The World's Longest Flight, in Coach
By SCOTT MCCARTNEY
January 19, 2012
Over the Pacific Ocean
It's 2 a.m. aboard Qantas Airways Flight 7 from Sydney to Dallas. The sun is rising. Time for a quick stretch, then a couple of episodes of "30 Rock." Are we there yet?
Five hours remain on the 15-hour trip, the longest flight in the world with a coach cabin. It's an eternity when shoehorned into space with a mere 16 inches of hip width inside the armrests.
Nonetheless, long-haul nonstop flights like this one are increasingly popular among business travelers and high-end tourists who are willing to pay about 20% more to avoid a layover.
Airlines are adding longer and longer non-stop flights but 15 hours in the air can be painful. McCartney on Lunch Break discusses his ride on one of the longest flights in coach and how many episodes of "30 Rock" a person can watch in one sitting.
Qantas launched its Sydney-to-Dallas nonstop flight last year four times a week and will move it to daily service this summer. Delta Air Lines offers Johannesburg nonstop from Atlanta, offering an alternative to European connections. Emirates is expanding its fast-growing network geographically, reaching Los Angeles from Dubai nonstop, for example, and Dallas next month.
"There are a certain amount of people in long-haul markets willing to pay extra to get there quickly, even though it takes a long time," said Bob Cortelyou, Delta's senior vice president of network planning.
The nonstops are possible as more commercial airlines add more ultra-long-range jets to their fleets. The latest offerings from Boeing and Airbus all can travel more than 9,000 miles before stopping for gas. And older models have extended range with strengthened bodies and bigger landing gear and wheels to carry the weight of more fuel. Qantas bought a few 747-400s from Boeing Co. specially fitted with extra fuel tanks to extend their range by about 500 miles, making it possible to reach Dallas from Sydney.
Likewise, passengers are prepared for the long haul.
"You have to know how to pace yourself," said architect and interior designer Beatrice Girelli. For her, the Los Angeles to Singapore 18-hour nonstop she takes about six times a year on Singapore Airlines is like a "spa day." Working long hours on the ground, she finds that time spent six miles above Earth becomes her escape: She sleeps, relaxes, avoids work and enjoys three meals plus Italian or French movies.
Real-estate executive Gerald Giannini, another regular on Singapore Air, has his own routine. Dinner after departure from Los Angeles is followed by a sleeping pill. He wakes up after a full eight to nine hours of sleep—something he never gets even on 12-hour trips to London.
"People hear 18 hours and they freak out. Once you're on it, you understand," he said. "It's a lot less wear and tear on my body than the old way."
Singapore Air pioneered ultra-long nonstops when it began flying 18 hours from both Newark, N.J., and Los Angeles to Singapore seven years ago. Most Singapore Airlines flights stop in Tokyo or Frankfurt to get from the U.S. to the other side of the globe, but the nonstops have found a devoted following among frequent travelers.
The airline launched nonstop U.S. flights offering both business-class and a premium-type coach cabin. But demand for business class tickets was much stronger. For the first time in the airline's history, business class saw higher percentages of seats filled than coach, said Singapore spokesman James Boyd, so the airline switched to a luxurious all-business-class configuration, with 100 lie-flat beds on a plane big enough to carry more than 300 passengers.
Singapore said it charges, on average, about a 20% premium for the nonstop flight over one-stop trips. The flights save about four hours over flights with a Tokyo or Frankfurt stop.
For a trip at the end of this month, for example, the business-class fare from Newark nonstop to Singapore was priced at $8,446 round-trip, while business-class from New York's Kennedy Airport with a stop in Frankfurt for the same dates was $7,446.
The convenience has overcome passenger fears of being airborne so long. Some travelers worried about the safety of flying 15 hours or more. Others worried about dehydration in arid airplane cabins and the risk of blood clots from deep-vein thrombosis.
"Ten years ago, people were hesitant or fearful. Now they're going more and more long-haul. We are seeing more and more acceptance, and fewer queries on the phone" with concerns, said Singapore Air Vice President Mohamed Rafi Mar.
Delta loads up extra water, drinks, snacks and two full meals for passengers on its Johannesburg flights, which actually cover a shorter distance than the Qantas Dallas-to-Sydney flights, but take longer because of wind differences. Also, the cruise speed of the twin-engine 777 is a bit slower than the four-engine 747. The Delta flight is the longest in the world on a plane with two engines.
Flight attendants get two 2½-hour breaks during the flight; pilots work half the flight. Crews have bunks in the ceiling of the 777.
Qantas has six 747s with extended range of about 8,800 miles (7,670 nautical miles) and uses them to fly to Buenos Aires as well as Dallas. The planes take off at speeds 5 knots faster than regular 747-400s because wings have to produce more lift for the heavier plane. Flights from Sydney to London still have to make a stop—no commercial airliner can yet do that without making a stop.
Adding the Dallas flight let Qantas tap into the huge hub of its partner, American Airlines, adding 59 additional routes to the Qantas network. As a result of all those connections, the flights have been performing well since they started in May, said Stephen Thompson, executive manager of global sales for Qantas. Round-trip fares on that route typically cost $1,500 to $2,000. For a trip in early February, for example, a nonstop flight from Dallas to Sydney and back cost $2,052, while connecting service through Los Angeles cost $1,692.
Because of headwinds going back to Australia, the Qantas 747 has to stop in Brisbane for fuel. When weather has been bad, flights have had to make occasional fuel stops, but Qantas said it hasn't been any different than other long routes.
Mr. Thompson said service on the ultra-long flight is much the same as on 12-hour trips to Los Angeles. "The key is to entertain people and get them to relax," he said.
On board the trip in November, Mary Paulus of Okeechobee, Fla., curled up in two seats in coach to sleep. She paid $40 extra to reserve an aisle seat, then had an empty middle seat next to her. She slept, ate and still had time to watch three movies.
"What are you going to do? You know when you get on it's going to be long," she said.
Still, Earl Russell, like so many other passengers, was restless. After being airborne for 12 hours, it seemed well past like time to land, but there were still three hours to go. Mr. Russell, a government employee on his way home in Leavenworth, Kan., tossed a blanket over his head and tried to go back to sleep.
"It's just a very long flight," he sighed.
Write to Scott McCartney at firstname.lastname@example.org