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The gulf between

History and geography haven’t been kind to Southeast Asia’s main hub airports – Bangkok and Singapore. In the mid-seventies, these hubs, along with Kuala Lumpur, were perfectly located astride the busy Kangaroo route to Australia, and acted as regional gateways to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

What has happened since is something that, back then, nobody could have predicted – the fall of Communism, the rise of China and the emergence of Gulf aviation in the shape of Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways. The end of the Cold War opened up new, faster air corridors between Europe and Northeast Asia. It meant that you could fly nonstop between the two regions in a fraction of the time it took before.

Over the years, the Gulf carriers have expanded so that they now offer a comprehensive network in most areas of the world, but especially in Europe, where they cover cities ranging from Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm in the north, and Warsaw, Prague and Moscow in the east, to Lisbon and Rome in the south.

The effect of this has been felt most keenly by Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Singapore Changi airport and its national carrier Singapore Airlines (SIA) have fared better, but both would have grown far more in terms of long-haul flights had the Gulf operations not existed.  

Thai’s Task

Not so long ago, travelers from Europe and all points west saw Bangkok as the gateway to the region, especially mainland Southeast Asia. It was also key for Australia, as Bangkok is halfway between Oz and Europe. The airlines liked this as broken journeys meant more economical fuel consumption.

Over the years, Bangkok has lost many long-haul routes as passengers have switched to alternate carriers and other, more convenient hubs. Today it’s often seen more as a leisure rather than a business destination. Thai Airways, which has required financial support from the Thai government in the past, has had to slim down its long-haul network. It means that most Bangkok flights are short- to medium-haul affairs rather than those lucrative long-haul services.

Although the Thai government adopted an “open skies” policy aimed at encouraging more airlines to fly to Thailand, the agreement is expected to be scrapped, according to the Bangkok Post, officially because of “safety concerns.” Thai transport minister Prajin Juntong told the Bangkok Post, “Our sky cannot provide space for more flights. To ensure safety and prevent aircraft collisions, we must limit the use of our sky. The problem must be solved quickly.”

Another possible explanation, however, is that while the policy has boosted visitor numbers on the one hand, it has driven down airline yields and, crucially, Thai aviation has lost out as travelers have chosen foreign carriers.  

Thailand’s industry has also been tarnished by a number of safety allegations. Restrictions on flight operations have resulted from investigations into Thai aviation for omissions in its commercial safety standards. As a consequence, the Kingdom has undertaken a series of reforms it says will ensure its airlines are up to internationally recognized standards.

Changi’s Challenge

Meanwhile it is Singapore’s famous and award-winning combination of Changi and SIA that continues to prosper. Built on reclaimed land, Changi had high ambitions when it opened in 1981. When it first began operating, it handled eight million passengers a year, but by last year the number had risen to 55.5 million.

To cope with demand, Changi has plenty of new ideas in the works. The new Terminal 4, due to be completed by 2017, will increase capacity by 16 million passengers. And a huge new Terminal 5 is in the planning stages, set to open in the middle of the next decade. It will be one of the largest in the world, bigger than the current Terminals 1, 2 and 3 combined, with an initial capacity of 50 million, and the potential to handle up to 70 million.

Still, Changi’s passenger growth will come mainly from new short- to medium-haul flights, now operated by a multitude of carriers, rather than long-haul services. SIA holds its own on the Kangaroo route, but has recently reworked its Australian schedules to improve connectivity with Asia, especially China, and not just Europe.

The American Way

One hurdle that has faced Singapore is that it has not been that well positioned for North America. Singapore, along with Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, is just a tad too far away for nonstop flights. SIA must now fly one-stop to North America after it abandoned its record-setting ultra long-haul single-leg flights in 2013.

On journeys of this length, the special A340-500s which plied this route were burning fuel just to carry the fuel needed to make the flight. Former Air France chief executive Pierre-Henri Gourgeon once described A340-500s as “flying fuel tankers with few people on board.”

Which brings us to the other major shift in global aviation that has impacted Southeast Asia’s hubs – and may yet prove to be their deliverance – namely, the development of aircraft technology that once again makes ultra-long haul nonstop routes feasible, both financially and experientially. Two cases in point: United’s soon-to-launch nonstop service from San Francisco to Changi aboard its 787-900, and the announcement by Singapore Air that it plans a return to the US aboard a newly expanded A350-900 ULR (“Ultra Long Range”) when the aircraft is delivered sometime in 2018.

Meanwhile Hong Kong is close enough for nonstop services and has therefore jumped to the eighth busiest airport on the planet in 2015, at least in part due to the chunk of business it took from the other Southeast Asia airports.

True North

The same convergence of airline competition and aircraft technology is moving the hub-and-spoke center of gravity for northern Asia as well. An emerging force on trans-Pacific routes is Seoul’s Incheon International Airport.

A look at the numbers for both Incheon and Changi is instructive. According to Airports Council International’s 2015 figures, ICN handled 49 million passengers, of whom 48 million were international travelers. Likewise, Changi hosted 54-plus million guests, all of whom were international passengers. What this means is that both airports are specifically designed around long-haul globe-girdling air service – just the kind of thing the new 787s and A350 extended range airplanes are built for.

Even as these new aircraft are making air markets where once none existed, the same development is helping diminish the importance of Tokyo Narita International Airport as a Far Eastern transit point. The airport was a legacy hub carved out of the Post-WWII era. Pan Am and Northwest were the beneficiaries, getting rights not only to Tokyo but beyond the Japanese capital to a variety of Asian points.

Pan Am sold its Pacific routes to United, and Northwest was absorbed by Delta. And so it is that UA and DL operate Far Eastern routes out of Narita. But while still an important nexus, Narita has lost some of its luminescence of late to Incheon. Add to that to the ability of the 787 to “overfly” Tokyo from North America and the skyscape is changing.

As for Tokyo per se, there’s been a quiet, but nonetheless noteworthy, move on the part of the Japanese government to ease access to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, the city’s so-called ‘downtown’ airport. Essentially, negotiations involving the US Departments of State and Transportation as well as the Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Tourism, paid off by opening HND to more daytime takeoff and landing slots.

The move means flights such as American Airlines’ new year-round nonstop service from Los Angeles to Tokyo Haneda, coming this fall, will no longer have to arrive around 11 PM and depart at 1:30 AM – inconvenient times, to say the least, for US business travelers. Earlier arrival times in the US and Japan will make for more convenient connections out of LAX, as well as AA partner Japan Airlines’ flights departing Haneda. In one fell swoop look for a slew of options to open up for business travel to and through Haneda.