History Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines Concorde: The full story

Singapore Airlines once operated a Concorde between the Lion City and London, but politics and economics meant it didn't last.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Singapore Airlines operated the world’s most popular supersonic passenger airliner – Concorde – on flights between Singapore and London, as part of a joint venture with British Airways.

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The service slashed flying times between Asia and Europe from around 18 hours on subsonic aircraft with multiple stops to under 10 hours, for those who could afford a ticket some 15% more expensive than a First Class fare.

British Airways Concorde G-BOAD wearing Singapore Airlines livery at London Heathrow Airport in July 1980. (Photo: Steve Fitzgerald)

Catering mainly to time-pressed business travellers, celebrities and politicians, the service was short-lived as it suffered from waning demand and rising fuel costs, leading to heavy losses.

Scratch a little below the surface though, and the story of Concorde’s time with Singapore Airlines is a fascinating one, mired in politics of one sort or another from almost start to finish.

Here’s our look back at how the history of SIA’s Concorde operation unfolded.

Concorde in Singapore

The history of Concorde in Singapore dates right back to 1972. On 8th June that year, thousands flocked to Singapore International Airport at Paya Lebar to watch the first Concorde land from Bangkok on its promotional sales tour.

Singapore was seen as a key stopover point for Concorde’s future ambitions to cut travel times from Europe to Australia, so the manufacturer was keen to woo the government and regulators here to ensure smooth permissions would be granted in future, even if SIA itself didn’t buy the jets.

Concorde on its tour through Singapore in June 1972. (Photo: National Archives of Singapore)

After three days in Singapore the aircraft left for Hong Kong and Tokyo, later flying to Australia before returning via Singapore once again on its way back to Europe.

SIA wanted its own Concordes

In June 1975, six Singapore Airlines cabin crew were handpicked to take part in trials by the aircraft manufacturer, simulating normal passenger service from London to cities like Beirut, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Melbourne.

It was a great coup for the airline to demonstrate how SIA’s renowned service could still be offered on a supersonic flight, and by September that year it was reported that Singapore Airlines was negotiating to lease two Concordes.

The proposed arrangement would start in 1977, for operation between Australia and Europe via the Lion City. Flight times between Singapore and London would be cut from 18 hours on conventional aircraft at the time to just 11 hours.

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With a S$100 million price tag per jet (S$257 million in today’s money), buying the aircraft was “out of the question” according to SIA’s Managing Director Lim Chin Beng, but the carrier was said to be keen if an acceptable lease deal could be forged.

The pair of aircraft would have replaced two Boeing 747s the airline had on option for delivery in 1977 and 1978.

Two proposed Boeing 747-200s could have been sidelined for a pair of leased Concordes in 1977 and 1978, as part of SIA’s desire to join the supersonic age. (Photo: Frank C. Duarte Jr.)

However, that plan never materialised.

Over a year later, in November 1976, British Airways (BA) was negotiating with the Singapore Government to start a London – Bahrain – Singapore service using Concorde, while the airline was still blocked from flying the jet to and from New York – its most desired route.

It was proposed that SIA would lease 20 out of 100 seats on each of these flights to address “the likely loss of First Class passengers” on SIA’s own London services.

India refused overflight

BA’s problems weren’t isolated to a ‘forced pact’ with SIA on a future Singapore route. It didn’t take long for politics to start getting in the way of plans to fly Concorde to and from Asia.

In the late 1970s, India refused permission for Concorde to fly over its airspace, blocking a direct routing from Bahrain to Singapore, BA’s proposed extension to an existing service.

On the table was more access to Heathrow slots for Air India, plus ‘fifth freedom’ traffic rights from the London airport, with the airline keen to tap in to the lucrative transatlantic market. In the 1970s and 80s, it was common for governments to use air traffic agreements as political chess pieces.

Sonic Boom It’s worth mentioning at this point that the problem for Concorde was primarily related to its ‘Sonic Boom’, caused by shock waves when the jet was travelling through the air at Mach 1 or greater. That was no problem for the passengers; sitting on the jet at the head of the ‘Mach cone’, they were moving so fast the sonic boom didn’t have chance to catch up to them.

For those on the ground it was a different matter, creating a 100dB+ sound like an explosion.

That meant supersonic flight by Concorde was restricted to overwater or sparsely populated land masses like deserts. Even that wasn’t perfect though, with Saudi Arabia withdrawing supersonic permission for Concorde after nomads reported the sonic boom was upsetting their camels, stopping them from breeding!

Ultimately the two sides agreed to a compromise, with Concorde flights from Bahrain to Singapore having to route around the Indian mainland, adding 200 miles to the journey.

Joint venture with British Airways

By late 1977 Singapore Airlines was in negotiation with British Airways to jointly operate a Concorde on the London – Singapore route under a cost and revenue-sharing basis. The supersonic trip would cut flying time to 10 hours, with only a 40-minute refuelling stop in Bahrain.

Plans included an extension of the route from Singapore to Melbourne, Australia, though this never went ahead.

British Airways was already operating Concorde services from London to both Bahrain and Washington in 1976/77. (Photo: Steve Fitzgerald)

Singapore Airlines formally made an agreement for the joint venture Concorde operation with British Airways in October 1977, with the inaugural service from Paya Lebar planned for 10th December that year.

As part of the deal, SIA sent 36 of its cabin crew to London in November 1977 for training on Concorde operations.

Tickets could be purchased at BA or SIA offices and cost around 15% more than First Class fares on existing subsonic flights between the two cities.

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The one-way fare was S$4,298 (around S$10,700 today) from Singapore to London and S$2,522 (around S$6,300 today) from Singapore to Bahrain.

British Airways said it needed to fill 60 of the 100 seats on board to break even, though the capacity was capped at 86 passengers when departing from Singapore due to the humid conditions affecting the aircraft’s performance.

Even with the inaugural flights fully booked, Singapore Airlines launched a global advertising campaign in December 1977, telling the world “SIA has gone supersonic”.

(Image: Andrew Chuang)

The aircraft wore both liveries

Part of the agreement between Singapore Airlines and British Airways was to operate the Concorde, registered G-BOAD (also temporarily G-N94AD), in a dual livery with Singapore Airlines titles on the left and British Airways colours on the right of the aircraft.

This became the only Concorde to fly with the colours of two different airlines, making SIA only the third airline in the world (after BA and Air France) to have its livery on the type.

The ‘machmeter’ in the passenger cabin of G-BOAD. (Photo: Bob Nadel)

With passengers boarding via steps in Singapore in those days, into the forward left main aircraft door, it meant only the SIA livery was visible.

The inaugural flight was almost scuppered

Prior to the start of the route, there was a disagreement between British Airways and a small group of its Concorde pilots who were to be stationed in Singapore, over the terms and conditions of their detachment. This was resolved a few weeks before the first flight, but a much bigger problem was looming.

With a Concorde now adorned in Singapore Airlines colours down one side and British Airways livery across the other, and cabin crew from both carriers fully trained to jointly operate the new service, a spanner was suddenly thrown in the works.

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At the eleventh hour, on 7th December 1977, the Malaysian Government threatened to hold back overflight rights for the new service. Malaysia had presented no formal reasons to deny Concorde’s overflight of its airspace, indeed the jet had previously routed over the country on demonstration flights and made several landings at Kuala Lumpur’s Subang Airport.

“We were told verbally yesterday by the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation that overflying rights have still not been granted.

“No reasons have been given, either verbally or in writing.

“We don’t know whether this refers to supersonic or subsonic speed, but if they allow us to fly subsonic, we will do so.

“It will add several minutes to the flying time, but it is not significant.”

Ted Duggan, British Airways PR Manager for the Orient, 8th December 1977 (via New Nation)

The day before the inaugural flight was due to depart, the Malaysians formally refused all overflight permission for Concorde, subsonic or supersonic.

“The Malaysian authorities have decided to refuse permission for the Concorde flight over Malaysian airspace.”

Malaysian Communications Ministry (via The Straits Times)

No reason was given, though later a minister said they had to “look into matters affecting the people’s interests and environmental factors”.

Several newspapers in London were having none of it, stating that the “extremely puzzling” stance was “likely [because] Malaysia is piqued at the operation by Singapore [Airlines] of Concorde service”.

An aviation source said of Malaysia’s environmental reasoning “Rubbish, absolute rubbish. The problem is purely political”.

“When Britain first approached Kuala Lumpur earlier this year for permission to fly over Malaysia, the contemplated service would have been wholly British.

“But sources said Malaysia’s objections crystallised when British Airways and Singapore [Airlines] agreed to operate the flight jointly.”

Business Times, 10th December 1977

While the Malaysians were standing firm, the Singapore Government came to the rescue, striking a last-minute deal with Indonesia for the aircraft to route slightly further south than originally planned, through Jakarta’s airspace instead.

The agreement was said to have been a reciprocal gesture, following “Singapore’s support for Indonesia during a recent United Nations debate on East Timor”.

The route was saved and the inaugural flight, which had started to look as though it would have to be postponed, took off from London as scheduled on 9th December 1977, to a traditional ceremonial lion dance.

Concorde G-BOAD London Heathrow
The SIA / BA Concorde departing from London Heathrow. (Photo: Jonathan Francis via flickr)

The flight touched down in Singapore at 5.35am the following morning, 25 minutes early, with Singapore Airlines cabin crew having taken over from the BA crew in Bahrain.

The inaugural SIA crew on the first arrival in Singapore. (Photo: National Archives of Singapore)

Only 90 passengers could be accommodated instead of the planned 100, due to the additional fuel required when taking the Indonesia routing, while only 70 passengers could travel from Singapore to Bahrain instead of the planned 86, for the same reason.