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Has Singapore Airlines spotted a travel bubble opportunity with its Manchester relaunch?

Singapore Airlines' return to Manchester next month will also be its ticket to join a potential travel bubble far from home - between the UK and the USA.

With Singapore Airlines continuing its gradual network resumption as countries relax travel restrictions, especially in Europe and North America, the carrier has announced it is restarting one of its longstanding routes between Changi and Manchester, UK.

Flights will initially operate three times weekly in both directions from mid-July, using an Airbus A350 Long Haul aircraft.

“Manchester and the northwest region have been a key part of our route network for over 30 years, so while it was never our intention to have an enforced break in service as has happened due to the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic, we are delighted to be able to make our return.

“As restrictions slowly ease, our dedicated Manchester staff are excited to welcome our customers back once more and we look forward to continuing our longstanding and deep connection with the city of Manchester and its surroundings.”

Mohamed Rafi Mar

General Manager, UK and Ireland, Singapore Airlines

With most travel restrictions still in force and multiple flights each week to nearby London Heathrow, we take a look at why SIA might be making an early return to Manchester.

SIA’s last Manchester flights

As the pandemic took hold in 2020, Singapore Airlines operated its last Manchester – Singapore flight on 25th March 2020, landing back into Changi the following morning.

SIA’s last flight from Manchester landed in Changi on 26th March 2020. (Photo: Plane’s Portrait Aviation Media / Malcolm Lu)

The Houston extension of the route had already been culled a few days earlier, with the last Manchester – Houston – Manchester flight operating on 20th March 2020.

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Given that Singapore Airlines is operating 18 weekly flights to London Heathrow each week in July, it seems slightly illogical to reopen the Manchester route before international travel has been relaxed – given the air, road and rail links available between the two UK cities.

However, there are some good reasons it makes sense for Singapore Airlines to return to Manchester now, including a potentially lucrative one in the months ahead.

The schedule

The regular SQ52 service from Singapore to Manchester will be slimmed down from its pre-COVID five-times weekly operation to just three days a week initially.

Departure from Changi is in the early hours of the morning on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, for an 8.30am arrival after a flight time of 13 hours 45 minutes.

Between Manchester and Singapore departure is at 11am on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, landing into Changi at 7am the following morning after a flight time of 13 hours.

From 16th July 2021

  Days
M T W T F S S
SQ52
A350-900
     
SIN
01:45
MAN
08:30
SQ51
A350-900
       
MAN
11:00
SIN
07:00*

* Next day

Singapore Airlines is deploying its three-class Airbus A350 Long Haul jets on Manchester services. (Photo: Felix Kalin)

Who can travel?

Singapore is on the UK’s ‘green list’ for travel, meaning those arriving in Manchester (and London) from the Lion City do not need to quarantine on arrival, provided they have remained in Singapore or another ‘green list’ country for at least the preceding 10 days.

A pre-departure and post-arrival COVID-19 test is still required.

In the opposite direction unfortunately it’s less simple. While the UK government now officially sanctions travel to its ‘green list’ countries like Singapore, the arrival restrictions in the Lion City remain ‘status quo’.

That means those flying from the UK into Singapore are still subject to 21 days SHN (hotel quarantine). You can pick your own hotel, if you pay extra for a suite! Additionally, only Singapore nationals and residents are eligible to enter the country from the UK.

The non-stop SIN-MAN advantage

Those travelling from Singapore to the UK are currently reluctant to use Middle East carriers like Emirates, with the UAE and Qatar both on the UK’s ‘red list’.

Making a transit stop in these countries means following the ‘red list’ arrival restrictions – even if you originated in a green or amber country prior to your transit – which means 10 days in hotel quarantine on arrival in the UK.

Using an ‘ME3’ carrier to reach the UK currently guarantees you a place in hotel quarantine for 10 days, regardless of where you started your journey

Even a transit routing on Cathay Pacific adds complexity, with the airline’s Hong Kong hub on the UK’s ‘amber list’, meaning 10 days of home quarantine on arrival (though you can probably ‘get out of jail free’ after five days under the ‘Test to Release’ scheme).

That means those currently travelling from Singapore to Manchester are mostly taking non-stop flights with British Airways or Singapore Airlines to London, and then making their onward journey from there, to enjoy quarantine-free status.

In particular, transit passengers flying from Australia and New Zealand (both ‘green list’ countries) already have to transit at least once on their journey to the UK, so those ultimately heading for Manchester will be very keen to use this new link to avoid additional hassle at the very end of a long journey, while of course still retaining quarantine-free privileges.

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Even those travelling from ‘amber list’ countries in Asia, like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, will not want to downgrade their arrival status to forced hotel quarantine (‘red list’) by transiting in the likes of Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, so they too will aim to transit in places like Singapore if their final destination is Manchester.

This new service will therefore likely have some decent demand from those looking for an even more direct routing to their final destination, while retaining their all-important ‘green’ or ‘amber’ arrival conditions.

UK residents can travel overseas

With popular destinations like Phuket welcoming vaccinated tourists from July, and Bali planning a similar scheme later in the year, Singapore Airlines will be hoping to tap into some leisure travel demand for tourists from the UK willing to transit through Changi.

Phuket will welcome vaccinated tourists from the UK next month. (Photo: Sri-Panwa)

Though in both cases these countries are on the UK’s ‘amber list’, where the government says they “should not travel”, thousands are doing so anyway, with a maximum 10-day quarantine period at their place of residence and two COVID-19 tests required on their return home an acceptable trade-off for those who can work remotely, or are retired.

This will be another small source of passengers for SIA’s Manchester flights.

Houston isn’t included… yet!

The reinstated SQ52/51 route will start without its former “fifth freedom” extension between Manchester and Houston, but that’s where things potentially get interesting.

A rumoured travel corridor opening up between the UK and the US this summer could allow the airline to quickly jump on what might become one of its first ‘jewels in the crown’ since the pandemic hit – an ‘Air Travel Bubble’ far from home.

Manchester to Houston is SIA’s only UK-US “fifth freedom” service

As you may have noticed from the schedule outlined above, SIA’s A350 will rest in Manchester for over 26 hours before operating its return service to Singapore. That’s 80 hours a week doing absolutely nothing, nearly 7,000 miles away from home base.

It means the airline has allowed perfect timing for the same aircraft to continue its service from Manchester to Houston, without affecting the Singapore – Manchester schedule.

Such a continuation, three days per week, would look like this:

Potential Houston extension

  Days
M T W T F S S
SQ52
A350-900
     
SIN
01:45
MAN
08:30
SQ52
A350-900
       
MAN
10:05
IAH
15:25
SQ51
A350-900
       
IAH
18:50
MAN
09:30*
SQ51
A350-900
       
MAN
11:00
SIN
07:00*

* Next day

As you can see, the three Singapore – Manchester – Singapore flights each week are not impacted at all by the addition of a Manchester – Houston – Manchester extension.

Fun fact: Prior to COVID-19, SQ52 from Singapore to Houston was SIA’s longest direct service on the network (same aircraft, same flight number), clocking in at 25 hours and 5 minutes.

In welcoming the route’s return, Manchester Airport’s Managing Director specifically mentioned working towards the Houston extension as soon as t