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Are ultra-long-haul flights changing the game for SIA and Changi?

The recent launch of non-stop long-haul flights by numerous regional airlines, made possible by advanced technology that enables aircraft to fly the longer distance, may change the way that people are travelling. Consequently the fortune of airlines that thrive on transit and connecting traffic as well as airports that cater largely to such traffic may change.

For Changi Airport, in the unlikely event that Qantas should stop its daily Sydney-London service via Singapore, the loss of the traditional link for the hub airport may be more a psychological than an economic setback, says the author.

For Changi Airport, in the unlikely event that Qantas should stop its daily Sydney-London service via Singapore, the loss of the traditional link for the hub airport may be more a psychological than an economic setback, says the author.

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The race to be the world's longest commercial passenger flight is on. The honour has passed from one operator to another as more airlines mount ultra-long-haul flights.

Currently, the title is held by Qatar Airways flying from Doha to Auckland, a journey that takes 17 hours 40 minutes or more.

Come October it is Singapore Airline (SIA)'s turn to reign when it launches the Singapore-New York route which will clock almost 19 hours.

But its term will end in 2022 when Qantas flies non-stop from Sydney to London, a trip lasting 20 hours 20 minutes.

Other airlines, including budget carriers such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and AirAsia, are also upping the stakes in the long-haul game.

SIA itself is presently flying non-stop from Singapore to San Francisco and Los Angeles, while Cathay Pacific and Philippines Airlines are competing on a non-stop service between Toronto and their home bases.

From October, all three airlines will be competing flying non-stop to New York.

In the Middle East, the big three Gulf carriers are all operating non-stop services to Los Angeles, albeit from their different home airports of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

This is on top of Saudia flying from Jeddah. Both Emirates and Qatar are also flying non-stop to Auckland.

Such moves by the airlines, no doubt encouraged by the success of non-stop long-haul flights and made possible by advanced technology that enables aircraft to fly the longer distance, may change the way that people are travelling.

Consequently the fortune of airlines that thrive on transit and connecting traffic as well as airports that cater largely to such traffic may change.

For SIA and Changi in particular, it may be useful therefore to consider the implications of Qantas’ decision to mount more non-stop ultra-long-haul flights from Australia to London.

Qantas has already started a non-stop service from Perth to London in March which it says “is the highest rating service on our network.”

It is now planning a non-stop service from Sydney and, possibly after that, one from Melbourne. Other destinations in Europe to follow may include Paris and Athens. The airline has invited Boeing and Airbus to retrofit an aircraft that will fly the longer distance.

The kangaroo route is a lucrative one for SIA, with many passengers using Singapore as a stopover.

The choice for customers now will be to first consider whether to fly non-stop (which Qantas has the monopoly) or with a break in the journey, rather than which airline to fly from among a number of competing airlines which include SIA.

That is not to say that all will be lost for SIA, as there will always be travellers who prefer a break in a long journey.

According to the Independent, a Twitter poll with over 1,200 users showed that 40 per cent preferred a non-stop flight, 30 per cent favoured a stop en route and the remaining 30 per cent said it would depend on the fare.

So while Qantas works at making the anticipated non-stop Sydney-to-London flight comfortable enough to convert non-believers – providing additional facilities such as a bar, creche, an area for exercise and sleeping pods – the airline is not likely to stop flying via Singapore or Dubai completely.

In the same way, SIA is not ceasing its flights to the United States via an Asian port just because it has introduced non-stop flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Besides, there is a fair amount of traffic to pick up at the intermediate stop for both Qantas and SIA.

For Changi, in the unlikely event that Qantas should stop its daily Sydney-London service via Singapore, the loss of the traditional link for the hub airport may be more a psychological than an economic setback.

It may be good news for other airlines since capacity between Singapore and the UK would reduce by some 18 per cent, as it demonstrates how geographical advantages can shift and Changi cannot take them for granted.

What Qantas now offers is a choice of gateways to London, so Changi can expect the competition among hub airports offering a stop en route to intensify, particularly with Dubai.

Anyhow, Changi had been down that road before. Five years ago, Qantas re-routed all its flights from Australian cities to London via Dubai instead of Singapore, causing some anxiety at the time.

Despite that, Changi saw strong growth in passenger numbers annually from 53.7 million in 2013 to 62.2 million in 2017 in the wake of growing traffic on other routes, particularly within Asia.

Since March this year, Qantas has resumed flying between Sydney and London via Singapore, underlying its preference for Changi.

It has also increased capacity between Singapore and Australia, reinforcing the importance of Singapore as a destination and of Changi as a regional hub whose appeal among many lies in its vast network of connections.

In many ways, Changi is ahead of the game, having earned a reputation for being more than just an efficient, functional transport hub.

The higher cost of the fare for flying non-stop on an ultra-long-haul flight for many travellers in a price-sensitive market is really not worth the trade-off for the inconvenience of a transit stop which may be as short as an hour.

Furthermore, some passengers actually look forward to the various attractions of Changi and would not mind a longer layover.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Leo is a published author and aviation veteran.

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