13 Dec 2017 15:11 IST

Tucked in for the ultra long haul

Airlines are going the extra distance. But is it worth the trouble?

There’s a race on in the skies to see who can fly the longest distance non-stop. Last year Air India with its Delhi-San Francisco ultra long haul flight was the uncrowned king covering 15,127 kms in 15 hours. Qatar Airways’ Doha-Auckland flight covering 14,535 kms in 17 and-a-half hours, was longest in terms of time.

If you take a look at aviation data firm OAG’s list of the longest flights in the world, the pecking order keeps changing – close to the top is also Emirates’ Dubai-Auckland that takes 16 hours one way and 17 hours 15 minutes the other way. According to Essa Sulaiman Ahmad, Vice President, India & Nepal for Emirates, that flight shaved off three hours travelling time otherwise wasted in transit.

Come 2018, the records in ultra long-haul are all set to be broken. Next March, Singapore Airlines will restart its non-stop flight to New York that takes 19 hours. It will be using an Airbus A350-900 ULR plane -- a new ultra long-range aircraft developed specially for flights up to 20 hours.

Qantas is upping its game too -- in 2018 it proposes to fly non-stop between Perth and London, a distance of 14, 469 kms that will take over 17 hours. But it’s also pushing its two aircraft suppliers -- Airbus and Boeing -- hard to produce aircraft that can crack the 20 hour barrier and allow it to fly between Sydney and London and New York by 2022.

United Airlines launched Los Angeles to Singapore this October, using Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners and now has announced non-stop from Sydney to Houston which could take over 17 hours.

Out of India, apart from AI which flies a few ultra long haul flights to the US, there is United Airlines connecting Mumbai and Delhi to New York non-stop. Now there is buzz about Air India launching Delhi-Los Angeles non-stop as well.

All the Gulf carriers are using the ultra long haul to their advantage attracting Indian customers with direct connectivity to the US. Etihad’s Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles flight is its longest at 16 hours on a Boeing 777. But it is Emirates which connects five US cities (LA, San Francisco, Orlando, Houston and Dallas that is more aggressive. Says Ahmad, “ With our modern fleet of 777 and A 380 aircraft, and a future order of 787 Dreamliners we can access most part s of the globe allowing us to open and connect new markets if necessary.”

Reasons

But why exactly are airlines going the extra mile? For starters, as aviation consultancy CAPA India’s Kapil Kaul explains, the aircraft technology is getting better with production of newer fuel efficient jets that also look at passenger comfort. “It is making ultra long-haul operationally viable without restricting payload,” he says.

The second reason is that crash in fuel prices have made these long flights sustainable. And the market is now ready with many customers willing to pay higher ticket fares for savings on time and inconvenience of transit. “Hubs are getting bigger and with more security, the transit experience is getting harrowing so passengers increasingly like to fly non stop,” he says.

Ahmad of Emirates points out it is now economically viable for carriers. He says,“There are extra costs incurred by ultra long-haul flights on fuel and cabin crew. But we make savings in some areas, eg ground handling and airport slots as we don’t stopover (no extra landing fees at an intermediary point). Passengers are willing to pay a premium for these flights so they become profitable for us.”

However, Kaul of CAPA is not a fan of the ultra long-haul trend. He feels once fuel prices shoot up airlines will face cost pressure. As a long term strategy, he feels code shares are better generally.

History does bear him out. Singapore Airlines which used to operate a flight from the Lion City to New York non stop had shelved that flight some years ago due to heavy fuel consumption. Now that prices are down, it is resuming it.

Emirates Ahmad agrees that fluctuations in fuel prices will affect the cost for long-haul flights. “But with rising demands, it is inevitable to look forward to more number of long-haul flights across the industry,” he says.

While the upsides for the passenger are the savings in time, the downsides are the discomfort of sitting very long hours and threat of deep vein thrombosis and other health issues.

Airliners are addressing this with research and training. Qantas for instance is working with a medical research institute on on-board exercises, nutrition and cabin lighting and temperature to combat the discomforts of ultra long haul.

Emirates Ahmad says another challenge is the legal restrictions on cabin crew working hours. “So for ultra-long-haul flights we have two cockpit crews rostered. They are also given increased rest time on the ground. And there are bunk beds onboard for their rest periods in designated crew compartments,” he says.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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