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A350-900ULR: Singapore Airlines could be the sole customer

The first A350-900ULR has rolled out of the paint shop in Toulouse ahead of the delivery to its launch customer – and perhaps the only customer – Singapore Airlines (SIA). The aircraft is scheduled to enter service on 11-Oct-2018 as SIA resumes nonstop flights from Singapore to Newark, following a five-year hiatus. 

The A350-900ULR is a new longer range variant of the A350-900 developed by Airbus for SIA. It is available to other airlines but will likely only be acquired by SIA, given SIA’s unique ultra long range requirement.

SIA ordered seven A350-900ULRs in 2015. All seven aircraft are now in assembly and will be delivered by the end of 2018. 

Summary

  • The first A350-900ULR has rolled out of the paint shop and is slated to enter service with Singapore Airlines in Oct-2018 as SIA resumes Singapore-Newark nonstop flights.
  • The A350-900ULR features an enhanced maximum takeoff weight and an aerodynamic performance improvement package that is also now available on standard A350-900s.
  • Iberia and Philippine Airlines have already taken delivery of A350-900s with the increased MTOW and aerodynamic performance improvement package, which PAL can benefit from as it launches new nonstop Manila-New York flights.
  • The A350-900ULR has increased fuel capacity but the extra fuel can only be realistically accessed if an airline opts for a low density configuration. 
  • SIA may ultimately be the only A350-900ULR operator, given the uniqueness of its ultra long range requirement and its premium focus.

SIA gears up for A350-900ULR operations 

As CAPA has highlighted in prior analysis reports, SIA plans to operate its new fleet of seven A350-900ULRs on 20 weekly nonstop flights to the US, which will all be launched during 4Q2018. 

The first A350-900ULR route will be Singapore-Newark – which begins in Oct-2018 and enables SIA to regain the status of operating the world’s longest route. The route is approximately 8,300nm and has a scheduled flight time (in the northern winter schedule) of 18hr30min from Newark. From Singapore the flight has a slightly shorter scheduled flight time of 17hr 50mins. 

The rest of the A350-900ULR fleet will be used on the shorter Singapore-Los Angeles and Singapore-San Francisco routes. SIA has operated nonstop flights from Singapore to San Francisco since late 2016 using standard A350-900s. Nonstop flights from Singapore to Newark and Los Angeles were operated from 2004 to 2013 using A340-500s.

See related reports:

A350-900ULR range spec is based on low density configuration 

Airbus lists the A350-900ULR as having a range of up to 9,700nm and capable of flying more than 20 hours. However, these range figures are based on an all-premium configuration. For all other aircraft models, including the standard A350-900, Airbus range figures are based on an average medium density three class configuration. 

SIA is configuring its A350-900ULRs with only 161 seats, consisting of 94 premium economy and 67 business class seats. Even with only 161 seats, SIA expects payload restrictions will limit its ability to carry any cargo from Newark to Singapore during certain periods of the year. With a slightly longer route, SIA would likely not be able to sell all 161 seats.

SIA has 253 seats on its standard long haul configured A350-900s, which have a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 275 tonnes. It now has some payload restrictions from San Francisco to Singapore using this aircraft, but would not have any payload restrictions if this aircraft had only 161 seats. SIA would also likely not have payload restrictions from San Francisco with the 253-seat configuration if it acquired standard A350-900s with an upgraded MTOW of 280 tonnes.  

In addition, SIA would likely be able to operate Los Angeles-Singapore without any payload restrictions using 161-seat standard (non-ULR) A350-900. Los Angeles-Singapore is about 7600nm and has a scheduled flight time of 17hr 50mins, while San Francisco-Singapore is about 7300nm and has a scheduled flight time of 17hr 35mins (during winter months). The flights from Singapore to the US west coast are up to three hours shorter (depending on the time of year) due to tailwinds.

A350-900ULR provides extra fuel and several design improvements 

The A350-900ULR essentially gives SIA an extra hour or two of range over the standard A350-900, assuming equal density. 

The A350-900ULR has 24,000 litres of additional fuel capacity, which is 17% more than the fuel capacity on the standard A350-900. Airbus has been able to make this fuel capacity available by modifying the piping and valves in the A350-900 fuel system. 

Additional tanks were not necessary, making the A350-900ULR a relatively cheap development programme; cheap enough that even if SIA ends up being the only customer, Airbus can justify the cost.

Airbus also designed some minor modifications, resulting in a small fuel burn improvement. These include larger winglets and changes to the wing (a slight twist), flap supporting fairings and overwing fairings. 

However, as all these improvements are also now being offered on the standard A350-900s, the investment can be recouped across a much larger number of aircraft. The new increased MTOW of 280 tonnes is also now available on the standard A350-900.

Extra fuel benefit is only useful in a low density configuration 

The additional fuel capacity is essentially the only unique benefit of the A350-900ULR. It is now available to any A350 customer that elects to acquire the A350-900ULR.

However, this extra fuel capacity can realistically only be used if a low density premium-focused configuration is selected. With a normal configuration (approximately 300 passengers), the A350-900ULR would be too heavy to take off when loaded with passengers and the extra 24,000 litres in fuel. 

Therefore, the A350-900ULR is only useful for airlines that have a requirement to fly routes of 18 to 20 hours in a very low density configuration (100 to 200 seats, depending on the exact length of route). There are not likely any airlines with such a requirement, given there are not many – if any – markets similar to Singapore-US in terms of route length and premium mix. 

Airbus increases range of standard A350-900

Airbus lists the standard A350-900 as having a range of up to 8,100nm based on a typical 325-seat three class configuration. The 8,100nm range is for an aircraft with the newly available MTOW of 280 tonnes.

The 275 tonne variant now operated by SIA has a published range of 7,750nm. The original 268 tonne variant of the A350-900, which was the only option when the A350-900 first entered service in 2014, has a published range of 7,270nm. Airbus also offers a 250 tonne option with a derated engine for regional operations.

A350-900 range by variant

Variant  Range  In-service date 
A350-900 MTOW 268-tonne 7,270nm 2014
A350-900 MTOW 275-tonne 7,750nm 2016
A350-900 MTOW 280-tonne 8,100nm 2018
A350-900ULR  9,700nm 2018

In late Jun-2018 Iberia took delivery of the first 280 tonne MTOW A350. This was the first A350 to feature the aerodynamic performance improvement package (larger winglets, wing twist, enhanced flap supporting fairings and modified overwing fairings) that had originally been designed for the A350-900ULR.

PAL to operate longest A350-900 non-ULR route 

In mid Jul-2018 Philippine Airlines (PAL) also took delivery of an A350 with the aerodynamic improvement package and the 280 tonne MTOW. PAL initially ordered six A350-900s with an enhanced MTOW of 278 tonnes in 2016, and can benefit from the improvement package as it operates ultra long range routes.

Iberia does not have any ultra long range routes but will operate the A350-900 on long range routes of up to 13 hours (such as Buenos Aires). Iberia has selected a relatively high density configuration of 348 seats, and the increased MTOW could be useful from a cargo payload perspective on Spain-South America routes. 

PAL has opted for a 295-seat three class configuration for its new fleet of six A350-900s and is now operating its first A350 on regional routes ahead of the 28-Oct-2018 launch of nonstop flights to New York. PAL also plans to use its first batch of A350s to replace 777-300ERs on the Manila-London route. 

New York-Manila will become the longest route operated by the standard A350-900. The route is approximately 7400nm, making it slightly longer than San Francisco-Singapore. New York to Manila has a scheduled block time of 16hr 30mins. Manila to New York is one hour shorter. 

PAL and other airlines do not have a need for the A350-900ULR

If PAL wants to operate a longer US route it would need to acquire the A350-900ULR. However, it would also need to reduce the density to accommodate the additional fuel. The US-Philippines market has a relatively low proportion of premium traffic, making such a configuration unviable. 

PAL is now not planning to launch any longer US routes. The airline was earlier considering Miami-Manila, which is approximately 8,100nm. However, PAL is now instead only considering Chicago and Seattle for its final two A350s, which are slated for delivery in 2019. Chicago-Manila is slightly shorter than New York-Manila.

The PAL example highlights how difficult it will be for Airbus to find a second customer for the A350-900ULR. Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines have a similar issue and would need high density aircraft for potential US nonstop flights, given the limited premium traffic in the Thailand/Vietnam-US markets.

There are currently 191 A350s in service (184 A350-900s and seven A350-1000s) spread across 20 operators, according to the CAPA Fleet Database. SIA is the third largest A350 operator after Qatar Airways and Cathay Pacific.

Southeast Asia is the region with the greatest number of A350s, with 52 aircraft in service spread across five operators (SIA, PAL, Vietnam Airlines, Thai Airways and Malaysia Airlines). Southeast Asia-US is an ideal market for the A350-900ULR from a range perspective, but only Singapore-US has the premium traffic for the type to be viable. 

A350 in-service fleet by region: as of 1-Aug-2018

Southeast Asia Northeast Asia Western Europe Middle East North America Africa South America Caribbean
52 47 32 30 11 11 6 2

Airbus currently has 550 orders for the A350-900 (includes orders not yet confirmed), along with the seven orders for the A350-900ULR, according to the CAPA Fleet Database. It is unlikely that any of the A350-900 orders will be converted to ULRs. 

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