Vietnam Airlines launches flights to San Francisco

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This is major – after (literally) decades of talking about it, it looks like Vietnam Airlines will finally start offering regular flights to the United States.

Vietnam Airlines will fly to the United States

SkyTeam member Vietnam Airlines will begin flying between Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) and San Francisco (SFO) from November 28, 2021 (that’s right, in just over a week). The new flight will operate according to the following schedule:

VN98 Ho Chi Minh City to San Francisco departs 8:40 p.m. arrives 7:30 p.m.
VN99 San Francisco to Ho Chi Minh City depart 11:00 p.m. arrive 6:40 a.m. (+2 days)

The flight will cover a distance of 7,838 miles and will be blocked at 1:50 p.m. eastbound and 4:40 p.m. westbound. It appears the flight will initially operate twice a week in both directions, on Sundays and Wednesdays. I already see the flight in the schedule, although the inventory has not yet been loaded for all flights.

Vietnam Airlines intends to use a mix of Airbus A350-900s and Boeing 787-9s for the route, with business class, premium economy and economy.

Vietnam Airlines Business Class Boeing 787-9

Vietnam Airlines has been talking about launching this route for many years. In 2019, Vietnam finally obtained a Category 1 classification from the FAA, opening the possibility of non-stop flights between the two countries.

More recently, Vietnam’s fast-growing private airline, Bamboo Airways, has been scrambling to launch flights to the United States. But it looks like Vietnam Airlines will beat Bamboo Airways to the punch when it comes to launching scheduled flights.

Bamboo Airways also wants to fly to the United States

Vietnam Airlines admits route will lose money

This is where the story gets really weird, if you ask me. VnExpress reports today on the statements of the CEO of Vietnam Airlines regarding the new route to San Francisco. A few things stand out in particular.

First of all, it is stated that in order to operate this non-stop route, Vietnam Airlines will have to significantly limit the weight of the aircraft. Instead of being able to carry more than 300 passengers, the airline will only be able to carry a maximum of 210 to 220 passengers on the westbound flight to Vietnam. Two thoughts:

  • It’s a total killer for the road economy, especially considering that Vietnam is largely a leisure market; the airline will have to demand a huge price premium in order not to lose money, and that’s hard to do for a primarily leisure-oriented destination
  • Does Vietnam Airlines have particularly heavy (or low MTOW) A350s or 787s, or why does the airline have to restrict payload so much, given that many airlines operate much longer routes with these planes (for example, United flew from Los Angeles to Singapore, which is nearly 1,000 miles away)?

Then there’s this nugget – the CEO of Vietnam Airlines says it will take five to 10 years before the airline is profitable on routes to the United States. Somehow, it is believed that the airline would be better off operating the planes to the United States than not at all, given the fixed costs.

Some additional thoughts:

  • Vietnam in Los Angeles is a much larger market than Vietnam in San Francisco, so it’s quite surprising that the airline operates in San Francisco; again, I assume the flight will already be weight limited, and that would be even more of an issue on LA flights
  • Vietnam still isn’t open to American tourists, so it’s kind of odd to launch the route at a time like this with less than two weeks’ notice; maybe freight is the main motivation here?
  • In fairness to Vietnam, it’s possible for an itinerary to directly lose money, but still make sense; it could have a positive impact on tourism and trade, and Vietnam is a fast-growing and business-friendly country
Vietnam Airlines Boeing 787-9

At the end of the line

It looks like it’s finally happening – Vietnam Airlines will launch a 2x weekly flight between Ho Chi Minh City and San Francisco from late November 2021. The airline has been talking about it for years, so it’s cool to see it finally arriving… I guess?

I mean, as an avgeek, I’m excited to see the launch of this route. I just can’t rationalize the concept of launching a road that you think will lose money for a decade from the start. I guess at least Vietnam Airlines is realistic, unlike so many other government-owned airlines that launch routes to the US and are surprised to lose money.

What do you think of Vietnam Airlines’ planned flight to San Francisco?

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