According to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, between April 2022 and March 2023 Singapore Airlines flew over 1.2 million passengers to and from a network of six airports in the USA, on over 6,000 passenger flights, each of which was 71% full on average.
Since 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 commercial 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 financially 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, plus 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, enabling 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 instead.
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.
SIA inaugural San Francisco flight schedule
* Next day
In total the journey between Singapore and San Francisco took 21 hour 30 minutes, and 24 hours 10 minutes in the opposite direction.
Today’s non-stop Airbus A350 service between the two cities takes only 15 hours 25 minutes eastbound and 16 hours 40 minutes westbound.
By the time the DC-10 had flown a full return routing to San Francisco from Paya Lebar and landed back at home base, it had taken five minutes shy of two whole days to complete the journey (47 hours 55 minutes).Fun fact: When the Thursday SQ2 flight returned to Paya Lebar as SQ1 on Saturday afternoon, the next DC-10 flight to San Francisco was typically taxiing out for departure, with the two aircraft often passing one another on the ground.
SQ2/SQ1 were the ‘flagship’ flight numbers, still in use today on the carrier’s Singapore – Hong Kong – San Francisco service, though the flight is still temporarily operating as a cargo-only service solely between Singapore and Hong Kong five times per week, a change first made during COVID-19.
The USA became Singapore Airlines’ 30th country served by passenger services.
“We are starting with one point, but we will not rest until we have penetrated other major points on that continent.”Singapore Airlines internal report, 1979, via Chicago Tribune
If you think Singapore Airlines was late getting into the USA market, it took regional competitor Cathay Pacific a further seven years to do the same, when the carrier extended its Hong Kong – Vancouver flight to San Francisco from 1st July 1986.
Singapore Airlines launched its San Francisco service with special fares in Economy class, offering 40-46% off the IATA published rates.
Here’s what the airline was charging, with the SGD equivalent in today’s money (2023) shown.
Singapore Airlines USA fares in 1979
(SGD in today’s money)
|Singapore – Honolulu||S$1,012
|Singapore – San Francisco||S$1,125
|Hong Kong – Honolulu||S$915
|Hong Kong – San Francisco||S$1,050
|San Francisco – Singapore||US$760
|San Francisco – Hong Kong||US$910
Remember these are Economy Class fares, so it’s clear to see that flying was still only for the rich in those days.
A family of four flying on holiday from Singapore to San Francisco was looking at S$19,000 in today’s money in flight tickets alone for the trip!
US domestic passengers
Singapore Airlines was allowed to carry passengers on this new service between Singapore and the USA, Hong Kong and the USA and of course between Singapore and Hong Kong, however there were no traffic rights for passengers flying solely between US cities.
For example, a passenger boarding SQ2 in Honolulu could not disembark in Guam, but could buy a ticket to Hong Kong or Singapore.
The airline got a boon in the first few weeks of service though – the rare permission to carry domestic passengers solely between Honolulu and San Francisco (eighth freedom traffic rights, also known as “consecutive cabotage”).
The temporary arrangement was made due to disruption caused by a United Airlines strike, and in total earned the airline an extra S$693,000 (around S$1.6 million in today’s money).
Around 100 stranded United passengers were flown from Honolulu to Los Angeles on the inaugural SQ2 service alone, giving SIA additional revenue and a good dose of publicity for its new route.
It must have been strange for holidaymakers heading back to the mainland and rebooked on Singapore Airlines to find themselves thrust into celebrations associated with an inaugural service!
As part of the route launch, the Singapore Zoo entered into an animal exchange programme with the San Diego Zoo in California.
SIA flew out a pair of binturongs and small-clawed otters on its inaugural flight, while an Oryx was donated by the San Diego Zoo and flown across to Singapore.
The first SQ1 service from San Francisco also carried a group of 23 cartoon characters from Disneyland California, along with the brand’s ambassador – destined more for Orchard Road promotions, rather than the zoo, we assume!
More to the story
Dick Alexander of the San Francisco Examiner was more eagle-eyed, noticing the Disney characters hadn’t travelled on the flight at all when it arrived at Paya Lebar Airport!
“While the aircraft waited on the apron before unloading its passengers, the Disneyland figures were brought by truck to the far side of the plane, through a door on the right and down the steps, creating the impression they had made the flight from California.”San Francisco Examiner, April 1979
Not quite how the Business Times described it, but hey!
Challenges here we come
Having waited nine years to start flying to America, ‘Murphy’s law’ had a few more spanners to throw in the works for Singapore Airlines.
By the time the service was set to launch, there was a severe aviation fuel shortage in the US, due to production cuts by Iran.
On 20th March 1979, SIA had to temporarily pause its twice weekly Boeing 707 cargo flights operating between Singapore and San Francisco (via Hong Kong, Guam and Honolulu), to ensure its restricted allocation of fuel was sufficient to supply its long-awaited passenger services when they landed in the Californian city only weeks later.
With the crisis ongoing, SIA warned that it might be forced to curtail some of its new passenger services as well, once its reserve of fuel in San Francisco was exhausted.
That situation eventually stabilised, and from 2nd May 1979 the service was increased to four times weekly as planned… but then came another problem.
On Friday 25th May 1979, an American Airlines DC-10 crashed shortly after takeoff from Chicago O’ Hare Airport, killing all 271 passengers and crew on board, plus two people on the ground.
The accident was quickly traced to a fracture in the engine-wing attachment, and the manufacturer sent out a safety alert to all worldwide operators of the DC-10, insisting they have their aircraft checked within seven days or 50 flight hours, whichever came first.
All SIA aircraft came up clean, but that wasn’t the case elsewhere.
Four other American Airlines DC-10s and two Continental Airlines DC-10s were found to have similar fractures.
Suspecting a possible design flaw, the US Federal Aviation Administration ordered the type to be grounded by American carriers on 7th June 1979, and prevented any foreign airline from flying the DC-10 in the US.
Singapore Airlines flight SQ2 was already en-route to Honolulu that morning, just as the grounding took effect, forcing the flight to turn back to Hong Kong.
SIA’s subsequent San Francisco service on 9th June 1979 had to be cancelled, but on 13th June 1979 the airline recommenced its SQ1/2 flights using Boeing 707s.
Unfortunately this required an additional stopover in Guam on the eastbound leg between Hong Kong and Honolulu, as well as the westbound direction, because the 707s had poorer range than the DC-10s.
The cause of the accident was later attributed to an improper maintenance procedure by American Airlines, which Continental had duplicated, to save time when taking engines off the wing for maintenance. SIA and other airlines had always used the manufacturer’s recommended technique.
Singapore Airlines redeployed its DC-10s on Europe flights while the FAA ban was in place, but it managed to reinstate the tri-jets on the SQ1/2 Singapore – San Francisco route from 18th July 1979, about six weeks after they were first banned from the route.
Luckily for the airline, Boeing could deliver its new 747s earlier than scheduled, with the first pair arriving on 2nd August and 16th August 1979.
From 19th August 1979, SIA’s brand new Boeing 747-200 ‘Super Bs’ were deployed on the San Francisco route, replacing the DC-10s. The aircraft had seats for 410 passengers (28 in First Class and 382 in Economy Class), increasing capacity on the route by over 50%, without any frequency change.
The 747-200s had better range than the DC-10s and could therefore cut out the Guam stop, necessary for the tri-jet on the Honolulu to Hong Kong leg, for a more expeditious SFO-HNL-HKG-SIN routing.
This made SIA the first to offer sleeping berths in the jet era.
SIA would then exclusively fly Boeing aircraft (747s and later 777s) on flights to and from the USA for almost two decades.
The carrier’s DC-10s were all sold by late 1983.
Singapore Airlines’ Chairman J. Y. M. Pillay flew on the inaugural SQ2 flight to San Francisco in April 1979, then spent three weeks in the US negotiating for more capacity and more cities for the carrier to serve.
Los Angeles, in particular, was in SIA’s sights.
SIA is certainly not going to fly to just Honolulu and San Francisco. As Mr Pillay said “We are not like the National Family Planning Board. We are not stopping at two.”Business Times, 5th April 1979
A bilateral agreement was reached in early June 1979 between the US and Singapore, allowing SIA to serve three more American cities, though again the Tokyo stumbling block remained, with the airline permitted to take any routing to or from the US except via Tokyo and Manila.
That meant Singapore Airlines was still unable to fly its preferred route via Japan, while the US “resolved its fuel and capacity problems at Narita Airport”.
Without the lucrative intermediate point available to them, and with poor loads on the existing service, in November 1979 SIA announced plans to fly to Los Angeles five times a week as an extension of its existing SQ1/2 flight, on a SIN-HKG-HNL-SFO-LAX routing.
This was to start in April 1980, but the airline had a change of heart and instead decided to launch dedicated Los Angeles flights via Taiwan, with the US promising this could be changed to Tokyo in due course.
On 2nd July 1980, Boeing 747-200 Super-Bs launched a three times weekly Singapore – Taipei – Honolulu – Los Angeles service every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
This was the advent of daily service to and from the USA, with San Francisco still running four times a week alongside this new flight.
It also meant those in Honolulu got a daily option to Singapore, via either Hong Kong or Taipei, depending on the day of the week.
Many of our readers will recall the SQ15/16 flight numbers more recently being used for SIA’s Singapore – Seoul – San Francisco service, which ended in October 2016, while SQ7/8 was used for the Singapore – Seoul – Los Angeles flights that ended in November 2018.
Strangely enough, however, SQ15/16 was first used on the Los Angeles route in the 1980s.
By late September 1980, SIA’s application to route via Tokyo had become wrangled “in a tug-of-war between Japan, the US and SIA Chairman J.Y.M. Pillay”, according to The Straits Times.
Out of patience again, Mr Pillay flew to Washington D.C. to push through the request.
On 29th September 1980, the US government finally approved SIA’s plans to operate up to three of its weekly services via Tokyo, from December 1980, under a temporary exemption.
Three times weekly flights to Los Angeles via Tokyo then began at the first opportunity – on 1st December 1980.
There was another benefit to using Tokyo as a stopover point between Singapore and the US west coast. Being 1,500 miles closer than Hong Kong and 1,300 miles closer than Taipei, the Boeing 747-200 ‘Super B’s could make it non-stop, cutting out the Honolulu refuelling point in both directions.
The geographical advantage therefore made this route the airline’s first one-stop service between Singapore and the USA.
With competitors JAL and Pan Am scheduling longer stopovers in Tokyo, some even requiring an aircraft change, Singapore Airlines could also claim to offer the fastest Los Angeles – Singapore service.
SIA competed with China Airlines, Korean Air, Varig, Pan Am, Northwest Airlines and Japan Airlines on the Los Angeles – Tokyo route.
By December 1980 it meant Singapore Airlines was operating the following schedule of flights to and from the USA, all using Boeing 747-200 ‘Super Bs’:
- 4 x weekly: Singapore – Hong Kong – Honolulu – San Francisco
- 3 x weekly: Singapore – Tokyo – Los Angeles
- 2 x weekly: Singapore – Taipei – Honolulu – Los Angeles
Here are the flight numbers, days of operation and timings for those interested.
|SIN||d 09:00||SIN||d 14:30||SIN||d 14:30|
|LAX||a 11:15||LAX||a 20:40||SFO||a 20:20|
|LAX||d 14:15||LAX||d 23:45||SFO||d 23:45|
|SIN||a 22:55**||SIN||a 13:05**||SIN||a 12:40**|
* Next day
** Two days later
It meant Singapore Airlines had gone from no US passenger flights at all in early 1979 to flying nine flights a week in both directions, with 7,380 seats to and from California, and secured its most desired stopover point for at least some of the services.
We’ll wrap up there for Part 1, because there’s lots more to come in the story of Singapore Airlines’ passenger services to and from the USA.
Singapore Airlines fought hard to win its rights to fly to the USA back in the 1970s, with the typically political process at the time taking most of a decade to achieve a measly three return services a week.
As the bosses at the time well knew, however, that was only the beginning.
With just nine flights per week in each direction in 1980 compared to 58 in 2023, the operation developed substantially over the subsequent four decades, including expansion to the east coast, the introduction of Airbus A380s, record-breaking non-stop services, and even all-Business-Class flights.
Stay tuned for our upcoming articles covering the airline’s fascinating history of USA services in the 1980s and 90s through to today, including a few things you’d probably forgotten, or perhaps never even knew!
(Cover Photo: Nobuo Oyama)