Can 18 hours in the air be bearable? Airlines bet on ultra-long-haul flights



Aviation News

Singapore Airlines via The New York Times / AP

By Elaine Glusac, New York Times News Service

Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 | 2 a.m.

Recently, the world’s longest nonstop flight — a 9,534-mile, 18 1/2-hour journey from Singapore to Newark, New Jersey, on Singapore Airlines’ new Airbus A350-900 Ultra Long Range aircraft — touched down, raising the bar for super-long-haul travel, which most industry experts define as any flight more than 8,000 miles one way.

Read : Longest flight

New, lighter and more fuel efficient, dual-engine aircraft — including the Airbus models and Boeing’s Dreamliner — make flying for nearly a day economically viable as the number of ultra-long-haul flights increases.

Singapore’s new route, which takes 18 hours and 45 minutes in the opposite direction, is not the only rear-numbing new itinerary. In March, Qantas Airways launched a London-to-Perth route. It is the third-longest flight at about 9,000 miles, according to the aviation industry consultancy OAG, after Qatar Airways’ Doha-Auckland route. In September, Cathay Pacific Airways began flying 8,153 miles, its longest route, between its base in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C. In late November, Air New Zealand plans to add service between Auckland and Chicago, its longest flight at a distance of about 8,200 miles.

As flight times grow, carriers are experimenting with everything from healthy menus to onboard gyms to make almost 20 hours in the air more bearable. Business classes are the beneficiaries of most of the new investment. Some airplanes, like Singapore Airlines’ new craft, contain only business (a recent round-trip fare was $5,000) and what are called premium economy seats ($1,498 round-trip in December), which are more spacious than standard coach. But across the industry, even regular economy passengers will find extra perks.

Healthier and better-timed food

Business-class fliers on Singapore Airlines from Newark can still get dishes by its partner chef, Alfred Portale, of Gotham Bar and Grill, but with its new Newark-Singapore route, the airline is introducing meal options created by the spa Canyon Ranch. Available in both classes of service, the dishes might include prawn ceviche (170 calories), seared organic chicken and zucchini noodles (370 calories) and lemon angel food cake (140 calories).

Working with researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Center, Qantas offers lemon and ginger kombucha, wake-up shots of probiotic-infused juice and sleep-inducing tea in its top two classes. In addition, meals are delayed upon take off to align closer to meal times at the destination to help travelers adjust to time-zone changes.

And then there’s food on demand. Rather than requiring passengers to climb over sleeping neighbors to reach the galley for a Coke midflight (not necessarily bad, from a movement perspective), Air New Zealand will allow passengers on its newest super long-haul flight to order snacks via the touch-screen entertainment system.

Relaxation, hydration, yoga and sleep strategies

Well-being exercises on some of the new long-haul flights go beyond the extend-and-flex directions of older exercise programs. In some cases, they are beginning before passengers even get on the plane.

When it launched its Perth-London route earlier this year, Qantas created a new transit lounge at the Perth airport for business class travelers featuring stretching and breathing classes offered every 15 minutes, bathrooms with light therapy in the shower suites designed to help travelers adjust to time changes, and a hydration station with fruit-infused water and herbal tea. An open-air terrace is open to fliers in all classes of travel.

Earlier this year, Cathay Pacific joined with the international yoga studio Pure Yoga to launch a new in-flight wellness program called Travel Well with Yoga. Six videos feature yoga and meditation exercises to improve circulation, mobility and relaxation.

Singapore Airlines’ partnership with Canyon Ranch extends to guided stretching exercises demonstrated by the spa’s exercise physiologists in videos on the seat back entertainment systems. The onboard e-library also includes suggested sleep strategies, and fliers who download the airline’s app may receive push notifications with the advice.

Gyms, bars and nurseries

As far back as 2005, according to reporting in the Guardian, Richard Branson touted the advent of casinos, gyms and beauty salons on aircraft, which never fully materialized. More recently, the Middle Eastern carriers, including Etihad Airways, which sells an apartmentlike suite, and Emirates, which offers showers, have offered deluxe amenities in their highest service classes.

Now Qantas aims to re-imagine how aircraft cabins are designed to include, possibly, bars, children’s nurseries and exercise areas. Its new exploratory program called Project Sunrise has challenged aircraft-makers to design planes that could fly more than 20 hours between Sydney and London or New York by 2022. The airline is exploring how it can convert space not suited to seats into bars, stretching zones and work and study areas.

In part the efforts are motivated by Australia’s remote locale relative to other major airports. “We’re not a hub carrier, we’re an end-of-line carrier,” said Phil Capps, the head of customer experience at Qantas. “We have to take the customer more seriously than other carriers might in global hubs.”

Sleeping and sitting (more comfortably) in coach

The most exciting onboard amenities that have been proposed, such as gyms, tend to be restricted to business and first-class fliers, and most analysts think such offerings, if they can’t be monetized, won’t fly. But Qantas is also considering repurposing part of its cargo holds on long-haul aircraft, and converting them to economy sleeping bunks and areas for passengers to walk around and stretch their legs.

When Air New Zealand begins its service between Chicago and Auckland with the Dreamliner 787-9 V2, the 15- and 16-hour flights, depending on the direction of travel, will include two coach classes. In Premium Economy, 33 seats will offer 41- to 42-inch seat pitch, leg and foot rests. In the 215-seat economy cabin, the Economy Skycouch combines three seats sold together with leg rests that extend 90-degrees up to create a 5-foot, 1-inch couch for a more comfortable place to sleep.

The growth of long-haul routes has even revived dreams of supersonic travel 15 years after the Concorde was canceled. In Denver, a company called Boom is building a supersonic 55-seat plane that it aims to begin testing next year that would eventually fly from New York to London in 3 hours and 15 minutes, rather than 7 hours.

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