flights:

  • Between Singapore and China (Xiamen, Fuzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunming)  
  • Between Singapore and India (Hydrabad, Trivandrum, Kochi)

The device was complimentary for Business Class passengers and offered at a fee for those travelling in Economy Class.

ADVERTISEMENT

The device was short-lived of course, like it was with most airlines.

The airline later adopted SilkAir Studio in May 2014, allowing streaming of content to personal mobile devices from an onboard file server.

SilkAir Studio. (Photo: SilkAir)

The system is still used on former SilkAir Boeing 737-800s operating for Singapore Airlines, but is now branded as KrisWorld. In Business Class, passengers receive an iPad to stream the content on flights greater than two hours.

Boeing 737-800s and MAX 8s

In August 2012, after 12 years as an all-Airbus operator, SilkAir made a surprise switch back to Boeing with a large order for 23 Boeing 737-800s and 31 Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, for expansion and fleet replacement.

It was the airline’s single biggest aircraft purchase, worth US$4.9 billion at list prices, and was seen as a big win for Boeing since by then SilkAir was regarded as a long-time Airbus customer.

Airbus claimed it lost out to its rival only because it couldn’t offer early delivery slots, but there’s always a possibility of ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they’!

Earlier that year, Boeing was said to be handing out attractive discounts for its 737 MAX aircraft to gain market share, in a move Airbus described as “trying to start a price war”. SilkAir was no doubt one beneficiary!

The first Boeing 737-800 was delivered to SilkAir on 4th February 2014, with 12 Business Class and 150 Economy Class seats, giving it 8% more capacity than the airline’s A320s.

9V-MGA was SilkAir’s first Boeing 737-800. The aircraft wore a special 25th anniversary livery, in celebration of the first Tradewinds flights. (Photo: Azimi Iahra)

We flew on the aircraft in February 2020, which turned out to be our last flight before COVID-19 scuppered all subsequent travel plans.