A Tough Competition in Airlines for Providing Ultra-long haul flights

by June 4, 2018 0 comments

A Tough Competition in Airlines for Providing Ultra-long haul flightsSince a slew of ultra-long haul flights has entered in the market in 2018, Airlines seem to be in a tough competition of ‘Whose is Longer’.

Singapore Airlines has decided to restart its epic 19-hour flight between Singapore and Newark Airport in the New York City area. This flight, which will cover 15,300 kilometers, eclipses the

17-hour 14,500 kilometer flight that Qatar Airways currently operates between Doha and Auckland, New Zealand. This is, however, not the first time that Singapore Airlines has operated on this route. It operated the same service for a few years until 2013 using an Airbus A340-500 initially in a business-class-only layout, later adding Economy Class seats as well. This time round, Singapore Airlines will use the new Airbus A350-900 Ultra Long Range (ULR) aircraft that has only two engines instead of the Airbus A340’s four. In fact, it was the high cost of fuel that made Singapore Airlines stop the service initially. The more fuel-efficient Rolls Royce Trent XWB engines on the new plane will keep the costs down. However, Singapore Airlines is not cramming passengers in this plane, operating this variant with just 161 seats instead of the usual 253 seats on the A350 they use on other routes, as it has done away with Economy Class and configured the aircraft with Business and Premium Economy Classes only.

But is 19-hours stuck inside a thin metal tube, well, in the case of the A350 a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic tube, a bit much? That is the call passengers will have to take. Does it make more sense to fly directly between two cities that are global financial hubs in this case than taking a stopover? Currently, Singapore Airlines flies into New York via Germany’s Frankfurt airport. The quickest service between the two cities currently would take around 21 and a half hours with a stop in Hong Kong. That too involves a 16-hour flight over the Pacific Ocean, not all that much less than a 19-hour flight.

Indeed, a whole new generation of aircraft, starting with the Airbus A340 and Boeing 777, began a whole new era of very long haul flights. These planes as well as modern navigational aids that allowed flying over the Arctic, almost over the North Pole, made possible hitherto unheard of flights such as direct from India to the United States possible. Today, Air India and United Airlines both use Boeing 777 aircraft to fly non-stop between India and the US; Air India uses a Boeing

777-200LR to operate a 12,400 kilometer flight between Delhi and San Francisco. Thirty years ago, before the Boeing 747-400 took to the skies, flying between these two cities would take at least three stopovers, often four and could mean almost two whole days of travel instead of 14 hours in one plane right now.

Anybody, who has taken a connecting flight through a mega-hub airport such as Dubai International, London Heathrow or Frankfurt Germany, knows the rigmarole and headache of trying to connect from one flight to another complete with going through security, finding gates or in the case of delayed flights or worse, weather delays and cancellations during the European winter, finding yourself in a strange country with few funds and no visa to enter. While airlines are bound to provide some relief to passengers under new legislation in Europe and America, they can and do get away with ‘acts of God’, which is an euphemism for bad weather. At London Heathrow, for example, it is joked that even a flake of snow can shut the airport down.

But this writer, having taken some ultra long-haul flights himself, knows how terribly disconcerting such flights can be. Flying on Emirates Airline between Dubai and Los Angeles is a 16-hour 13,400 kilometer journey, the longest flight operated on the massive A380 Superjumbo. Even in Business Class with a fancy bar and lounge at the back of the upper deck of the plane, there is this sensation of being trapped and after all, how many movies can one possible watch and how many hours can you sleep. Even in a plane as spacious as the A380, being stuck in the Economy Class for that period of time would not be something to look forward to.

Returning from that visit to the United States from Seattle, this writer snoozed away for seven hours only to wake up and discover there were six more hours of flying time still to go. Six hours is the amount of time it takes to fly between Delhi and Istanbul, for example. Of course, if you are a smoker in today’s day of militant anti-smoking campaigns, spending over half a day in the air can be terrible. Not that a stopover helps, Heathrow Airport, among others, has banned smoking on its premises. And then, even if you are not a smoker, there are the associated health risks of such long haul flights, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and other problems associated with the thinner air inside an aircraft, let alone the claustrophobia of a flight. But flying is still the safest mode of transport on a per-kilometer basis. I mean, would you rather drive between India and Europe?

That said, direct flights no matter how long, are better, and the technology available to us today makes them possible. The next generation of planes, such as the Boeing 777X and later versions of the A350 due to enter service by late-2019 or early-2020, will make the holy grail of flying possible, a non-stop flight between Sydney and London. Imagine that. A century ago, ships used to take four weeks between the two cities (Southampton, rather) and the first scheduled Imperial Airways, the precursor to today’s British Airways, flights between London and Brisbane, the aviation hub of Australia back then took 25 days to make it on this route (we have used the modern names of cities): London — Paris — Rome — Brindisi — Athens — Cairo — Gaza — Baghdad — Basra — Bahrain — Sharjah — Gwadar — Karachi — Jodhpur — Delhi — Kanpur — Allahabad — Kolkata — Sittwe — Yangon — Bangkok — Penang — Singapore — Jakarta — Surabaya — Rambang — Kupang — Darwin — Cloncurry — Longreach — Brisbane with a few other unnamed stops along the way for fuel. In many of these cities, the aircraft made a night-halt as flying at night was then considered unsafe as pilots needed to rely on traditional magnetic compasses and visual landmarks as their only navigational tools.

When you think of a flight like that, in old, unpressurised and noisy piston-engined planes and were patently unsafe, you would be glad about modern aviation. It is remarkable that it is only 115 years since we first took to the skies in powered flight, just 60-odd years since the first jet-powered planes took to the skies and about 30 years since the first really long-range plane, the Boeing 747-400 started service. Modern aircraft have made the impossible seem possible and are making routes possible that earlier we could never imagine. So what if you are stuck in a middle economy seat for 19 hours with strangers all around you? Just remember how it was like back in the day and you’d be glad that there is big screen in front of you and maybe even internet access. The times, they certainly have changed.

(The writer is Managing Editor, The Pioneer)

Writer: Kushan Mitra

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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