Airlines are Racing to Add Ultra Long Haul Flights, But Not Always For Good Reasons

It used to be that if you wanted to go between continents, chances are you’d need a stop or two along the way. As time has gone on, the idea of stopping just because you have to has mostly fallen by the wayside. Airplanes have increasingly long range thanks to improvements in technology. Today, there are only a handful of routes with demand that can’t be served nonstop. That number has shrunk even more in the last couple months as airlines have added ultra long haul routes with abandon. Why is this happening? There are a few reasons, and not all of them are rational.

Longest Airline Flight

For the last couple of years, the Qantas flight from Sydney to Dallas/Ft Worth has been the longest flight in the world, clocking in at 7,454nm. This pales in comparison to the previous record-holder, Singapore’s Newark to Singapore flight, which was an astounding 8,285nm. But that flight was unsustainable, operating with few seats on an inefficient airplane that really didn’t have the legs to make it with a commercially-viable payload. Singapore dropped that route, but it’s hoping to bring it back soon with the new A350.

While Singapore continues to work on its plan, others are jumping in with ultra long haul flights going further than 7,000nm.

  • Last year, Emirates announced it would fly 7,463nm from Dubai to Panama City. The launch was delayed but it should now start at the end of March.
  • United just announced it will fly a 787-9 nonstop on the 7,339nm route from San Francisco to Singapore starting June 1.
  • Emirates will top its Panama City flight’s distance with a 7,668nm trip from Dubai to Auckland on March 1. It already flies to Auckland via Australia, but is now going nonstop.
  • Qatar says it will fly from Doha to Auckland, a 7,848nm run, but it hasn’t been loaded for sale yet. This would be the new longest flight in the world if it comes to fruition.

Why is this all happening right now? There are three reasons, one good, one understandable, and one bad. Let’s start with the good.

New Aircraft Technology
Newer airplanes come with better range and better economics. United’s planning team is clearly having a field day figuring out routes that work on the 787 that couldn’t have worked before. That’s why we see a fairly impressive expansion in San Francisco with flights to Tel Aviv, Xi’an, Chengdu, and Auckland. Some of these could have been flown with United’s existing fleet, but it would have required a much bigger airplane. That wouldn’t have made sense. With a smaller, economic 787, however, new routes become possible.

It’s not just United, of course. ANA apparently will start its longest route (a mere 6,086nm) from Tokyo to Mexico City using a 787. That may not be the longest route, but Mexico City sits more than 7,000 feet above sea level, making it harder to get airplanes off the ground with a full load for long distance. Sure enough, the 787 can do it.

As we see more 787s and A350s go into service, we’ll see a lot more of these kinds of routes. That’s the best reason to add these new long flights; they just weren’t economically possible before.

Running Out of Ideas
Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, and Turkish have been growing like weeds for years. Emirates has, what, 250,000 A380s on order? Something like that. As it starts to run out of ideas, it has to look at routes that might not be at the top of anyone’s list.

Emirates will fly both the Panama City and Auckland routes with a 777-200LR. This isn’t a new airplane in the Emirates fleet, but Emirates just had better uses for it previously. Though I haven’t been following how the 10-strong fleet of airplanes has been deployed, presumably the never-ending stream of A380 deliveries means that the 777-200LRs can fly different routes. And these are the best routes it can find.

Penis Envy
The worst reason to add these flights, but certainly one that has long been prevalent in the airline industry, is pure pride. Airlines like to claim they have the longest flight. It makes them feel good even though it’s a rather silly thing to care about. You can bet that some of that is involved here.

The reality is that on ultra long haul flights, having a stop is less of a problem than on other routes. But there is still some advantage to be had for those airlines that fly nonstop. In some cases, like with United’s flight to Singapore, I tend to think it’s probably a good plan (if it can really fly this with a full load). In other cases, well, probably not.

[Original urinal photo via Shutterstock]

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33 Responses to Airlines are Racing to Add Ultra Long Haul Flights, But Not Always For Good Reasons

  1. Frank says:

    I nearly chocked laughing on my coffee when I saw your graphic! Funniest ever!!

  2. Neil S. says:

    Am I the only one who doesn’t really want to be on a plane that long? I fly to Asia a few times each year, from JFK. I really don’t mind a quick stop in NRT or HKG – walk around, get a shower, breathe some “fresh” air.
    I’d need some serious sleep meds to do EWR-SIN without stopping.

    • ChuckMO says:

      You are not alone there for sure. I get antsy on a US – Europe flight.

    • Mike says:

      I’m with you Neil. I flew LAX-SIN-LAX on SQ back in the mid/late 2000’s with the original “spacebed” (angle flat) configuration. Typical excellent SQ service and IFE, but as much as I love to fly I now know that the last 3-4 four hours of an 18 hour flight were brutal – even in Business (perhaps an Etihad Apartment would make me change my tune!).

    • JayB says:

      Neil S., I agree with you completely. I don’t care what class I’m in, these flights are too much for me, and the idea of having to fly in economy, now that’s cruel and unusual…!

      Nothing wrong with wanting to fly terribly long distances in the shortest time possible, but these times in one aircraft without stopping en route go beyond the pale, to me. Let’s bring back the Concorde, maybe a new longer-range version, or one with in air refueling capability, but anything longer than 10 hours isn’t for me, or I submit for any human being.

    • Dan says:

      I take a big overseas trip once a year. Yeah, JFK-HKG is about my limit. I don’t sleep well on planes, first class or not, so if I’m on a plane at my normal sleep time, I’m miserable. I flew JFK-FRA-SIN in the SQ Suites, and my god, that FRA-SIN flight was miserable (it’s a red eye from JFK-FRA.) Likewise, I recently flew LAX-HKG leaving at midnight.

      In premium cabins, I’ll take the long non-stop, because at least my legs stretch out. In Y? Hell no.

    • Dianne says:

      You’re right. The ultra-long haul flights are fine for business or first class. There’s ample time for meal service and a full-night of sleep in a flat bed. But they would be utter hell in economy. I don’t “get” people who say they can’t sleep on a flight in a bed. Pop an OTC sleep aid and snooze away.

    • Alex Hill says:

      I prefer the ultra-long flights (and I’ve always flown coach; I’m 6′ tall). I lived in Sydney for a few years, and I grew to much prefer the SYD-DFW-US east coast flights over SYD-LAX-US east coast. Mostly that’s because the Qantas long haul plane is much more comfortable, and the service much better, than any domestic US aircraft. On an A380, there’s plenty of room to walk around. Not so on a 737. And now I can’t stand US to Europe flights; too long to be a “short” flight but too short to actually get any sleep in coach. On a 14-16 hour flight, I zone out enough so I do get enough sleep to feel fine when I land. But flights from LAX to the east coast are long enough so that being stuck in the seat the whole time is not so pleasant.

      • David M says:

        Living on the west coast and recently going to Europe about twice a year, a sort of agree. If I connect on the east coast (e.g. JFK or ATL) it’s kinda rough since I have to leave early in the morning, connect to an evening transatlantic flight that’s a little too short to try to sleep on, and then land in Europe first thing in the morning, or about midnight-1am on the west coast, and you can’t usually check into your hotel for several more hours.

        The first time I flew nonstop LAX-LHR was pretty good. The flight didn’t leave until something like 7pm, so I’d already been up with a normal day pretty much all day, then the flight runs around 10 hours which still gives plenty of time to try to sleep after dinner. Plus it landed around 2:30pm local time, so by the time I was through customs and immigration and had taken the tube to central London, there weren’t too many more hours to get through before I could justify going to bed for the night.

        Going through the upper Midwest isn’t too bad. It still can have the early morning arrival problem, but if you look at the great circle routes, it’s a lot more direct than going through the east coast so it reduces the total time in flight. MSP works pretty well for me; the further east you go the longer it gets.

        The nice thing though about a single long haul flight versus multiple flights is that the layover gets rough, especially if the longer flight is first as in your examples from SYD. You’re tired, feeling wired from the lack of sleep and you just want to get where you’re going so you can get in a proper bed, yet you’re stuck in an uncomfortable airport chair going nowhere for an hour or two.

  3. A says:

    Those ultra long hauls are fine if you are in business class but for those packed in cattle class that sounds miserable. I can handle a non-stop from the US midwest to Europe, but if I were going to Sydney or some other far flung location I either want to be sitting (lying) up front or get a leg stretching break somewhere along the line.

  4. ptahcha says:

    This may be first time “penis” is used in a travel blog without any onboard shenanigans/incidents.

    • SEAN says:

      You’re wright about that one. I’m reminded of the 1977 Mel Brooks film “High Anxiety” where Mel discusses “penis envy” as an antiquated concept & yet all he can say is “Pea – pea – pea pea envy.” It’s gust busting laughs.

  5. Tory says:

    “Emirates will fly both the Panama City and Dubai routes with a 777-200LR”
    I think you meant “Emirates will fly both the Panama City and Auckland routes with a 777-200LR”

  6. Bick Rowen says:

    Awesome piece.

  7. Doug Swalen says:

    I did SFO-DXB in a middle seat in Economy and that’s the most brutal flight I’ve been on. I don’t think I could handle SFO-SIN in economy. But business class might work…though UAL’s BizFirst seat leaves something to be desired.

  8. Arcanum says:

    What hasn’t been discussed is financial viability. Even with new planes, these routes will be expensive to operate simply because you’re paying to carry all that fuel with you – if a flight is 15 hours long, you’re carrying that last hour of fuel for 14 hours. Right now, fuel’s cheap so it’s not a big deal, but when prices rebound (and they will) that’ll change the math tremendously.

    Even so, I can see SFO-SIN and SIN-NYC/LAX turning a profit because SIN is a business destination with lots of corporate clients will to pay a premium for the non-stop. DXB-PTY could MAYBE work if Emirates hammers out some sort of codeshare with Copa for connecting traffic to Latin/South America – has that happened?

    DXB/DOH-AKL, however, are completely insane. NZ is a leisure market with little premium demand, service from a relatively large number of carriers given its size, and plenty of one-stop options to Europe already on good carriers like Singapore and Cathay. Furthermore, the current tag flights from Australia work well because those planes would presumably otherwise be sitting idle on the tarmac. These are all about vanity.

    It’ll be interesting to see if either Emirates or Qatar decides to order the A350-900 ULR at some point.

    • enplaned says:

      Someone finally brought up the price of fuel! That’s got to be the single biggest reason why some of these flights are now worth trying, penis envy notwithstanding. 787 has a fuel capacity of something like 33-36,000 gallons. So, if the price of fuel goes down from $3 to $1, the fuel cost of a flight just dropped from something like $100K to something more like $33K. So that $66K savings, divided by, say, 150 passengers, amounts to something like $400-500 savings per passenger. That’s a lot.

    • Jim says:

      Of course these flights are about vanity. Middle eastern carriers don’t have to make a profit as they are government-owned. They can waste money flying to places like New Zealand for bragging rights.

  9. david sf eastbay says:

    It’s hard to do California-Europe nonstop, so flying nonstop on some of those long flights even in luxury class wouldn’t interest me.

    • David M says:

      I actually prefer the CA-Europe nonstops. A 10 hour flight gives me a decent shot of getting some sleep after dinner. If I go via the east coast, I’m up early and connecting to an evening flight that gets me to Europe first thing in the morni, or about midnight-1am CA time. So by body won’t be wanting sleep until shortly before we land, and it will usually be several hours before I can check in to a hotel. The west coast departures mean I didn’t have to get up early and had a mostly normal day before getting on the plane.

  10. matt weber says:

    Fuel is certainly a major issue in these ultra long haul operations. Some years ago I did the thumbnail on the ASM cost for the SQ A340-500 for the SIN-EWR operation. It was eye opening to say the least. At $3 a gallon the fuel component in ASM was about $.15. Admittedly the A340-500 had very few virtues when it came to fuel economy. It was seriously overweight, and under performing. The requirement in the SQ order was no secret: 200 pax against typical prevailing winds for SIN-LAX. The aircraft never made guarantees.

    This lead me to conclude that Airbus was probably subsidizing the operation. SQ had a walkaway contract on the A340-500’s, so I suspect it was either Airbus coughed up the money, or SQ refused to accept the aircraft. Obviously having SQ refuse to accept the aircraft would have been a public relations disaster of truly immense scale for Airbus. When the initial lease on the aircraft ran out, the subsidy ended, and SQ dropped the SIN-LAX and SIN-EWR missions.

    With the price of fuel down below $2/gallon, and the roughly 20% improvement in fuel economy that results from the lower weight per seat and the better SFC on the engines, these routes may be viable, but only as long as the price of fuel stays low.

    The ASM costs on these missions are high. The only revenue you have is Passengers, and the fuel burn is a killer. It takes about 1.6 pounds of fuel at the start of the flight to have 1 pound of fuel at the end of the flight, so not only do you displace revenue cargo with fuel, you trade revenue for fuel expense as a bonus.

    I concur that the Dubai/Doha to AKL services are unlikely to make money. AKL just isn’t a high yield market. Both QF and NZ have tried F services in and out of AKL many times, it doesn’t work.

    I also note that only the ME carriers are very active in these ulta long range missions. I suspect that is because they don’t have the social contract and regulations costs that many of their competitors have, and as such do not have to augment the cabin and tech crew to the same extent most European or American Carriers would have too. The extra crew augmentation is another driver for higher ASM costs.

    Working the ASM numbers for the A350 and 787 is difficult. Both Airbus and Boeing have become very tight lipped about the actual OEW on these aircraft are, and neither GE or RR wants to say much about the actual SFC on the GENX or Trent 1000 either. Without that information it is tough to estimate fuel burn accurately.

  11. southbay flier says:

    I don’t get how anyone would make money flying PTY-DXB. Is there really enough traffic to fill a 777 between those markets? Some of these new routes on the ME3 lead me to believe that they really are government subsidized. No company who had a fiduciary obligation to make a profit could justify some of these new ultra long haul routes.

    At least I can believe there is enough of a market for SFO-SIN that UA will do fine on it with a 787. I would never fly it in Y, but that’s me.

    • Nick Barnard says:

      Southbay Flier. One thing you’re wrong about (and you’re one of many, including myself)

      Companies have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders. They DO NOT have a fiduciary obligation to make a profit.

      Here is one of many articles on the matter: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/09/09/how-the-cult-of-shareholder-value-wrecked-american-business/

      • southbay flier says:

        I forgot about there is a difference between maximizing shareholder value and maximizing profit.

        However, I still think that if a publicly traded airline in the US suggested a route like PTY-DXB, the CEO wouldn’t be around for much longer.

        • Nick Barnard says:

          Perhaps, that being said management gets a wide berth in the courts when it comes to maximizing shareholder value and courts (if not wall street) give a wide berth to director’s/management practicing good faith business judgement.

          If it can be legitimately argued that PTY-DXB is a good faith judgement that has the long run (however long that run may be) has a rational potential of increasing the shareholder value there wouldn’t be a standing for shareholders to sue on.

          A bit more of this: http://www.professorbainbridge.com/professorbainbridgecom/2012/05/case-law-on-the-fiduciary-duty-of-directors-to-maximize-the-wealth-of-corporate-shareholders.html

          PTY-DXB could potentially be a valid maximization of EK’s network and thus shareholder value, as long as management isn’t egregious in it no US court, which is what we’re judging EK by even though in this case they don’t have jurisdiction, will take up the case. As I mentioned before, “Wall Street” might disagree, but that is often thrown around as investors interested in the shortest term results, which isn’t all (or perhaps even most) investors. I’d argue this is one of the worst illnesses on our society at the moment. And to pull it back around to airlines, Frank Lorezno demonstrated that following the short term results to the extreme is a poor way to run an airline.

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