The end of the world's longest non- stop commercial flight, a 19-hour slog between Singapore and New York, is bad news for Chia Teck Fatt.
The 9000-nautical mile journey from Singapore to Newark, New Jersey, helped him avoid congestion at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Passengers will instead fly to JFK via Frankfurt, adding five hours. Singapore Airlines Ltd. stops the services with its all-business class four-engine Airbus A340-500 next month, after ending the second-longest flight from Los Angeles to the island city on Tuesday.
"It could take over an hour just to get through customs at JFK," said Chia, after checking-in at the business-class lounge at Singapore's Changi Airport. "I'm looking for another way to travel to New York so I can avoid flying into JFK," said Chia, dressed in casual pants, t-shirt, a jacket and loafers.
With oil prices tripling in the last decade, the carrier struggled to ferry executives on the 100-seat flights profitably for the past nine years, a sign that the airline industry is once again putting profitability ahead of glamor. The iconic transatlantic flights with the supersonic Concorde were scrapped a decade ago. The shrinking of Wall Street firms and travel cutbacks after the global financial crisis have made it difficult for airlines to lure top-dollar clients.
"It didn't make sense to continue," said Siyi Lim, a Singapore-based investment analyst at OCBC Investment Research. "The plane burns a lot of fuel, but carries very few passengers," he said about the Airbus A340-500 aircraft.
SQ 21 will touch down at Changi in the early hours of November 25, ending the world's longest direct service, Singapore Air. The second-longest flight, between the city- state and Los Angeles, ended yesterday.
The Newark service is about 16,700 kilometers long, while the Los Angeles flight was more than 14,000 kilometers. The longest non-stop commercial flight by distance after the end of these two routes will be Qantas' 13,800-kilometer flight from Sydney to Dallas. Qantas uses a Boeing 747-400ER on that route.
"With the current price of fuel, it's virtually impossible to make money on ultra-long-haul flights," said Singapore-based Brendan Sobie, chief analyst at CAPA Centre for Aviation.
A return ticket this week on the Singapore-Newark route costs as much as S$13,400 ($11,200), according to the airline's website. Flights to JFK via Frankfurt cost up to S$10,700. Singapore Air's spokesman Nicholas Ionides said the airline doesn't provide financials for any of the routes it operates.
The airline will begin returning the 340-500s to Toulouse, France-based Airbus starting this month. The deal is part of the carrier last year ordering more superjumbo A380s, the world's biggest passenger plane. Singapore Air uses the double-decker aircraft, also with four engines and with beds in first and business class, to fly to New York and Los Angeles through Frankfurt and Tokyo. The carrier has a fleet of 19 A380s.
Airbus halted production of the A340 in November 2011, less than 20 years after the aircraft's commercial debut. That made it the planemaker's shortest-lived aircraft program. The company sold 377 A340s, less than half the tally for the A330, with which it shared a production line, Airbus said on its website.
"While the price of fuel will have affected the cost of operating such ultra-long flights, the A340-500 has performed extremely well in service and has proven to be a firm favorite with passengers flying on these routes," Sean Lee, a spokesman at Airbus, said in an e-mail.
Overseas travellers flying into JFK face the longest customs waiting time for any airport in the US, with holdups as long as two hours, according to a September report by the Global Gateway Alliance.
"The Newark flight is so long that I can pretty much watch all the in-flight movies," said Banjo Castillo, a director at Unilever in Singapore after checking in at Changi. Castillo flies twice a year on this route.
Singapore Air started the world's longest flight in June 2004 with 181 business and economy seats. Almost four years later it was converted to an all-business class configuration. The Los Angeles service, which started in May 2004, was also retrofitted in the same way.
"SIA got greedy," said Shukor Yusof, an analyst at Standard & Poor's in Singapore. "It became less popular when SIA configured the cabins to all-business, instead of the business-super economy mix when it was first launched. It's pretty much a fuel tanker in the air."
Four pilots take turns to fly the plane for 19 hours while 14 cabin crew members look after the passengers. The flight takes off from Singapore at 10.55am and passengers are served three meals before it lands in Newark at 5.50pm Newark time, the same day.
Passengers get to choose between dishes of rib eye steak and pan-seared escalope of salmon prepared by the airline's international culinary panel of chefs.
Manpreet Singh Gill, 32, Singapore-based head of fixed income, currencies and commodities investment strategy at Standard Chartered's wealth management unit, says the non- stop flight boosts time spent at work or with family.
"Ultimately, travel time is the least productive," said Gill. "The more time you add on the way, the further it keeps you from either working or being at home."