As ultra-long-haul flights take off, where is the new final frontier?
Next March, Singapore Airlines will revive its 19-hour non-stop flight from Singapore to New York’s Newark airport. It will be the longest commercial flight, until other airlines launch even longer ones. How far will they go?
There are few worse phrases in travel than “in transit”, but that limbo status where airline travellers are left in airports for hours waiting to change between two long transcontinental flights could soon disappear with the introduction of ultra-long-haul aircraft.
From March next year, Singapore Airlines plans to fly a brand new Airbus A350-900ULR (the ULR stands for “ultra-long range”), non-stop between Singapore and Newark airport near New York. This service was originally introduced in 2004, but discontinued due to heavy fuel consumption. New, fuel-efficient aircraft have made the route viable again.
It won’t be the only airline travelling longer distances. March will also see Australian national carrier Qantas begin a service between London Heathrow and Perth in Western Australia lasting 17 hours (it currently takes 21 hours with a stopover). Not only will it be the longest flight in the world operated by a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, the service will also offer a connecting flight from Perth to Melbourne in Victoria, a further three-and-a-half hours east.
This will be the first regular passenger service to directly link the UK with Australia, but Qantas has even bigger plans. In August, the company stated its wish to fly from anywhere in Australia to Europe, something that the current fleet of aircraft are not technically able to do.
Alan Joyce, chief executive of Qantas, is adamant that the airline not only wants direct flights to Europe from Perth, but from the eastern Australian states as well.
“Qantas will challenge Boeing and Airbus to deliver an aircraft capable of flying regular direct services like Sydney to London, Brisbane to Paris and Melbourne to New York non-stop by 2022,” he says, calling this “a last frontier in global aviation” and “the antidote to the tyranny of distance”. Qantas calls the new venture Project Sunrise.
While we may have to wait a few more years for passenger flights that reach 22 hours, there are a number of ultra-long-haul flights already in operation. The longest in the world is operated by Qatar Airways, which since February has been using a Boeing 777-200LR to fly the 18-hour trip between Doha in Qatar and Auckland.
Fellow Gulf airline Emirates flies to New Zealand ‘s biggest city from Dubai in the UAE using an Airbus A380. That flight also lasts about 18 hours, just longer than a new service from United Airlines. Its Dreamliners now fly from Los Angeles to Singapore in 17 hours and 55 minutes (the journey is two hours shorter from Singapore).
The longest flight to Hong Kong is by American Airlines. Its service from Dallas is scheduled to take 16 hours and 55 minutes. From Hong Kong to Dallas, the flying time is 14 hours and 25 minutes.
Such long flights will appeal to those who don’t want to waste time in transit. At the other end of the scale, the shortest route flown by time and distance is between Westray and Papa Westray in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, according to travelstatsman.com. That flight takes less than two minutes to cover 2.7km.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that 20-hour long-range flights are probably going to be the limit for what aircraft can manage. But Elon Musk has other ideas. The billionaire CEO of space industry company SpaceX proposes an interplanetary rocket system for long-distance travel on Earth.
Using the same rocket SpaceX plans to use to launch a manned mission to Mars in the 2020s, up to 200 passengers would blast off at 29,000km/h in a huge spaceship from floating launch pads near cities. Once they reach space, they would return, but to a different city.
Musk claimed this purely theoretical system could get people from New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes, London to Dubai or New York in 29 minutes, and from Hong Kong to Singapore in 22 minutes.
While we wait for the SpaceX blast-off, ultra-long-haul air travel will become more common. Just choose your seat wisely – and don’t forget your toothbrush.
Editor’s note: this report was corrected on Tuesday November 21. An earlier reversion said Emirates flies to New Zealand’s capital, which is Wellington. Emirates in fact flies to Auckland