Long haul flights are becoming increasingly toxic thanks to this new engineering marvel
Apart from the food, there’s a new radiation risk in next generation aircraft that could be making us all sick
Three months into an APEC year chaired by Peru, I remain an ardent advocate of the need to build a “Pacific Bridge” – stronger, closer business links between Hong Kong and the liberalising economies of South America’s Pacific coast. But I have also reached another firm conclusion: human bodies have not been designed for the marathon air journeys that will make it possible.
Last December’s first journey through Paris to APEC meetings in Lima took a mind-numbing 36 hours. Last week’s meetings in San Francisco were a modest 15 hours away, but I am still stumbling zombie-like through the jetlag that has addled my brain for three days. And I am now beginning preparations for April’s meetings in Arequipa in southern Peru, which will involve a journey of over 40 hours. In travel-addicted Hong Kong, such long haul travel regimens are common, and I’m sure most Hong Kongers trapped in such high-altitude lifestyles would agree that there is no way of ducking the reality that our bodies were never designed for such aerial torture.
I remember standing at the back of the jam-packed plane midway through the San Francisco flight and absorbing the scene along the still, dimmed cabin: 350 total strangers packed immobile within inches of each other for 15 hours, lucky to be three or four rows removed from harassed parents with crying babies, and struggling bloated to digest food that in normal circumstances would have been politely dropped into a rubbish bin. I watched four films. I am sure others watched more. I read newspapers, work documents, and then a book until my eyes ached dry in my head. And somewhere in the middle of all that I am sure I slept some. I know humans are chronically social animals, but we were never endurance tested for such extreme and protracted claustrophobia. We need training for such travel.
At present, the world’s longest commercial flight is the 8,580 miles from Dubai to Panama, but new fuel efficient aircraft, and relentless pressure to get to places quickly, will surely see more such marathon flights being launched. Aircraft like the Airbus A350-900ULR, and the Boeing 777-8, due to begin flying in 2018 and 2020 respectively, will be able to fly more than 10,000 miles non-stop. Made of composites, they will be significantly lighter than aircraft currently in service. And new engine technologies will make them around 25 per cent more fuel efficient.
This might just make these long-haul journeys commercially viable: up to now, such long flights have been commercially disastrous. In 2004, Singapore Airlines launched direct flights from Singapore to New York and Los Angeles. A year later, Thai Airways tried direct flights from Bangkok to Los Angeles, and American Airlines began flying from Chicago to Delhi. But by 2013 all of these services had been cancelled. Of course, soaring fuel prices did not help, but the economics proved impossible. In order to carry enough fuel for the journey, Singapore Airlines had to cut its passenger load from the normal 300 down to 170. Even making the flights business-class only could not make them pay.
Even if such long hauls become commercially viable, I still struggle with the price we humans must pay to take “advantage” of such choices. Apart from jet lag, the dehydration, and dangers of deep-vein thrombosis, I have learned recently of a new concern: aircraft made of composites shield passengers and crew from high altitude radiation even less well than existing metal aircraft. No-one has yet assessed the price we will pay for extended hours exposed to high levels of high-altitude radiation. At least it seems the new composites will allow higher cabin pressure, and enable higher humidity levels inside aircraft – which I understand will make us passengers feel less lousy after long journeys.
Despite my whinging, I am sure the new long haul services will on balance be a good thing. And I am sure they will be of immense value in linking us to those parts of the globe that are currently so hard to reach – like Peru and Chile. For example, a direct flight to Lima might take 20 hours, but on balance this surely has to be an improvement to the present 30-hour haul through Los Angeles.
Whatever people say about relying instead on conference calls and “virtual” meetings, I am sure the pressure to meet people face to face will rise rather than fall. One encouraging development for me was the introduction last year of Cathay Pacific Airways cargo flights to Mexico. This triggered two thoughts: first, that with new fuel-efficient aircraft on the way, it surely can’t be long before we also have direct passenger flights to Mexico; and second, that cargo is much less fussy than passengers. This suggests that the earliest beneficiaries of new long-haul services to South America – and the users who will make the flights viable – could be exporters. Both Chile and Peru are massive food exporters, and the introduction of direct cargo flights would do wonders for their export of fresh fruits and marine products to Hong Kong and other destinations in Asia.
On days like this, when I am still feeling battered from a long-haul journey, there is a temptation to wish nostalgically for the return of those good old colonial days when Hong Kong civil servants and their families boarded a cruise ship and took six weeks to travel home to England. But on balance I imagine six weeks on the high seas would be stupendously tedious. Better the bruises of high-speed, high altitude, long haul travel. But the conclusions are clear: human bodies were never designed for such travel, and there ought to be training for us on how to minimise the damage it causes; e-commerce and conference calls might mitigate the pain, but the pressure to travel can only increase; technologies are reducing some of the discomforts, but I wish they could work a miracle or two with airline food.