They are teasing the details, but Singapore Airlines is coming back to New York to fly the longest flight in the world, Newark to Singapore. It will, once again, become the reigning champion in the ultimate long-distance race -- only in this case, speed matters far less than distance.
Ownership of the World's Longest Flight is a much sought-after prize among the world's airlines. It lends certain legitimacy to one's standing in the worldwide airline community; it is a badge of honor.
It is also a rather unique way to lose money. That is why Singapore gave up the crown when, after a decade of service, it ended its Newark-Singapore nonstop run in 2013. Fuel costs, as well as the need to fly with several crews, were just way ahead of an airline's ability to generate yields sufficient to support the project.
But now there is a new aircraft, the Airbus 350-900ULR. Its first test flight was made on April 23, and things have gone well enough to position this plane to fly the king of all routes later this year. The new Airbus will be able to fly up to 11,160 miles without refueling, an improvement of about 1,800 miles over the previous A-350 model. Singapore has ordered seven of the planes.
Singapore wants its title back from Qatar Airways, which operates the world's longest nonstop flight, between Auckland, New Zealand, and Doha, Qatar, using long-distance Boeing 777 equipment.
Qantas, the airline that pioneered long-distance air travel, is still very much in the running. It flies its longest route, Perth, Australia, to London, in just over 17 hours.
Singapore Airlines will be listing the flight time from home to Newark at just about 19 hours.
The economics of operating flights of this length are challenging. A 19-hour flight requires around 6,240 more gallons of fuel than what the current model 350s can carry. Then there is the matter of crew. Pilots may fly no more than eight hours without rest/sleep. The world's longest flights generally carry two complete flight crews with three pilots and two or three first officers. There is a stairway leading to a compartment with rather comfy bunk beds for the crew. Video screens are not provided. These folks are tired, as service standards and frequency of service are normally enhanced to avoid boredom. If you would like a peek at crew quarters I suggest you check CNN's Richard Quest on the world's longest flight.
Operators of long-distance flights face questions related to delicate payload/range calculations. The plane can be ordered with an increase in sustainable takeoff weight, or the airline can, instead, find more value in reducing passenger and cargo loads.
Singapore has said it will gear the flight to business travelers and reconfigure the plane with just 161 seats divided between business and premium economy cabins. That will make for a higher average ticket price and, perhaps, help make the economics work.
If we would all just be patient, we may eventually have improved aircraft, and the experience may steadily improve. I was particularly interested in just how much new technology might make a 19-hour flight palatable. In the past, my favorite escape route was an eight-hour binge of "Fawlty Towers" episodes on a British Airways flight to Nairobi, Kenya.
I love people-watching on long flights. I so envy those passengers who have the ability to simply fall asleep at will. It is a gift I was never given. My daughter is so blessed, and she really thrives on long flights. I remember once landing in Dubai when she was younger, after 14 hours on Emirates. She loved it. At the gate, when the flight attendant stopped by to say goodbye my daughter explained that the movie she was watching had about 10 minutes more to run and asked if she would be able to remain in her seat.
But there have been problems with long-haul flights. Besides configurations that did not produce maximum yield, the planes burned fuel to a degree that always made profitability on longer routes only theoretically possible. And there has always been the threat of fuel cost increases.
In October 2016, Singapore initiated nonstop service from San Francisco. Given how much closer San Francisco is to Singapore, the ultralong-range version of the A350 was not required. In fact, some of the airlines that are interested in longer routes freely admit that they are running low on 18- to 20-hour destinations.
There are some studies that show a fair number of folks prefer to fly for about 14 hours before getting off to rest and then connect or fly on the next day. Airlines in the Middle East are positioned perfectly for many long-distance travelers, and Qatar, Etihad and Emirates have the financial backing and the desire to become known as the long-flight carrier of choice. That is one reason we are seeing showers and private bedrooms make their way into first class.
For the travel consultant, long-distance flying is profitable, but it does take some research and more than a little personal intervention and advice. Clients who are traveling 14-plus-hour flights in any class to Asia, the Middle East or Africa on a vacation are likely not familiar with long plane rides. They won't know what to do with their time.
They will also need help with alleviating the dangers of deep-vein thrombosis, a potential killer for those occupying any seat for long periods of time. It might be a good idea to advise any client going on a long-distance flight to speak with their physician so that medication or advice regarding precautionary steps can be taken.
But things are getting more comfortable up there. The long-distance planes coming off the assembly line have higher ceilings, lower noise levels and design features that aim to create the atmosphere of a long room rather than a long tube. Even the air is getting better. Perhaps the biggest change that long-distance flyers don't consciously notice is a maximum in-cabin altitude of 6,000 feet. This is a 25% reduction in the comparable altitude of the vast majority of planes flying long-distance routes today.
Humidity in the cabin in already improving. Major routes have been operated with aircraft that have about a 20% humidity level. That is about 5% less than the humidity in the Sahara Desert. But even that number is improving on the new-generation aircraft. This dramatically changes the percentage of passengers who are able to sleep in their more comfortable seats or their true lie-flat beds.
New interior design and air quality may have a serious impact on jet lag. At least that is the hope.
Long-distance flying is getting better, although it can still get lots better. The restroom experience on longer flights is usually less than ideal. It is always interesting to keep stats on the number of passengers per restroom in business class, for instance, on long-haul flights. The numbers vary to a greater degree than you might imagine.
As we know from years of tire-kicking and testing, Singapore Airlines will make their world's longest flight experience surprisingly comfortable. But it is both a human and a technological challenge of major proportions.