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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.

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.

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 travel between the UK and US is possible again.

“We are pleased to hear Singapore Airlines will be resuming its direct service from Manchester next month. Singapore Airlines is one of our longest serving airlines and we know its routes have been extremely popular with passengers from across the North over the years, both in terms of leisure and business travel.

“We look forward to working with our colleagues at Singapore Airlines to make this returning service a success, especially given the destination’s inclusion on the UK Government’s green list.

“Together, we hope to be able to relaunch the popular Houston service as soon as possible once travel to and from the United States is opened up.”

Karen Smart

Managing Director, Manchester Airport

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was recently reported to be keen to persuade U.S. President Joe Biden to open a UK-US quarantine-free air corridor for fully vaccinated travellers, but earlier this week the UK and the US went one step further – setting up a formal ‘taskforce’ to work on the resumption of flights between the two countries.

Recently a Forbes travel writer outlined several theories about when UK-US travel will restart, but effectively almost all of them mean Singapore Airlines should be able to take advantage sooner rather than later with a MAN-IAH-MAN routing.

At the time of writing over 29 million UK residents and over 141 million US residents (over 43% of the population in both cases) are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, potentially opening up a ripe market for transatlantic travel demand that SIA will be keen to capitalise on.

UK and US residents could be among the first to enjoy quarantine-free leisure travel on Singapore Airlines, if a rumoured transatlantic ‘green corridor’ kicks off soon. (Photo: High Tech Flight)

Manchester to Houston and back is SIA’s first and only UK-US “fifth freedom” route, and prior to COVID-19 it was the sole operator on the city pair.

It is therefore SIA’s sole opportunity to capitalise on this potential upcoming all-purpose travel corridor.

Of course, there would be little point in extending the Manchester flight to Houston now, since the US is not accepting non-resident visitors from the UK and quarantine is required for those moving in the opposite direction, meaning the “fifth freedom” service would simply fly empty and bleed cash.

Houston was SIA’s first US city to be served from the UK under a “fifth freedom” arrangement. (Photo: Vlad Busuioc)

Once a ‘bubble’ or ‘corridor’ arrangement is in place though, you can bet your bottom dollar SIA isn’t going to miss out.

With limited traffic to and from Singapore all the way to Houston, the popular MAN-IAH route was always dominated by UK-US traffic, including strong support from the oil and gas industry.

Fun fact: According to UK CAA statistics, Singapore Airlines carried 6,915 passengers solely between Manchester and Houston in July 2019, an average of 157 per flight (62% of total capacity).

The airline would kill for load factors like that right now!

If a UK-US ‘travel corridor’ is agreed upon, and SIA relaunches its Manchester – Houston extension to take advantage, the airline may need impose fully vaccinated status as a requirement for Singapore – Houston passengers, since they would mix with Manchester – Houston passengers on the transatlantic part of the journey.

SIA also has a longstanding transatlantic “fifth freedom” flight between Frankfurt and New York, however this would probably require a wider EU-US travel corridor to be forged before being restarted, given the current restrictions.

The UK left the EU in January 2020.

SIA and Manchester

With the key Singapore – London Heathrow link maintained by Singapore Airlines throughout COVID-19, it’s not been too surprising to see Manchester left off the route map for some time, since domestic flights and rail links are readily available between the two UK cities.

We always knew Manchester would eventually return though, since it’s been a key part of SIA’s network for 35 years.

In fact Singapore Airlines is Manchester Airport’s longest serving long-haul carrier, having launched flights at the UK airport in 1986 after three years of fighting to get rights from the UK government.

The carrier has offered regular Manchester service ever since, apart from during the recent gap due to COVID-19.

Over the years the airline has operated several aircraft types to and from the city:

  • Boeing 747-300 (1986-1994)
  • Boeing 747-400 (1994-2003)
  • Boeing 777-200ER (2003-2010)
  • Boeing 777-300ER (2010-2017)
  • Airbus A350-900 (2017 onwards)
SIA’s first Manchester flight, using a Boeing 747-300 Combi!

Services have operated via cities including Dubai, Athens, Zurich and Munich over the years, before upgrading to non-stop in 2016.

That coincided with SIA’s 30th year of Manchester operations, with the airline also launching its first ever UK-US “fifth freedom” route between Manchester and Houston.

Initially the airline operated the Singapore – Manchester – Houston service using Boeing 777-300ERs, but in January 2017 it switched to the Airbus A350, making SIA the first airline in the world to operate the type on commercial flights from Manchester.

Redemption rates

These are the one-way KrisFlyer miles redemption rates for flights between Singapore and Manchester on SIA flights, which are also applicable for the airline’s other Europe zone destinations.

KrisFlyer Redemption Rates
Singapore ⇆ Manchester
  Saver Advantage
Economy 38,000 70,000
Premium Economy 64,500 n/a
Business 92,000 120,000

If the expected extension of the route to Houston proceeds, the following rates apply.

KrisFlyer Redemption Rates
Singapore ⇆ Houston
  Saver Advantage
Economy 40,000 75,000
Premium Economy 73,000 n/a
Business 99,000 140,000
KrisFlyer Redemption Rates
 Manchester ⇆ Houston
  Saver Advantage
Economy 22,500 40,000
Premium Economy 47,000 n/a
Business 72,000 85,000

In particular the Economy Class Saver award rate between Manchester and Houston is really competitive for a 10-hour flight, if you can manage a long daytime sector ‘down the back’!

Travel-starved Brits probably won’t baulk at the idea of parting with 72,000 KrisFlyer miles each way in Business Class on this route either.


 

 

Summary

On the face of it, returning to Manchester while border restrictions at its home base remain unchanged seems a strange decision for Singapore Airlines.

That’s especially true while the carrier operates 18 times per week to and from London Heathrow – well linked by air, road and rail to the rest of the UK.

However, there are several good reasons to rekindle non-stop Manchester flights, including the opportunity for those travelling to the UK or returning home to enjoy another quarantine-free option with a transit in Singapore, while Middle East carriers are on ‘the naughty list’.

On the other hand the new route occupies the equivalent of almost an entire Airbus A350 Long Haul flying schedule for one aircraft. There are only 168 hours in a week and this schedule requires an aircraft to be away from Singapore – either flying or sitting on the ground in Manchester – for 161 hours a week.

It reasonably follows that SIA has its sights set on tapping the fortunes of a potential transatlantic restart, via the only UK-US route it has access to; Manchester to Houston.

The airline is effectively putting an aircraft in ‘standby mode’ to quickly relaunch that fifth freedom flight, once a green light is given for a US-UK ‘green travel corridor’.

If that happens soon, the Manchester – Houston route could become an unexpected first ‘jewel in the crown’ for SIA’s post-pandemic recovery.

Ultimately, a rare opportunity for the carrier to enjoy healthy load factors and drive strong revenue, given the continued restrictions at its home base… even if the Singapore – Manchester part of the route doesn’t quite pay its way for now.

(Cover Photo: Shutterstock)

3 comments

  1. I love your enthusiasm and really really hope there is a travel arangement with the UK coming.
    I think you forgot to account for two things:
    1) UK is (very likely to be) pausing the last relaxation of measures expected in 21 June because of the delta variant. Highly unlikly Singapore would be keen to open up to them while UK considers the situation bad enough to not continue oppening up.
    2) One thing you forgot to account on why the route is relaunching and drives massive traffic June-Dec in those route is university students. The MAN airport catchment area includes many of the most popular UK universities for SIN/SEAsia students, and wanting to tap on that market right now makes a lot of sense

  2. I wonder… Could a nonstop Houston be as viable as the sometimes empty nonstop to New York, otherwise why go via Manchester? DIdn’t Singapore Airlines buy some new plastic plane by Airbus to make routes like Houston or Vancouver possible nonstop?

    1. SIN-IAH nonstop is possible on the A350ULR but not really commercially viable even pre-COVID due to limited demand.

      Most IAH pax on SQ are actually energy industry (oil & gas) staff routing to/from MAN, not SIN.

      This is the part of the route that could earn them some serious coin if a UK-US travel corridor opens up this summer. 👍🏼

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