Singapore Airlines launches the world's longest flight

OCTOBER 11TH marks a new milestone in international aviation. Or rather, the return of an old one. Singapore Airlines has relaunched the world’s longest commercial-airline route, a flight between Singapore and Newark International Airport, which is just outside New York. The 10,400-mile flight will take about 18 hours and 45 minutes, eclipsing by nearly an hour the current longest flight, between Auckland and Doha on Qatar Airways.

Singapore ran flights to and from Newark until 2013, when it scrapped the route amid rising oil prices that cut into profitability. These days, oil prices are nearly as high as they were then, and yet ultra-long-haul flights seem to be making a comeback. The Auckland-Doha route kicked off last year. In March, Qantas launched a non-stop service between Britain and Australia, currently the world’s second-longest route at 17 hours. In November, Singapore Airlines plans to begin a non-stop flight from Singapore to Los Angeles, with the Singapore-bound flight taking nearly 18 hours. And Qantas has asked Airbus and Boeing to redesign their planes to allow it to fly even longer routes, such as between Sydney and London or New York.

What accounts for this sudden ultra-long-haul boom? Partly, it is technological advances. The Singapore-Newark flights will use new Airbus A350-900 ULR (ultra-long-range) planes, which are made of lightweight carbon-fibre materials, have extra fuel capacity, and conserve fuel by using only two engines rather than the typical four on long-haul jumbo jets. Singapore will also make these marathon flights more bearable with a few comfort upgrades. There will be no economy seats—just premium economy and business class—and only a total 161 seats compared to 253 on the carrier’s current A350-900s. The airline also claims an upgraded food menu and a range of entertainment options will help whittle away the many hours on board.

The resurgence of ultra-long-haul flights also has a commercial rationale. As Gulliver explained when Qantas launched the London-Sydney route in March, the rise of super-connector airlines in China and the Gulf has made it very hard for other airlines to eke out a profit on long-haul connecting flights. There is little, if any, money to be made by carrying economy passengers from Australia to Europe on connecting flights. Gulf carriers such as Emirates and Qatar, as well as the Chinese flag carriers, are willing to do this for less than it will ever cost Qantas. Many of its customers end up flying on its partners’ aircraft, encouraging them to defect wholesale to them for future flights. If Qantas can offer a non-stop service for business people that want to get between London and Australia as quickly as possible, it can keep hold of its most profitable passengers while leaving more price-sensitive passengers to other airlines.

Indeed, the non-stop flights come at a premium. A search for Newark-Singapore flights a month from now shows one-stop routes starting around $530 round-trip, versus $1280 or more for non-stop flights. Travellers on a budget are unlikely to start springing for the newest ultra-long-haul flights. Nor will anyone who cringes at the idea of spending 18 hours or more cooped up in a 32-inch plane seat. But for business travellers and others for whom time is money, the new routes will be attractive. And for airlines that want their business, these routes might be the only viable way to make 10,000-mile itineraries profitable.



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