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If the prospect of being cooped up on a long-haul plane journey fills you with dread, spare a thought for passengers booked on to Emirates flight EK251. On February 1, the new daily service will leave Dubai at 8.05am. Its 266 passengers will then have time to watch eight movies back to back and enjoy numerous in-flight meals before the nonstop service arrives in Panama City, 17 hours 35 minutes after taking off.

The Emirates flight, covering 8,587 miles, will take the title of longest scheduled passenger service, trumping Qantas’s existing Dallas-to-Sydney flight (about 17 hours) — but it isn’t an aberration, nor a publicity stunt, from the ambitious Gulf carrier.

In fact Emirates is unlikely to hold on to the title for long, thanks to a renaissance in so-called “ultra-long-haul” flying. A new generation of aircraft is helping to make longer flights more efficient, and both Boeing and Airbus are working on extended-range models — the Airbus A350-900ULR and Boeing 777-8 — that will enter service in the next five years. The latter features extra long wings to improve performance which must be folded up on landing so the plane will fit airport taxiways.

“The technology is now there to do these ultra-long-haul flights more efficiently, so airlines are looking at where it makes sense to operate them,” says John Strickland, an aviation analyst and founder of UK-based JLS Consulting.

Last month Qantas revealed it was considering launching nonstop flights between Australia and Europe by 2017, including a Perth-to-London route, using the eight new Boeing 787-9 aircraft it has ordered to replace its 747s. At the same time, Singapore Airlines announced plans to fly direct from Singapore to New York, starting in 2018. The flight would take around 19 hours, cover 9,522 miles — and snatch the record for the longest nonstop flight.

In fact, such super-long nonstop flights are not new. A decade ago, these routes seemed to be emerging as a key trend — Thai Airways launched direct flights from Bangkok to Los Angeles in 2005, the same year that American Airlines began flying nonstop from Chicago to Delhi. The previous year Singapore Airlines had launched flights from Singapore to New York and Los Angeles.

But the soaring price of fuel in 2009 and 2010, coupled with the economic crisis, which reduced the number of customers willing to pay a premium for such flights, made them uneconomic, and by late 2013 every one of those routes had been cancelled. Part of the problem was that many of the routes used gas-guzzling four-engined A340-500 aircraft — dubbed “flying fuel tankers” by industry commentators. “On an ultra-long-haul flight, a plane takes off with fuel that simply carries the payload of fuel that will be used hours later,” says Will Horton, analyst at the Sydney-based Centre for Aviation. “On these flights, when the oil price was high, fuel took up the vast majority of the cost of the flight — above 70 per cent.”

When Singapore Airlines first placed orders for the A340-500, fuel was 42 cents a gallon. At entry into service, this had risen to 93 cents, and it was $2.83 when the flights ended in 2013. “While the flights may have been expected to be marginal or a bit lossmaking, they ended up being heavy drainers,” says Horton.

Two years on, Singapore Airlines is planning to reclaim its distance-flying record in a more fuel-efficient manner. When it restarts direct flights to New York in 2018, it will be as the launch customer for the new Airbus A350-900ULR. Its largely composite structure has helped Airbus reduce the aircraft’s weight, cutting fuel burn: the manufacturer claims it will consume 25 per cent less fuel than the similar-sized Boeing 777-200LR. The new Airbus will also have enlarged fuel tanks compared with other variants of the A350 family. With a maximum capacity of 165,000 litres, it will have a range of at least 10,357 miles — more than any other airliner.

“Most of our customers say nonstop was the only way to travel from the US to Southeast Asia,” says Subhas Menon, Singapore Airlines’ regional vice-president for Europe. “When you have intermediate stops, the timing of the flights and all these things interrupt your rest.”

With one or two layovers, the journey from Singapore to New York can take between 24 and 30 hours. Paul Wait, chief executive of GTMC, which represents business travel companies in the UK, argues that a direct air route will always be preferable, particularly for professional travellers. “Ultra-long-haul is perceived by the business travel community as a great opportunity for productive working hours, which are often also billable,” he says.

The plane-makers also claim that new technology will make the experience of long flights more endurable for passengers. For example, using carbon-fibre-reinforced composites — such as in the Boeing 787 and the forthcoming Airbus A350-900ULR — permits a higher cabin humidity. “Humidity is one of the factors that makes the passenger experience better,” says Blake Emery, director of differentiation strategy at Boeing. “If you pour water over plastic it is no big deal. But if you pour it over metal everything will corrode.”

Composite fuselages that are not susceptible to corrosion also permit a higher internal cabin pressure, something that Emery says is probably the most important factor in passenger comfort. Getting it wrong can result in unpleasant symptoms, especially on very long flights: “Some people have headaches and muscle aches,” he says. Conventional older aircraft usually have a cabin pressure equivalent to that at 8,000ft above sea level, but on the composite 787 it is the equivalent of 6,000ft (a level Boeing decided was optimal after conducting extensive tests that involved paying students at the University of Oklahoma to spend 18 hours inside a mock aircraft set to different pressures).

Nevertheless, for some, being stuck on an airliner for more than 18 hours is too much to bear. “You would only want to do it on a route when you fly premium[class] because the idea of being in economy for that long is pretty grim,” says Strickland. “No matter how modern the aircraft is, if you think about all the practicalities like deep-vein thrombosis and so on, you really would prefer to be in the premium seats.”

To help cover an airline’s higher fuel and staff costs, ultra-long-haul services rely on attracting a significant number of business travellers who are prepared to pay a premium for a nonstop flight. Singapore Airlines inaugurated its longest route in 2004 with both business and economy seats; four years later, it had converted the aircraft to solely business-class. Long-haul airliners also have to factor in in-flight rest facilities for crew and pilots — and even a place to keep the bodies of any passengers who happen to die during the flight. In its fleet of A340-500 aircraft, Singapore Airlines introduced a special cupboard to store any unexpected corpse.

The health risks of flying such long distances also affect the pilots. Those working on long-haul routes have the prominent hazard of timezone-related circadian rhythm (body clock) disruption. Longer times spent on flights can also mean greater exposure to radiation.

Head to head: the new mile-munchers
Airbus A350-900ULRBoeing 777-8
Length/width66.8m/5.96m69.8m / 6.2m
Wingspan64.8m64.8m (folded), 71.8m (unfolded)
Maximum take-off weight280,000kg351,534kg
Range10,357 miles10,010 miles
List priceUndisclosed$371m

“There are rules regarding hours of work and rest and the number of pilots used on long-haul flights,” says Rob Hunter, head of flight safety at the British Airline Pilots’ Association, “but increasingly airlines are being allowed to obtain exceptions to these rules if they can demonstrate that these exceptions are safe.”

Hunter says he is concerned that commercial pressures on airlines may compromise their decision-making. “Part of the monitoring and control of the hazard of fatigue in pilots are pilots’ [own] reports of their tiredness. It is not uncommon for such reports to be managed by the airline with a disciplinary tone. For many pilots it is less fatiguing to put up with fatigue than to report it,” he says.

The launch of more ultra-long-haul flights in the coming years is likely as technology improves. Emirates says it will be able to fly even longer ranges when it takes delivery of the Boeing 777-8 in 2020. This could allow the airline to extend nonstop flights to destinations such as Peru, Mexico City and Santiago in Chile, says Anand Lakshminarayanan, senior vice-president of revenue optimisation at Emirates.

“The primary factor is demand, really,” he says. “From what we’ve seen there is a willingness from passengers to pay slightly more for an ultra-long-haul flight without an intermediary stop.”

Nevertheless, many within the industry believe these flights will always remain a niche. According to Strickland, just because ultra-long-haul flights are technically feasible does not mean that they will always make economic sense. Meanwhile, Will Horton points out that many passengers actually enjoy a foreign stopover, while some simply will not want to be on an aircraft for so long.

“The engine technology is there,” says Alan Epstein, Pratt & Whitney’s vice-president for technology and a former aerospace professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We can now fly just about any place on this earth nonstop. The limit is no longer the endurance of the engines. It is the endurance of passengers.”

Tanya Powley is the FT’s transport correspondent; Peggy Hollinger is the FT’s industry editor

Illustration by Carlo Giambarresi

Letter in response to this report

The airline industry is stubbornly resisting technological innovation / From James Hanshaw

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