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.
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.
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]