San Francisco To Singapore: The Frenemy Bloodbath

Filed Under: Singapore, United

Yesterday Singapore Airlines announced that they’d be relaunching flights between Los Angeles and Singapore, with up to 10x weekly flights. Arguably that wasn’t even the most interesting announcement from Singapore Airlines yesterday. In many ways I find it even more interesting that they’re adding a further three weekly flights between San Francisco and Singapore as of November 28, 2018, using their A350-900ULR aircraft.

Up to 4x daily flights between San Francisco and Singapore

Prior to June 2016 there were no nonstop flights between San Francisco and Singapore. Since then:

This means that we’ll see a total of 24 weekly frequencies between San Francisco and Singapore, and up to four flights per day. That’s insane.

Not only does this represent a lot of overall capacity, but it represents a lot of premium cabin seats as well:

That means we’ll see a minimum of 138 business class seats per day, and up to 205 business class seats per day. That’s a lot of capacity. It’s hard to argue that the rate at which capacity is being added is rational, but rather we’re seeing an outright airline war at this point.

What makes this “war” so interesting

There are two things I find especially interesting about what Singapore Airlines and United Airlines are doing here.

First of all, I’m surprised that Singapore Airlines is getting involved in a war like this. Singapore Airlines is historically a very conservative airline. Actually, I can’t think of a major airline that’s more conservative with their growth. So to see them battling United the way they are is quite interesting.

Keep in mind that United first started flying between San Francisco and Singapore, and then Singapore immediately followed. Then when United announced a second daily flight, they added capacity as well. Clearly the timing isn’t a coincidence, and Singapore Airlines is being reactive here.

The other aspect of this that I find interesting is that keep in mind that both Singapore and United belong to the Star Alliance. The two airlines don’t cooperate especially closely, and it seems like their partnership has largely been reluctant.

There is something interesting about seeing two airlines that are supposed to be partners fighting one another in such a way. The irony is that the two airlines are trying to drive one another out of the market, yet Singapore Airlines is carrying United passengers before Singapore, and United is carrying Singapore Airlines passengers beyond San Francisco.

So they’re very much working against one another here, yet oddly are still working together. I suspect this is largely because they don’t have much of a choice given that they’re in the same alliance, and neither airline is prepared to leave, and certainly not going to do so over a single route.

Bottom line

There’s simply no way the San Francisco to Singapore market can sustain this much capacity. Sure, the airlines will probably be able to fill seats, but not in a way that’s lucrative, given that all of this capacity will drive down fares.

I feel like capacity reductions are inevitable here, though I can’t decide which airline is most likely to pull out first. Obviously Singapore Airlines has a far superior business class product, and also has corporate contracts in Singapore. At the same time, United has corporate contracts in San Francisco, and based on what I’ve seen the market is bigger for travel from San Francisco to Singapore than the other way around.

I’ll be very interesting to see how this plays out.

What do you guys think — can San Francisco to Singapore maintain 24 weekly flights? If not, will Singapore or United relent first?

  1. Didn’t know there was such a high premium demand for SFO-SIN. I imagine it has to do with tech companies or?

  2. Considering that SIN is a connecting market it’s not a lot, NYC has over 300 J seats to DXB every day and over 30 weekly flights for example

  3. I’ll bet we see UA try to play some codeshare games by cutting off some connections or making it more difficult to connect from/to the SQ flights

  4. “yet Singapore Airlines is carrying United passengers before Singapore, and United is carrying Singapore Airlines passengers beyond San Francisco.”

    Is this true? I’ve never seen a code share between these airlines. SQ connects passengers to Virgin/Alaska. I wish they did code share.

  5. @ Michael — But the whole reason behind this route is to serve the O&D market, not connections. Ultra longhaul flights are tough to make money on, and only make sense if there’s significant demand for that market alone. If we are going to look at connecting traffic, the question is how many destinations can be served in one stop via SIN that can’t be served in one stop from one of the existing gateways.

  6. @ AL — Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I suspect these flights are pretty weight restricted due to how long they are. I imagine the A350-900ULR might be able to carry more cargo, but I think the A350-900 and 787-9 are near their max ranges without a full cargo load.

  7. As long as they don’t cancel the SIN – HKG – SFO route.. it’s the only first class option..

  8. Who says it’s O/D market? If you’re in SFO there are tons of smaller Asian destinations and perhaps in Africa that could not easily be reached in 1 stop other than via SIN or HKG (or the reverse via DXB, LHR etc).

  9. How are they frenemies? You have to be friends to be that.
    United doesn’t participate with any of their Asian partners other than ANA. Look at whether they sell anybody else’s tickets on their website. No.

  10. @ James — They’re “friends” on the surface in the sense that they’re part of the same alliance, and all the things that come along with that. Not saying they actually like one another, but on the surface that’s how it appears.

  11. It seems like Singapore cares more about JetBlue and Virgin/Alaska than United. Not surprising, since both are significantly better airlines, and if you’re connecting to NYC it’s gotta be really jarring to get on a United plane.

  12. @Lucky, can you please remove @Debit’s comment above? I’m not sure if it is an attempt at sick humor or what, but it doesn’t seem to have a place in this forum.

  13. Any comment as to award availability on this route? I haven’t seen any from my limited searches. You’d think this fight would result in good awards but so far no

  14. Seattle will take the loser! To my knowledge, we have no direct flights to SE Asia. And soon, not even to Hong Kong. 🙁

  15. You’re completely neglecting the fact that this isnt just about the SFO -SIN market. United has a GIGANTIC network behind SFO that feeds these flights. So it’s really about USA – Singapore for United. And from friends I know at United, they do indeed tell me that, while the local SFO-SIN market is the largest O/D city pair on the route, the feed from the UA network at SFO is essential to ensuring the flight works. From Singapore, there’s also opportunities to connect onwards. Likewise, for Singapore, it has an enormous network beyond Singapore that it can flow passengers to/ and from. It’s a lot of capacity all at once, to be sure. But in time the markets will absorb it.

  16. The SFO-SIN route is doing well, that’s why United added capacity, simple as that. LAX-SIN was a blood bath by contrast. I’m sure United will adjust if their offering doesn’t do well.

    If most of the traffic is US-based as lucky suggests, and people book tickets through United to earn a ton of award miles on expensive $10,000 biz tickets, United can actually get a decent chunk of the revenue from Singapore for no work. The marketing carrier gets to keep a chunk of the fare. Obviously they prefer people to fly their own planes so they can get all of it, but it’s not all bad news for United if some US-based flyers do book through Singapore, as long as they’re more engaged with MileagePlus than KrisFlyer.

    Singapore is rumored to be ripping United off on onward connections from Singapore, particularly in economy, so United might not want to route any connecting traffic through Singapore right now. Their margins on business are large enough that it matters less so they’ll route biz customers wherever is most convenient/preferred in terms of connections, but lower-value connecting fares probably won’t go through SIN.

  17. Personal experience here from March – IND to SIN leads to all sorts of curious routings. Ended up taking UA IND-SFO-SIN, in part because my corporate travel agent could only book the SQ flight through HKG and not the direct, and I could only get to SFO on VX and the schedule didn’t align that well. Also didn’t like the idea of business trip where the domestic leg is on the only flight (and only plane) VX sends out of IND.

    SQ/UA definitely did not codeshare on IND-SFO. Neither to LAX. Had the frustrating moment at SFO of looking out at the UA 789 flanked by SQ and EVA planes, thinking “aw man”.

  18. @Lucky
    Why are you ignoring the other SQ flight to SIN via HKG? SFO-HKG-SIN.
    Those 24 daily flights are the non-stop ones.

    The yields must be extremely good on this route that both airlines are adding capacity.

    For a long time Singapore Airlines had been going at it on its own. It’s also only just recently that they started a joint venture with Lufthansa. Just as we’ve seen with the Gulf carriers, LH used to be very vocal about/against SQ but now they’re buddies.

  19. @Lucky

    You’re so mistaken… This is not a typical ultra long-haul flight purposed to serve just SFO and SIN lol.

    United has a gigantic presence (essentially a monopoly) at SFO, and Singapore dominates the APAC, especially Southeast Asia, market. Bay Area tech companies have the money to throw around for their employees to travel in Premium Class for any marginally legitimate reasons, whether it be just attending a conference in Jakarta, an optional training in Bangkok, or a simple market research in Malaysia. Heck, even the employees in Bay Area have high enough salaries to personally pay for business class for their vacations.

    Southeast Asia is also attracting more Western tourists than ever before. Your options from West Coast USA to Southeast Asia are very limited to either ICN or NRT at the moment.

    In addition, would you rather do a 16hr + 2hr flight? Or Would you rather do a 13hr + 6hr flight? I’d personally choose the former, but then this is solely a personal opinion.

  20. Would be interesting to see if they are offering rock-bottom prices on connections. For example, someone going like PHX-SFO-SIN-MNL in economy. SIN has a lot of good connections in Asia, as does SFO for the US. I can see them filling the seats through that market.

    For example when I fly from DC to MNL, often the cheapest (in J) is WAS-YYZ-HKG-MNL. AC needs to fill that YYZ-HKG flight.

  21. As somebody who used to travel quite a bit from SFO-HKG-SIN on CX in J, I appreciate there are so many non-stop options that bypass HKG now. I do believe there are a surprising number of companies who have their Asian HQ in Singapore, as my former company did. I would have much rather have taken the SQ non-stop flight (especially over United).

  22. Lucky, I think you often overlook what’s going on in the business world when you write about capacity of routes:

    Singapore is quickly becoming the tech center of Asia. Google and FB are building out enormous Asia HQs in SIN. I’ve been on UA flights where almost the entire business class on UA1 was Apple employees. It’s not unusual to have over 20 Global Services on that flight.

    As South East and South Asia become important markets and as China (including HKG) becomes more restrictive/censored, you’ll find that Singapore is becoming the new center of Asia (at least for business). Many American businesses have reduced their presences in Hong Kong and beijing..

    If the demand isn’t fully there yet, it will soon be. A few years back I knew very few people who traveled regularly to Singapore. Now, I know many people (myself included) who go 4-5x a year for work. And a lot of this shift has only happened in the last year or two. The good timing of the UA flight has certainly helped make this a more bearable commute.

  23. Assuming they are the same price, who would fly United if you can fly SIngapore Airlines?

  24. Routes can be justified with one large company. Google made the SFO-ZRH route possible apparently (LX).

  25. I thought all of you would be happy to see such a competition which sooner or later pushes down prices… Yet nobody mentions how good it is for customers! Or maybe not? Come on, enjoy it till it last instead of whinig

  26. @Cedric:

    LX’s SFO-ZRH route was/is made possible by Roche, now Genentech – not Google. That flight is called “The Roche Coach” for that reason.

  27. @James : you *do* know that UA also has a cordial semi-partnership with Air China (CA) but that can’t become a JV cuz there’s no open skies with mainland China, but your original assertion that UA is only friends with ANA definitely leaves out quite a bit of reality.

    and it’s not like they’re too adversarial with EVA Air either. Those IAH-TPE flights ain’t gonna be sustainable just with a bunch of $500 roundtrip connector tickets for Houston and Hanoi ethnic traffic.

  28. @Lucky,

    I think there is one thing that sets apart SFO from LAX. SFO has a need to have good Bay Area to Asia connections. (not via LAX) One thing i would like to learn is with the explosion of the tech economy in the Bay Area over the last 10 years, how has that effected demand for business capacity out of this area. SF is not the best connecting airport, however it does have a lot of business money.

    Delta and Alaska are fighting for the tech demand domestically, Alaska bought Virgin to get better access to this market, and Delta wants to control Seattle. I think there is more demographic meta shaping this game then meets the eye. Also, the tech business traveler has higher standards then what United is providing out of the SFO market. For United having so much capacity out of SFO its hilarious how locals avoid it like the plague. So much so that they started advertising their new 787’s on local transit like Muni and Caltrain.

  29. why do people just use the rear view mirror and make judgments like “no way route XYZ can sustain this much capacity” ?

    on, even 4 years back, everyone kept yammering about TLV’s next new/expansion opportunities in the US should be ORD / MIA / LAX (you name it) ….. nearly never has anyone mentioned SFO …. but UA totally proved everyone wrong where SFO-TLV became such an instant hit financially it didn’t even need any ramp-up period of sustaining poor performance.

    SFO-SIN could possibly be one of those cases too …. and it’s “new” only in the sense that no nonstops were done before, but the demand has been there for quite some time. Previously, SQ has been doing SIN-HKG-SFO and SIN-ICN-SFO (or some variation of that scheme) for ages, while UA’s old 5th-freedom model has continuously flown NRT-SIN and HKG-SIN for years.

    Although, I admit, this does piss off some LAX loyalists who are still clinging to the “good ole days” when LAX was *the* center and SFO was the ugly stepsister playing second-fiddle in anything and everything.

  30. @Jamie Carter – I know several “tech business travelers” in SFO and they all fly United for the majority of their travels. It might not offer always the best service, but they have the nonstops to the most markets with the best schedules, end of story. Another way of thinking about it – if the flights werent doing well, United would shift their capacity elsewhere. A tech business traveler is just the same kind of business traveler as any other – they want a schedule that meets their needs. United does that in the bay area for a lot of people, hence their expansion there.

  31. @Jamie Carter : if these tech travelers were so keen on supporting a higher quality product, we wouldn’t have seen VX dumping themselves on the auction block.

    it’s also more hilarious to think DL is anywhere close to “controlling” SEA when they’re self-surrendering monopoly routes like SEA-HKG.

  32. @Santastico – yes indeed who would fly UA if they can fly SQ.
    1. UA loyalists
    2. UA status/pqd chasers (mostly OPM, could be #3 or #4)
    3. OPM contracts
    4. Fly America
    5. People who fly whatever is cheaper in Y
    6. People who can get E+ for free

  33. I know over a dozen tech business travelers who have flown UA SFO-SIN and know one who has done SQ. The fact that PQD cannot be earned on SQ, coupled with the vastly superior award earnings on UA paid J tickets, make the SQ flight a nonstarter.

    While not glamorous, the UA seats are certainly comfortable enough for sleeping. (The bedding certainly helps.) UA understands that its HVFs just want to get on a late night flight, eat, get some work done (with good Wi-Fi), sleep 7-10 hours, then land in Singapore ready to get to business.

    As it has done with TLV and SIN, UA needs to think outside the box once more and bring a SFO-BOM/DEL nonstop. With timing similar to UA1, it would be extremely popular with Bay Area tech businesses.

  34. It’s not just Bay Area Tech people taking these UA flights. I’ve taken this flight in J twice in the past, I’m not based at SFO or a Tech Industry person but there are limited US gateways to SIN offering just one connection for those of us who aren’t based at one of these hubs. I never want to take more than two flights if I can possibly avoid it. Sometimes it just comes down to logistics.

  35. Singapore Airlines have never considered Singapore to be a destination point, instead their whole operation is about transiting to other destinations. I expect a large number of their passengers will transit through to other Asian destinations like India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Many Australians from Western and Northern Australia use Singapore as transit point to USA as often quicker than backtracking via Sydney!
    Asians and Aussies see Singapore Airlines as one of the best airlines in the world and have a very low opinion of US airlines.

  36. I’m changing from UA to SQ Premium Econ for my quarterly SFO-HKG and my semi-annual SFO-SIN runs.
    I’ll get PQM to maintain my UA Platinum status. I always get the CC spend waiver.
    Until UA either gets their act together and either: 1) installs PE seats or 2) revises the Polaris miles upgrade policy back to instant confirmation vs their BS waitlist, they’ve now lost my business.

  37. Just flown Singapore jhb/sin on their new evening flight. The seat on the A350 business class is the weirdest ever. Have to sit at an angle unless completely upright. Any amount of recline involves one leg being raised and the other hanging. To fully recline involves putting the seat back to its original position then standing to press a lever and pull the backrest forward to make it fully flat but not fully straight. To add to the discomfort there’s no individual air vent, so a hot (as mine was) aircraft and a seat designed to break your back, mitigates the lovely service and food offered!

  38. @Lucky A lot of VCs are setting up offices in Singapore to fund south east Asian start ups. Plus I did hear Google, Facebook are increasing their offices and hire count in Singapore. Local Uber competitor Grab that bought Uber’s business in South East Asia apparently also has a engineering team in SFO that supports the Asian business and Grab is expanding crazily after pushing out Uber. It is possible this can make the SIN – SFO route possible.

  39. United seem to be pricing this route very cheap! Sub $600 on certain dates! I wonder how long they can keep that up for?

  40. So we are talking about 6 extra services a week between SIN and California (SQ has extra 3 services into LAX and 3 into SFO) and increased mix of premium economy and business seating vs economy. UA have not altered their capacity between SIN and USA for years – just changed the connecting point. Originally it was double daily via HKG or NRT, then it was via HKG or SFO and then via SFO or LAX and now just 2 services via SFO.

  41. Singapore has the largest U.S. naval base in South East Asia. There are tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel stationed “temporarily” in Singapore. While many would come and go via their naval ships and aircraft carriers, I would imagine others, including family members and relatives traveling via commercial airlines.

    Singapore is the Asia HQ (excluding Japan and China, which usually have their own East Asia HQ) of numerous American companies.

    The Singapore American School is the largest in South East Asia.

    There are many rich Indonesians and not-so-rich Malaysians who “hop” to Singapore on their way to USA.

  42. I said “temporarily” because officially, Singapore does NOT have a U.S. naval base. However, unofficially, its Changi naval base is as good as being a U.S. naval bsae – it was expanded specially to enable U.S. aircraft carrier to dock and has since hosted the U.S. navy “temporarily” while they come and go from the middle east to Japan / Guam.

  43. Having flown both airlines on the direct routes in J, i find the UA flight to be more comfortable. The ability to straighten my legs cannot be discounted.

    Sure SQ has good service and food but the hard product is bad in J. My wife and I would rather fly the SQ12 SIN-NRT-LAX and spam those airmiles to get to First or Suites(pls bring it back) than endure SQ biz

  44. I believe quite a few South Asia and Indonesia passengers would prefer the one stop to US West Coast/NY ( eg Lucky wrote about Ahmedabad to Newark but he could just as easily have talked about Ahmedabad to SFO/LAX) on SQ than Emirates one stop or even AI non stop in certain markets. If you view SQ as basically rivaling Emirates or AI for South Asia traffic it makes sense.

  45. Levi is headquartered in SF and has a branch in Singapore. Have friends who work for Levi and travel frequently between the two.

  46. Alaska MVP here– I’m just waiting for the partnership redemption/recognition to roll out!
    SQ used to fly to SEA and YVR, so its not like they’re gonna be new names for AS expansion.

  47. The ongoing rivalry between both airlines is pretty evident to me, with the subtle barriers installed by both sides. I cannot make a single reservation on SIA if I needed connections beyond SFO, but I could do so with ANA. I cannot use SIA miles to claim certain UA domestic. UA shifted most connecting flights to east coast/central earlier than the arrival of the SIA flight at SFO, so folks on SIA will either have a super long layover or be forced to take UA.

    Done SIN-SFO on both SIA & UA, with an onward connection since the inception of the route. The time saved is significant to me. Seats & service wise, I still find that SIA is way ahead of the race, UA is catching up quickly.

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