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 looked at the inaugural services and initial ramp-up of flights in the late 1970s.
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 to serve not only San Francisco via Honolulu, but also Los Angeles via Taipei and Los Angeles through the more lucrative Tokyo transit point.
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.
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
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for the existing temporary authority SIA had won, to operate Los Angeles flights via Tokyo three times per week, to be withdrawn.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.
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”.
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.
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 a 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.
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.
Business Class service on the 747-300 upper deck
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
On 27th March 1989 SIA therefore became the first carrier to fly the Boeing 747-400 on a non-stop commercial flight across the Pacific, and the airline was happy to crow about it, taking out full-page newspaper adverts across the world.
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 refuel 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, as part of a S$10m publicity drive.
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% only months earlier.
They were right to be concerned.
Fireworks didn’t seem to set the spark to 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.
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.
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 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.
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!).
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).
SIA’s Boeing 747-400s would then exclusively serve the airline’s USA flights for five years, until October 1998, and only finally bowed out on North America flights in January 2012.
1990 to 1994 in numbers
The recession in the early 1990s made life tough for airlines.
SIA’s continued its USA expansion, with flight volumes increasing by over 60% between 1990 and 1994, and that led to some very poor load factors with passenger numbers increasing at a slower rate.
SIA Operating Statistics: USA Routes
As you can see, only 64% of the airline’s seats were filled on these routes in 1993, compared to 88% in 1990, a stark drop.
Though the 1992-1994 period was almost certainly loss-making for the airline on these routes, that didn’t dissuade SIA from continuing to grow its footprint in the US market.
Singapore – Seoul – San Francisco
On 11th July 1995 Singapore Airlines launched its first new route to the USA since New York services had been started two years earlier, with a Singapore – Seoul – San Francisco service using Boeing 747-400s three times per week.
These supplemented existing three times weekly operation to Vancouver in Canada via Seoul, and five times weekly Singapore – Taipei – Seoul flights.Fun fact: Singapore Airlines was actually offering Los Angeles – Seoul flights as far back as 1983, with well-timed connections via Taipei onto another fifth freedom route up to South Korea on Fridays, though it was a different aircraft for the second sector.
Frequencies on the new Singapore – Seoul – San Francisco service were hiked to five times weekly from 31st March 1996, but the Singapore – Taipei – Seoul was then reduced to three times weekly to compensate.
San Francisco was then served 12 times per week; seven via Hong Kong and five via Seoul.
Open skies agreement
In what must have seemed like a distant dream to those around twenty years before, when SIA was fighting to fly to the US just three times a week, Singapore and the USA signed an open skies treaty on 24th January 1997.
This pact allowed market forces, not government policy, to determine routes, prices, frequencies and fares on flights by any US or Singaporean carrier between the two countries.
It was the first open skies agreement the US had forged with an Asian nation, and replaced the air services agreement reached between the two countries in March 1978.
The agreement effectively allowed Singapore Airlines and US carriers unrestricted access to air routes between the two countries, with the ability to fly as often as they wished and charge whatever fares they liked (until then, both factors were strictly controlled).
It sounded great, but unfortunately in 1997 there was still no suitable aircraft capable of flying non-stop between Singapore and the US mainland without significant performance restrictions (i.e. load limits).
That meant the open skies agreement had limited immediate benefits, and indeed many commentators at the time said it helped US carriers more than it did Singapore Airlines, because SIA remained restricted by air services agreements between Singapore and other intermediate countries, like Japan and Hong Kong, when it came to expanding service to the US.
Singapore – Amsterdam – Newark
You’d be forgiven for assuming that Singapore Airlines started flying to Newark Airport in 2004 when it launched non-stop flights using Airbus A340-500s, but actually that’s not accurate.
In fact, the airline commenced Newark services on 31st March 1998, when it beefed up New York flights with the addition of a thrice-weekly service to Newark via Amsterdam, using Boeing 747-400s.
At the same time, four times weekly service to JFK via Frankfurt was lifted to daily, for 10 times weekly operation to New York across the two airports.
“Feedback from some of our passengers indicated that they would prefer our service to be out of Newark.
“We can now offer our passengers the choice of JFK or Newark.”Walter Meyer, Singapore Airlines Vice President of Passenger Marketing, USA
The inaugural SIA flight from Amsterdam to Newark touched down at 10.30am on 31st March 1998 with 241 passengers on board, later departing back to Singapore via the Netherlands at 10.15pm that evening with 248 passengers on board.
Frequencies were increased to four times weekly in April 1999.
The airline served Newark via Amsterdam until 2004, when non-stop flights took over, but more on that in the next part of our analysis.
In October 1998 Singapore Airlines shifted its five times weekly San Francisco via Seoul flights from the 393-seat Boeing 747-400 to the 265-seat Airbus A340-300 ‘Celestar’.
It was the first time the airline had used its Airbus aircraft to fly to the USA (today, 76% of SIA’s flights to and from the USA use Airbus aircraft!).
The A340-300 was configured with 10 First Class seats (2-1-2 configuration), 30 Business Class seats (2-2-2 configuration) and 225 Economy Class seats (2-4-2 configuration).
This had the effect of increasing load factors on the Seoul – San Francisco – Seoul flights from an abysmal 50% in the previous 12 months to a much more respectable 70% the following year.
SIA’s strategy at the time was to deploy the smaller A340-300 on routes like this, which didn’t carry the year-round demand to justify the Boeing 747-400’s capacity (Singapore – Paris and Singapore – Athens were other examples).
Frequency on the route was increased to daily from October 1999.
Pursuing non-stop flights
In June 1997 Airbus revealed plans for two new versions of its four-engined A340; the A340-500 and A340-600.
The A340-500 in particular was set to have the longest range of any passenger airliner in service, a fact that piqued SIA’s attention since it offered the option to fully capitalise on the Singapore – US open skies agreement and offer non-stop flights from Changi to cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles.
This would allow the airline to remove transit stops in cities like Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo, which were an annoyance for passengers flying all the way to or from the USA.
On 15th May 1998 SIA agreed to purchase ten wide-bodied Airbus A340-500s, with deliveries planned from 2002. Five aircraft were on firm order, with five on option.
The A340-500 is a super-longrange aircraft which can operate non-stop on routes like Singapore-Los Angeles and Singapore-San Francisco, enabling the Airline to launch non-stop operations to the US.Singapore Airlines Annual report 1998/99
In Part 3 of our analysis, we’ll be delving into not one but two separate launches for SIA’s non-stop US routes in more recent years!
1998: New cabin products
On 11th September 1998 Singapore Airlines launched its latest cabin products on the Boeing 747-400, with a round the world Singapore – London – Frankfurt – New York – Osaka – Singapore flight on a specially painted 747-400 decked out in tropical livery.
The latest fit included a pioneering new 12-seat First Class ‘SkySuite’ cabin in the jumbo’s nose section, with eight solo seats (including a ‘throne’ seat at the very front) and two couple pairs.
On board Singapore Airlines’ Boeing 747-400 long-haul aircraft, 12 individual SkySuites with a host of special features cater to every need of the First Class customer in terms of comfort, privacy, convenience and entertainment.Singapore Airlines
Restaurant-style dining on demand was introduced and the seats converted into fully flat beds, complete with a duvet.
In Business Class (‘Raffles Class’ in those days), the airline launched brand new Italian-designed Ultimo seats with a 52-inch pitch, a product it said “rival[s] the First Class experience of other airlines”.
Even Economy Class got a makeover, with adjustable footrests and head rests. An upgrade to KrisWorld, the airline’s in-flight entertainment system, offered 22 video and 12 audio channels and Nintendo games to all passengers.
The New York JFK via Frankfurt route switched across right away when the products were launched in September 1998.
This was quickly followed by the Los Angeles via Tokyo route in October 1998 and San Francisco via Hong Kong flights in December 1998.
By February 1999 all of the airline’s USA flights had the First Class SkySuite and new cabins in other travel classes, with the exception of the daily San Francisco via Seoul flights operated by the Airbus A340-300, which retained older products.
1995 to 1999 in numbers
Here’s how SIA’s operating statistics looked in the last five years of the 1990s.
SIA Operating Statistics: USA Routes
In 1999, Singapore Airlines recorded over 1 million passengers carried to and from US airports for the first time in a single year.
Here’s how the route map looked at the end of the decade.
That’s it for Part 2, covering two decades of significant expansion for Singapore Airlines in the US market. From nine flights per week using Boeing 747-200 ‘Super Bs’ in 1980 to 39 weekly flights by 1999 using a mixture of Boeing 747-400s and Airbus A340-300s, carrying over 1 million passengers a year.
Hawaii may have fallen by the wayside, but it was always more of a technical stop for SIA, rather than a viable destination on the network.
New York was the big advance, allowing Singapore Airlines to fly both eastbound and westbound from the USA to Asia. Even with poor loads to start with, the airline understandably stuck with the important US East Coast market, and of course retains it to this day.
Politics still played a big part, but finally culminated in a breakthrough with an open skies agreement forged in 1997, and by the end of that decade SIA had already worked out how best to capitalise on it – with an order for long-range A340-500 jets capable of non-stop flights.
Stay tuned for instalments of the story for SIA’s USA services, as we move to more recent times including record-breaking non-stop flights, new routes, Airbus A380 services and the COVID-19 era.
(Cover Photo: Robert Cumming / Shutterstock)