History Singapore Airlines

A history of SIA’s USA flights – Part 2: Bigger Jumbos and The Big Apple

In the 1980s and 90s Singapore Airlines quadrupled its USA flights, introduced 'MEGATOP' 747s on its routes, ditched Hawaii stopovers, and added not just one New York airport to the schedules, but two.

Welcome to our second instalment covering the history of Singapore Airlines’ flights to and from the USA. For the full story make sure you’ve checked out our first part in this series, which examined the inaugural services and initial ramp-up of flights.

We wound up Part 1 with Singapore Airlines running nine times weekly all-Boeing 747 service to and from the USA in December 1980, having finally won rights not only to serve San Francisco via Honolulu but also Los Angeles via Taipei and Los Angeles through the more lucrative Tokyo transit point.

(click to enlarge)

In common with the rest of the airline’s routes, USA flights moved from Paya Lebar (Singapore International Airport) to Singapore Changi Airport when it opened in July 1981.

The politics continued

There was a fair amount of political wrangling in Part 1 of this series, but if you thought that’s where the politics ended, you’d be wrong.

ADVERTISEMENT

Pan Am was still fiercely fighting any further route concessions for Singapore Airlines. The carrier argued SIA was government subsidised and competing at an unfair advantage with “bottomless pockets”, against heavily loss-making US carriers.

In 1982 Pan Am made its feelings known at a US subcommittee hearing on aviation policy, arguing against SIA’s application to increase its Singapore – Los Angeles flights via Tokyo from three to five times a week, and the airline wasn’t pulling any punches.

“Granting the amendment would simply permit SIA to introduce excess capacity into the market. While this strategy is one that has been used effectively in the past by foreign government-supported airlines in order to secure a larger share of the market, it should not be encouraged by the U.S. Government at the expense of privately owned carriers who must make decisions based on profitability…

“SIA can serve the United States without serving Japan…

“Granting SIA additional authority to serve Tokyo will only encourage it to add capacity in the U.S.-Japan market, which is already characterized by excess capacity, and discourage it from continuing its Honolulu – Asia direct services.”

Pan Am’s testimony to the US subcommittee hearing on aviation policy, July 1982
In the early 1980s, Pan Am was vehemently trying to stop SIA’s expansion in the US. (Photo: clipperarctic via Flickr)

Pan Am was even asking for the existing temporary authority SIA had won, to operate Los Angeles flights via Tokyo three times per week, to be withdrawn.

“Pan American World Airways, Inc., respectfully requests that the board deny SIA application to amend its exemption authority and revoke SIA’s existing temporary authority to serve the Tokyo-U.S. market.”

Pan Am’s testimony to the US subcommittee hearing on aviation policy, July 1982

Thankfully for Singapore Airlines, the US did not concede to Pan Am’s insistence that SIA’s Tokyo transit rights be completely removed, but an expansion to five times weekly was denied and the service remained stuck at three times per week.

By July 1982, however, the airline had managed to get approval to add a fifth weekly SQ1/2 service on the Singapore – Hong Kong – Honolulu – San Francisco route.

Oops! On 18th March 1983, a Singapore Airlines Boeing 747-200 arriving at Los Angeles International Airport as SQ16 from Singapore via Taipei and Honolulu with 354 passengers and 21 crew on board collided with an Eastern Airways Lockheed L1011 TriStar, while taxiing to its parking gate.

The wing of the SIA jet struck the tail engine of the TriStar, which was stationary at the time and had 211 people on board.

No one was injured but the impact left debris on the taxiway and according to reports caused “somewhat more than minor damage”.

(Source: The Montgomery Advertiser, 19th March 1983)
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the pilots for the incident, but also added it was “just an unfortunate situation”.

BIG TOPs (747-300s)

On 29th April 1983 Singapore Airlines took delivery of its first Boeing 747-300, nicknamed ‘BIG TOP’ thanks to its extended upper deck, which also allowed space for an impressive 422-seat total capacity.

9V-SKA, SIA’s first Boeing 747-300 ‘BIG TOP’. (Photo: Singapore Airlines)

The USA was the airline’s first target for the new jets, and on Thursday 5th May 1983 SIA’s first Boeing 747-300 commercial flight replaced a Boeing 747-200B on the Singapore – Tokyo – Los Angeles route (SQ11/12) three days per week.

It was quick succession for the next route, with Sunday 19th June 1983 marking the second Big Top service on the flagship SQ1/2 from Singapore to San Francisco via Hong Kong and Honolulu.

ADVERTISEMENT

The third ‘BIG TOP’ was due by mid-July 1983 to bring the Singapore – Tokyo – Los Angeles route (SQ11/12) to five times weekly, but political wranglings meant that frequency change didn’t happen until two years later.

Pay Economy, fly Business

In mid-1983, to promote its stretched upper deck ‘BIG TOPs’ with 40 Business Class seats (plus an additional 14 on the main deck), Singapore Airlines ran a special promotion allowing those originating in Los Angeles or San Francisco to book a Business Class ticket for the price of a full-fare Economy Class one.

The surcharge for Business Class was usually 10% in those days.

(Source: The Journal News, 15th May 1983)

Business Class service on the 747-300 upper deck

More politics!

More complication was in store for Singapore Airlines’ desired expansion of service to and from the USA, and this time it was the British holding things up. In 1982 Singapore and Britain had commenced a series of air talks, that by early 1984 had largely fallen through.

Why would that affect SIA’s expansion on US services, you might ask?

Well Hong Kong was still under British rule at the time, and while the US CAB had already approved daily operation by Singapore Airlines to San Francisco via Honolulu, the British were obstructing an increase from five times weekly on the Hong Kong – Honolulu part of the route.

Britain was trying to equalise the earnings of Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Singapore Airlines on routes covered by their air services agreement, while SIA argued for equal opportunities on a service that would be beneficial for Hong Kong, and didn’t even compete with Cathay Pacific at the time.

In January 1984 an agreement was reached and the flagship SQ1/2 San Francisco service could finally operate every day of the week from April that year.

In return Singapore Airlines had to give up seven weekly fifth freedom services from Hong Kong, to Bangkok and Tokyo, but retained fifth freedom traffic rights on the lucrative Hong Kong – Taipei route.

The first Boeing 747-300 ‘BIG TOP’ arrived in the SIA fleet in April 1983. (Photo: Singapore Airlines)

Los Angeles lifts

Finally from 29th October 1985 Singapore Airlines was able to increase its Los Angeles via Tokyo flights to five times a week, three years after first requesting the change.

With the Los Angeles via Taipei and Honolulu routes already increased to three times per week, the airline was then offering 15 services in total per week to and from the USA, all using the Boeing 747-300s.

(click to enlarge)

“There is a lot of demand for travel on this route as it’s the shortest possible way to Los Angeles.

“We’re preparing for daily flights by 1987.”

SIA spokesman, October 1985

True to its word, SIA gained approval and hiked its Singapore – Los Angeles via Tokyo flights to daily from April 1987.

Singapore Airlines was flying Boeing 747-300s to the USA 17 times per week by April 1987, including daily flights to Los Angeles via Tokyo. (Photo: Aero Icarus)

MEGATOPs (747-400s)

The Boeing 747-300 was a relatively short-lived variant of the jumbo jet. Only 81 were ever built, 14 of which were operated by Singapore Airlines.

Technical advancements meant the type was quickly surpassed by the Boeing 747-400 (694 of these were built), which had 2,500km more range, more modern engines, and required only two pilots (no flight engineer).

Enter the MEGATOP. (Photo: wilco737 via Flickr)

Following some production delays, Singapore Airlines took delivery of its first Boeing 747-400 ‘MEGATOP’ in Seattle on 18th March 1989. It became the second Asian carrier to do so, with Cathay Pacific picking up the keys to its first model a few months earlier, in late 1988.

A Singapore Airlines Boeing 747-400 ‘MEGATOP’. (Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt)

Singapore Airlines saw an opportunity to score an accolade ahead of its regional rival, however. The Boeing 747-400 was the first aircraft type capable of flying from the west coast of the US to Hong Kong non-stop, and once it had more of the aircraft in its fleet Cathay Pacific was certain to take advantage.

ADVERTISEMENT

After a week of crew training flights in Seattle, Singapore Airlines flew its first MEGATOP (9V-SMB) not to Singapore but to San Francisco, where it would then take part in a record-breaking feat by replacing a Boeing 747-300 on the SQ1 service and skipping the Honolulu stop en-route to Hong Kong.

A Singapore Airlines Boeing 747-400 ‘MEGATOP’. (Photo: Christian Junker)

On 27th March 1989 SIA therefore became the first carrier to fly the Boeing 747-400 on a commercial flight across the Pacific, and the airline was happy to crow about it, taking out full-page newspaper adverts across the world.

(Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

It was just a one-off at the time, with the airline’s initial batch of Boeing 747-400s then being used to allow non-stop Singapore – London flights (747-300s still needed to stop on the way). The type was also deployed on Australia flights, giving passengers from Sydney a one-stop service to London on the ‘kangaroo route’ with the airline’s latest cabin products.

For a trip back in time, here’s SIA’s 1989 promotional video for the Boeing 747-400 MEGATOP.

SIA to the rescue

On 3rd August 1989, the three pilots of SQ11, a Boeing 747-300 flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo, picked up a distress signal from the crew of an overturned boat 480km from land over the Pacific Ocean, while monitoring the international emergency frequency.

SIA Captain Sam Cabbabe, First Officer S. K. Leong and Flight Engineer Y. K. Cheong all heard the signal at the same time and the crew notified air traffic controllers in Oakland, resulting in the US Coast Guard dispatching a successful search and rescue effort.

“The signal was not detected by the Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (Sarsat) system, therefore, SQ11’s report was the only notification we received of the distress.

“Your flight crew’s diligence and professionalism triggered a series of events which culminated in the successful rescue of five mariners in distress.”

Rear-Admiral J. W. Kime, US Coast Guard

MEGATOPs to the USA

In December 1989, following delivery of its fifth Boeing 747-400, Singapore Airlines commenced regular MEGATOP flights to the USA.

The new jumbos replaced Boeing 747-300s on the ‘flagship’ (SQ1/2) daily Singapore – Hong Kong – San Francisco service. This allowed SIA to cut out the Honolulu stop on that routing from 8th January 1990.

That route would then be served by the MEGATOPs for almost exactly 19 years, the airline’s longest continuous US service using the same aircraft type, before switching to Boeing 777-300ERs in January 2009.

Hello New York

Beyond San Francisco and Los Angeles, the early 1990s saw Singapore Airlines finally take its first bite of “The Big Apple”, when it extended its Singapore – Brussels and Singapore – Frankfurt flights to New York’s JFK Airport.

From Thursday 1st July 1992, Boeing 747-400s operated the route six times weekly initially, three via Germany and the other three via Belgium.

SIA became the only airline in the world to serve the Far East from the USA via both the westbound Pacific and the eastbound Atlantic routes.

Here’s SIA’s TV ad promoting the service:

The airline promised New York to Singapore in “just 21 hours”, the fastest possible routing between the two cities at the time.

Fun fact: Today’s non-stop New York – Singapore flights aren’t actually that much quicker. The journey is scheduled at 18 hours 50 minutes, not a huge saving.

On the evening of Thursday 2nd July 1992, after the inaugural flight had landed, the airline put on an impressive 45-minute fireworks display at the Brooklyn Bridge over New York’s East River to celebrate the new service, just part of a S$10m publicity drive.

Daily News, New York, 1 July 1992

Not everyone was impressed, as some newspaper columns indicated at the time!

“Under the guise of Columbus Quincentennial activities, City Hall has agreed to allow fireworks from the Brooklyn Bridge on Thursday to coincide with the kick-off of a Singapore Airlines campaign.

“A million people will be inconvenienced at city expense to promote the airline.”

Daily News New York, 28th June 1992

“Wanna buy the Brooklyn Bridge? Well, Singapore Airlines did buy it – rented it, for Thursday, anyway, and the night’s fireworks – and not since the Dutch bought Manhattan for $24 has there been such a fleecing in New Amsterdam.

“The losers in the deal will be the pedestrians, bike riders and motorists who will be banned from the bridge Thursday.”

Daily News New York, 30th June 1992

Can’t please everyone I suppose!

There were bigger problems for Singapore Airlines than a few complaints from commuters though.

Bosses were said to be unimpressed with advance bookings for the New York service, which were starting just as the USA was emerging from a recession that had cause unemployment to reach nearly 8% just months earlier.

(Source: The Star Tribune, 20th June 1992)

They were right to be concerned.

Fireworks didn’t seem to set the spark on demand, and only 24% of seats were filled in the first month of operation, an average of just 98 passengers on each 412-seat Boeing 747 – devastatingly loss-making.

Things began to pick up but in the first six months SIA still recorded only 45% loads on its JFK flights, and it took around three years for the route to gain popularity.

In April 1993 flights via Frankfurt were lifted to four times per week, for effective daily operation to New York including the three services via Brussels, though the latter were switched to transit via Amsterdam from November that year.

Farewell Hawaii

Honolulu was a key stopover point for Singapore Airlines’ USA flights since inception, due to the limited range of older aircraft.

However, there were no significant commercial benefits for the airline from the stopover. For one thing SIA could only sell tickets to Honolulu from Asia, it could not pick up new passengers there and fly them to the US West Coast.

ADVERTISEMENT

The additional stop was also an inconvenience for the majority of passengers, who were flying all the way between Asia and the USA.

On 29th July 1992 the airline’s Honolulu flights ended after 13 years, once the Singapore – Los Angeles via Taipei route on the 747-300 was swapped out for the Boeing 747-400, following introduction of the 14th ‘MEGATOP’ into the operating fleet.

The Honolulu Advertiser, 30th April 1992

The 747-400 no longer needed the additional refuelling stop, and it then routed SIN-TPE-LAX twice per week from November 1991 and then on all five weekly services from late July 1992.

SIA’s Boeing 747-300s could not fly from Hong Kong or Taipei to the US West Coast without a refuelling stop in Honolulu. (Photo: Stuart Prince)

Singapore Airlines never returned to Honolulu, though its budget arm Scoot did launch Singapore – Osaka – Honolulu flights in December 2017. The service only lasted six months before being axed due to low demand.

Send a fax on US flights

In mid-1993 Singapore Airlines installed the world’s first global in-flight fax machines on its Boeing 747-400s operating flights to the USA and London. This allowed passengers to send black and white messages anywhere in the world during flights for a charge of US$15 per page (around US$30 in today’s money!).

SIA’s in-flight fax service on the Boeing 747-400. (Photo: Singapore Airlines)

Unfortunately the system could only send, not receive fax messages.

It was part of a US$650,000 per plane investment by the airline that also incorporated satellite phone communications.

Bye bye BIG TOPs

In October 1993 Singapore Airlines operated its final Boeing 747-300 ‘BIG TOP’ service to the USA, with four times weekly Boeing 747-300 flights on the Singapore – Tokyo – Los Angeles route upgauging to the Boeing 747-400 ‘MEGATOP’, which was already operating three times per week on the same route (for daily operation in total).