In March, Emirates launched the world's longest flight
. Moving passengers from Dubai to Auckland, New Zealand, it spanned 8,824 miles and lasted 17 hours, 15 minutes. But Dubai-Auckland's reign as longest of the long-haul routes promises to be short-lived.
Just days after Emirates inaugurated that service, Qatar Airways announced that it would begin flying
the 9,034-mile route from Doha, Qatar, to Auckland in December.
Those twin events could be viewed as a back and forth between the rival Persian Gulf carriers, and surely regional competition for the New Zealand market played a role in Qatar's quick response to Emirates.
But the events are also part of a growing industrywide fight over ultralong-haul routes, regarded loosely as flights of 15 hours or more, as more efficient aircraft and cheap fuel have made such service feasible.
Within just the past seven months, Singapore Airlines announced a plan to resume the approximately 9,500-mile, 19-hour route from its city-state home to either Newark or New York JFK in 2018, and United announced a plan to fly directly to Singapore from San Francisco. That 8,446-mile, San Francisco-to-Singapore route, which is scheduled to commence on June 1, will be the longest serviced by a U.S. carrier.
Meanwhile, Emirates still has its sights set on flying the 17 hours, 35 minutes between its Dubai hub and Panama City. The carrier has delayed the start of the route twice since announcing the plan in August, but it now says service will begin late this year or early in 2017.
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While a certain prestige accrues to the carrier that can boast that it flies the world's longest route, airlines insist they are chasing markets, not publicity.
"What really matters is offering customers something that meets their needs profitably," said James Boyd, a spokesman for Singapore Airlines. "If that happens to be the world's longest route, there are certainly some bragging rights."
Brian Znotins, United's vice president of network, expressed a similar sentiment.
"We're not really thinking we want to go out and offer ultralong-haul flying," he said. "We just want to connect as many top business locations as we can. And if they're ultralong-haul, that's just more of a coincidence for us."
A new long-haul era
The efforts by airlines to push the distance limits on established city pairs might have been harder to imagine in 2013, when Singapore ended its direct routes to Newark and Los Angeles as oil prices topped $100 per barrel.
Now, carriers enjoy the benefit of oil that costs less than $50 per barrel. And though it may seem counterintuitive, said Seth Kaplan, an aviation analyst who is a managing partner of Airline Weekly, fuel actually encompasses a higher percentage of the total cost on ultralong-haul flights than on shorter routes. That's despite the fact that longer flights benefit from flying farther after the most fuel-intensive phase of the service, the takeoff.
"On shorter flights, a larger portion of the cost is in baggage handling and on-the-ground stuff," Kaplan said. "Proportionately, long haul is all about fuel."
The longest routes also suffer a fuel-efficiency gap compared with shorter flights because they're burdened by the sheer weight of the jet fuel they must carry.
Cheap fuel has made ultralong-haul flying more viable again, but it's just one factor in the surge of extra-long routes that both analysts and airlines predict will not end soon.
"You're going to see more of these routes," said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group, which specializes in aircraft technology. "You just are."
One reason, Aboulafia said, is that airlines need to differentiate themselves, especially as they chase high-margin business travelers who are willing to pay a premium to avoid layovers at intermediary airports.
"You're in a battle for global market share, and the old model of being totally reliant on hubs, that will never get you to the level of pricing and market access that point-to-point markets get you," Aboulafia said. "And even if you're dependent upon a global hub model like Emirates, you want to feed that hub from as far away as possible."
The Airbus A380, with a standard passenger capacity of 544, is the largest passenger aircraft currently in the air and the primary four-engine jet still in use for ultralong-haul flights.
The twin-engine Boeing 777-200LR has the longest range of any current long-haul plane.