After enjoying a heyday a decade or so ago, the trend of ultra long-haul flights is making a return this year.
This means passengers will once again be buckling up for 17 hours or more aboard non-stop flights to the far side of the globe.
On March 31, Emirates will inaugurate the longest non-stop flight in the world from Dubai to Panama City using a Boeing 777-200 LR aircraft. The aircraft will depart from Dubai and land in Panama City 17 hours and 35 minutes later. The inaugural flight was scheduled for February 1, but has been delayed while codeshare arrangements are finalised, Emirates said.
No less ambitious, Singapore Airlines has announced plans to start a 19-hour non-stop flight from Singapore to New York in 2018 – beating Emirates’ record for the world’s longest flight by more than an hour.
The renaissance of the ultra long flights would not have been feasible, or economical, if not for the plunge in oil prices from a peak of $115 per barrel in 2014 to today’s price of just under $30. Additionally, aircraft makers are working on ultra long-range models such as the Airbus A350-900 and the Boeing 777-8, which will come into service in the coming four years. But for now, the Boeing 777-200 LR [Long Range] is doing the job.
Very long flights were common about a decade ago, thanks to lower fuel prices at the time that enabled American Airlines to fly directly from Chicago to Delhi, and Thai Airways to fly from Bangkok to Los Angeles. But with the swell in oil prices in 2009 and the global financial crisis, which made the long flights too expensive for many people, the ultra-long hauls were gradually phased out.
Another reason for their disappearance was the lack of fuel-efficient planes. Long-haul routes were flown by four-engine aircraft – known in the industry as flying fuel tankers, as they burn massive amounts of fuel. But today’s aircraft are very different.
“Airbus is developing the A321LR [Long Range] and the A350-900LR to offer two options in size with very long wings. The previous A340-500 was OK but four engines with high fuel burn limited its sales,” said Addison Schonland, a founder and partner of US-based commercial aviation consultancy AirInsight.
While the return of ultra long- haul flights bring good news to the business community, or those who are time-conscious, it still doesn’t have much appeal for more price-conscious passengers, or holidaymakers, many of whom are willing to put up with one or two stops to get to their destination – even if it takes up to 30 hours to get there.
“Since economy travellers select on price, they will likely fly with stops between two distant points. Business travellers with schedule challenges will go non-stop and pay the premium, but also get better seating options,” said Mr Schonland.
Comfort is another issue for very long trips, as it could be very unpleasant for passengers to sit in economy for two-thirds of a day. When Singapore Airlines offered those flights, they were on aircraft configured with only more comfortable business seating.
“Because we are moving to a more global economy, long-haul flights are going to grow. To ensure one can walk off the plane after such a flight requires higher comfort than what we see today,” said Mr Schonland. “We would expect these super-long flights to offer the best seating and personal space.”
Discomfort aside, flying for such a long time can carry its health hazards that come from issues such as cabin pressure.
Singapore Airlines made its crews wear radiation monitors, similar to the devices X-ray technicians wear, because radiation is a factor at altitudes.
Two other environmental health factors that require monitoring are air quality and deep vein thrombosis.
Boeing has said that its 787 aircraft is capable of keeping cabin air pressure at a level equivalent to that experienced at 6,000 feet while also keeping the air more moist, which reduces jet lag.
“However, since such ultra long flights are a new thing, we are yet to see what the long-term effects are. The improvements in air pressure and moisture are a start. But seat pitch will have to allow for more physical movement to reduce the risks of deep vein thrombosis,” said Mr Schonland. “I wonder how long before some government agency looks into the issue of how tight seating has become and its health risk for sitting like that for nearly half a day.”
Operating long-range flights can also be expensive and a strain on the flight crew. Usually ultra long-haul flights demand additional crew and aircraft equipped with rest facilities. As for the costs, airlines make the bulk of their profit on these routes from business clientele prepared to pay a premium.
The survival of these routes will continue as long as oil prices stay low. Once they increase, prices for these flights could rise sharply.
“If fuel gets expensive again, that would certainly hurt the balance between costs and revenues. That cost premium associated with the added weight of a full fuel load worsens with expensive fuel,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, a US-based aerospace consultancy.
However, Mr Schonland was more sanguine, as he believes that airlines can lure passengers to travel long haul before the oil price recovers. “The great thing now is that with low oil prices airlines can develop these routes, build traffic demand, so that when fares have to rise they can do so with probably with less loss of traffic,” he said.
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