Making sense of flying the world’s longest flight

Courtesy Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Singapore Airlines


ONCE upon a time, the honour of flying the world’s longest nonstop commercial flight belonged to Singapore Airlines (SIA). That was in June 2004 when SIA launched its non-stop service from Singapore to New York (Newark), a journey of 19 hours on the Airbus A340-500 jet covering a distance of 9,535 miles. SIA had earlier in February of the same year inaugurated a non-stop service to Los Angeles, flying 8,770 miles in 18 hours.

Both services had been terminated by SIA, to Los Angeles in October 2013 and to New York a month later. Looking back, SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong cited the unsuitability of equipment for such a long flight that contributed to the unprofitability of both routes and their eventual discontinuation. He said: “There isn’t really a commercially viable aircraft that could fly nonstop.” The airline is said to be talking with Airbus Group SE and Boeing Co. on developing a plane with new technology that would make flying non-stop to the US profitable. In Mr Goh’s words, “We, of course, want it as soon as possible.”

With SIA out of the race, the world’s longest flight today is operated by Australian flag carrier Qantas, from Dallas-Fort Worth in the US to Sydney in Australia over a distance of 8,578 miles and taking up to 17 hours. But that record will soon be broken when Emirates Airlines mounts a service from Dubai to Panama City, Panama in February next year. The journey of 8,588 miles will take 17 hours and 35 minutes. And yet again the title will pass on to another carrier when Air India flies from Bangalore in India to San Francisco as planned, a distance of 8,701 miles that would take up to 18 hours of flight time.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Surely there is more to the business of flying such a long route than the media hype that comes with it. In truth a flight of more than 15 hours is hardly an exception. Middle East carriers are aggressively connecting US destinations directly with their home bases. Emirates is already operating from Dubai to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston. Etihad Airways flies from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas Fort Worth. Saudi Arabian Airlines has a service from Jeddah to Los Angeles. Qatar Airways operates from Doha to Houston and Dallas Fort Worth.

Courtesy Qantas

Courtesy Qantas

Besides Dallas Fort Worth, Qantas also operates from Melbourne to Los Angeles. Air India already flies from Mumbai to New York (Newark). American carriers are not left out of the game. Delta Air Lines operates from Atlanta to Johannesburg. American Airlines has a service from Dallas Fort Worth to Hong Kong. United Airlines also has a non-stop service to Hong Kong from New York (Newark) and from Chicago, and to Mumbai from New York (Newark) as well as to Melbourne from Dallas Fort Worth.

Other carriers that operate similarly long routes nonstop include Cathay Pacific (from Hong Kong to New York, Boston, Chicago in US and Toronto in Canada); China Southern Airlines (from Guangzhou to New York), EVA Air (from Taipei to Houston and New York), South African Airways (from Johannesburg to New York), and Air Canada (from Toronto to Hong Kong).

It is clear that the operations of such a flight have in the past been hampered by the limitations of an aircraft’s range. With advanced technology, gone are the days of the milk run of an airline hopping from port to port, making the n3ecessary technical stops, to reach its final destination. Take, for example, an airline such as SIA flying from Singapore to London in the 70s stopping en route at Bangkok or Mumbai, then Bahrain, and then Rome and Amsterdam to drop but not pick up passengers. The flying time (including time spent in transit) has been cut down drastically today for a non-stop between Singapore and London, taking only 13 hours.

Additionally what has opened the windows for long distance non-stop flights is the onset of a more liberal open skies aviation policy adopted by like-minded nations around the world. A major problem facing many airlines that are operating services over a long distance with stopovers is the hurdle of the absence of fifth freedom rights. SIA’s Goh recognised this in the case of SIA. He said, with specific reference to SIA’s interest in the US: “There is a lack of viable intermediate points. That’s largely because the countries concerned are not really giving us the rights to operate what we call the fifth freedom from those points to the U.S.” This may be pushing SIA to consider not only putting back its nonstop services to New York and Los Angeles but also adding other points. SIA’s withdrawal is largely seen to have benefitted rival Cathay Pacific which introduced a nonstop service between Hong Kong and New York on the heels of SIA’s termination of its service between Singapore and New York.

Ultimately it is all about filling up the plane. Nonstop services thrive on demand for seats point to point. In an earlier piece that I wrote, a reader commented on how American carriers are losing out by not operating nonstop services from the US to Singapore. The same “how” question may be asked of them as of SIA: Is there enough traffic to justify SIA’s nonstop services to the US? Presently SIA operates from Singapore to New York via Frankfurt, and to San Francisco or Los Angeles via Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo. Its services are popular in the markets of the intermediate points. Yet it would be presumptuous to think that Singapore’s lack of a hinterland market, compared to, say, Hong Kong situated at the doorstep of the huge China mainland, may not do as well for a nonstop service to the US. The market is as wide as how you define it and make it work. Clever and effective marketing supported by an excellent product and a strong network of connectivity entailing growing partnerships with other airlines can overcome germane geographical issues, the reason why SIA flights to North America continue to be popular among Indian travellers even if they had to connect at Singapore with a layover, the way that the numbers are also increasing in competition on Cathay Pacific connections out of Hong Kong.

But the aviation landscape is constantly shifting and changing. Timing is everything but can also surprise. Emirates’ planned flight to Panama City is premised on what it noted of the Latin American city’s advantageous location, burgeoning business environment and gateway for tourism. Similarly, Singapore too is noted for its strategic geographical location as a gateway to Southeast Asia and beyond, and as a centre for global business, the way that Dubai too has grown in geographical importance as a gateway to not just the Middle East but also the rest of Africa and Europe. There is a hint of the early bird advantage in Emirates’ strategy. The Middle East carrier has so far been quite successful expanding its network across the globe, and its penetration into the US territory has recently caused the big three of American carriers (United, American and Delta) to cry foul alluding to an unfair advantage it enjoyed from state subsidies.

So too would SIA have enjoyed that early bird advantage when it launched its nonstop services to Los Angeles and New York, and becoming the first legacy airline to operate an all-business class service, which indicates the market segment that SIA was after. In fact, SIA was not the only Southeast Asian carrier to operate nonstop to the US. Thai Airways International introduced nonstop services to New York and Los Angeles in 2005. The New York run was short lived, ending in 2008. The nonstop Los Angeles service followed much late in 2012. The spiralling cost of fuel was cited as a reason.

Courtesy AP

Courtesy AP

But for Air India, there could not a better time than now in the context of the low fuel price that airlines are enjoying. The carrier’s planned service from Bangalore to San Francisco is a dream stolen from erstwhile Indian competitor Kingfisher Airlines which went under a heap of debts before it could realise its ambition. The new link appears to be a logical move particularly when there is a significant Indian population in Silicon Valley and there is increasing demand for travel between the two cities which are cyber hubs on opposite sides of the world. Besides, India has a large population base to justify more nonstop flights, unlike Singapore but like China, which has seen more nonstop flights from China to countries like Australia. Air India’s first challenge would be to attract Indian passengers back to flying with them non-stop where the options are available instead of connecting on other carriers. The record for flying the world’s longest flight is good only when the plane has the load to make it profitable.

This article (alternatively titled “Making sense of ultra long-haul flights” was first published in Aspire Aviation.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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