According to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2019 Singapore Airlines flew 1.1 million passengers to and from a network of six airports in the USA, on over 5,600 passenger flights, each of which was 80% full on average.
By January 2020 over half of SIA’s flights between Changi and America didn’t even need to make a stop on the way, a far cry from the inaugural service in 1979, which stopped twice on the way to San Francisco and three times on the way back.
Wind the clock back to early 1979, however, and you’ll find the airline had zero presence in one of the fastest growing and most important aviation markets in the world.
Here’s part one of the story outlining how Singapore Airlines not only fought political hurdles to fly passengers to and from the US, but successfully made it a jewel in the crown for its operations, including world firsts with non-stop flights that continue to push aviation boundaries to this day.
It was a long time coming
SIA’s ambitions to fly to the USA started even before the airline gained its current name. Negotiations began in 1970 when the carrier was still Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA), which then split into two separate carriers – Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines System – in 1972.
With the airline already operating to Europe and Australia, in addition to its regional routes, North America seemed like an obvious target for further expansion.
Things weren’t set to be simple, however. It took Singapore Airlines more than nine years to win rights to fly between Singapore and the USA.
The original plan was to start a service in 1975, either to the airline’s preferred option San Francisco, or to Los Angeles, but SIA could not convince the US Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) to grant permission for a viable route.
Talks were continually scuppered by the strong American stance of protecting its own national carriers at the time, like Pan Am, on transpacific routes. In turn Singapore, they argued, was also blocking US carriers from securing “fifth freedom” rights on intra-Asia routes to and from the Lion City, like Singapore – Manila and Singapore – Hong Kong.
Talks stalled in August 1976 when the US CAB reportedly insisted that Singapore Airlines would have to fly “in parallel” with Pan Am services to earn approval, on a Singapore – Guam – Honolulu – San Francisco routing.
Tokyo was the stumbling block
While there’s nothing wrong with Guam or Honolulu, Singapore Airlines rightly saw no commerical opportunity there, with very few passengers to pick up in these smaller stopover locations and no traffic rights on the intra-US legs.
Without non-stop capability from Singapore to the US in the 1970s, SIA needed to be able to drop off and pick up new passengers at an intermediate transit point for any route to be commercially viable.
Hong Kong or Taipei were options, but the airline really wanted to fly via Tokyo.
This was the most lucrative transit point at the time, so no surprise that the US CAB thought giving SIA rights on Tokyo – US services would eat into Pan Am’s profits, despite Japan already giving the green light.
What frightens Pan Am and others is that Singapore Airlines is a startlingly successful operation that generates only about 5% of its revenues from its home base…
[SIA] made $16 million in pretax profits in 1976 and has assets of about $400 million. It operates a fleet of 20 Boeing jets, five of them jumbos.
By big international standards it remains a small carrier, but it was built in less than a decade, and the Singapore Airlines management team is, in the words of one business review, “the envy of aviation executives all over the world.”The Los Angeles Times, 23rd January 1977
“Singapore is losing patience”
Little progress was being made, and by February 1977 SIA’s latest plan to start flying to the US by April that year was well and truly off the table.
The Asian Wall Street Journal reported that the Singapore government was threatening to rescind Pan Am’s rights to fly to and from the country, if SIA was blocked from flying to the US on a viable route.
“The U.S. hasn’t been constructive,” one senior official said, and “I think it is going to be painful for Pan Am.”Pacific Daily News, 5th February 1977
Pan Am had been flying scheduled services between the USA and Singapore for 31 years at the time, and its lucrative cargo flights also faced the chop if the Singapore government stuck to its word.
Talks resumed in March 1977, and were said to be “friendly”, despite being planned to last five days and ending after only four. With no agreement reached, the US negotiating team headed home a day early.
Singapore’s Minister for Finance later revealed that the US side wanted Singapore to obtain landing rights for “a US flag carrier” (likely Pan Am) in both Indonesia and the Philippines, in return for an agreement for SIA to be allowed to fly to America.
“Protectionism is in the air. Even a country as successful as the United States of America is reluctant to give us a viable route to its west coast.”J. Y. M. Pillay, Singapore Airlines Chairman, addressing SIA staff at the carrier’s 30th anniversary dinner on 1st May 1977
Another set of talks was agreed for three months later in Washington, though these were delayed initially until August and then to September.
Finally on 27th September 1977 an agreement was reached between the two sides, at the seventh round of talks.
A Tokyo routing was not part of the deal, but SIA was cleared to operate on a route to San Francisco via Hong Kong, Guam and Honolulu three times per week, with the carrier originally hoping to get started by the end of 1978.
“Eventually in 1977, nine months after President Carter assumed power and a more liberal regime was instituted, we won our rights.”J. Y. M. Pillay, Singapore Airlines Chairman, via The Straits Times
There was permission to fly four times a week from 1979 and five times a week from 1980.
In return, Pan Am would be able to operate “fifth freedom” passenger flights from Hong Kong to Singapore, a more lucrative extension of its USA service via Guam, with the same frequencies.
California here we come
On 19th July 1978, Singapore Airlines painted one of its Boeing 747-200s with special “California here we come” titles, to promote the new San Francisco flight, now planned to start in 1979.
SIA saw it as such an important milestone in its history (“the final frontier” as chairman J. Y. M. Pillay said at the time), this special livery made its way onto all seven of the airline’s Boeing 747-200s, six Boeing 727s and four DC-10s.
By early 1979 Singapore Airlines had seriously stepped up its “California here we come” marketing campaign, with billboards along Orchard Road, giveaway bags and stickers, and branding on ticket sleeves.
Contests with Cold Storage and Metro supermarkets included free tickets to the USA as top prizes.
In March 1979 seven Hawaiian dancers and US singers ‘The Bon-Bons’ flew across to Singapore to perform for over two weeks at Singapore’s Hilton Hotel, while SIA’s North America staff and a group of ‘Singapore Girls’ toured America’s travel agents with promotional materials.
Singaporean singer Anita Sarawak also flew to the US, to perform inaugural celebrations in seven cities, including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Honolulu.
The plane they wanted wasn’t ready
Now that Singapore Airlines had approval to fly to San Francisco, there was another stumbling block.
The airline had intended to use its Boeing 747-200 ‘Super B’ aircraft to operate to the US, but those new jets wouldn’t arrive until approximately September 1979.
Its older Boeing 747-200s in the fleet were already busy flying to Europe and Australia, established and competitive markets on which SIA was not keen to cut capacity by reallocating them to the USA.
They also had less powerful 46,000lb thrust engines, while the ‘Super Bs’ would have 52,000lb engines, for full passenger and cargo capability on longer non-stop flights like Honolulu to Hong Kong.
Enter the DC-10
The airline came up with a new plan – start the route in April 1979 using its wide-body McDonnell Douglas DC-10s.
Three of these were already in service with the airline, having been purchased to operate higher density intra-Asia and Pacific routes like Singapore to Osaka, Manila, Perth and Auckland.
With 268 seats (24 in First Class with a 2-2-2 configuration and 244 in Economy Class with a 2-5-2 configuration), it wasn’t quite the capacity the airline wanted.
There would also be an additional stop in Guam on the leg from Honolulu to Hong Kong (i.e. on the trip back towards Singapore), due to prevailing headwinds, but at least it got the airline started on US routes in the peak summer travel period, before the new 747 Super-Bs could take over.
1979: The first service
On Wednesday 4th April 1979 the inaugural flight departed Paya Lebar for San Francisco, via Hong Kong and Honolulu. It then operated three times a week – every Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.