Journalist Simon Usborne onboard a Qatar Airways flight at London Heathrow. Photographed by Greg Funnell for the Financial Times, 8th March 2018.

Shortly before the beef arrives on my fold-out tray, I’m working out how to position my feet. My left leg is swinging over the carpet of a Boeing 777. But what seemed like a triumph at check-in — an emergency exit window seat — looks less smart now as my right foot is squashed against the life raft. I can wedge my toes under it, through a draught excluder, but it’s freezing there. I gain an extra inch by twisting my hips. I check the map on my screen. Time to destination: 17 hours.

I am on the longest flight in the world: Qatar Airways flight 921 from Auckland to Doha covers 9,000 miles and crosses nine time zones. I will sit in seat 22K, with its impotent headrest, for 18 hours and 21 minutes (actual flying time: 17 hours 33 minutes). As well as the beef, I will eat the chicken, the “all-day chicken sausage roll”, a snack box and at least three cubes of spongy mousse. I will watch five films. And I will spend hours willing the moving map to move faster.

I have flown long-haul — always in economy — from London to Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Colombo, Vancouver and São Paulo, but never longer than 13 hours. I have travelled by rickety train to the northern reaches of Sri Lanka, criss-crossed China by bus and spent nine-hour days in the saddle riding across Britain and over Alpine passes. But I had no idea what 18 hours in a seat narrower than my desk chair would feel like. I approached the ordeal with a degree of dread — and painkillers for my already dodgy back — but I was also excited to be part of something.

The world has never been smaller, as it spins beneath a web of flight paths; at any one time, there are an average of almost 10,000 aeroplanes in the air, carrying 1.2m people between countries and continents at more than 500mph. It’s easy to take that for granted now that the wonder of jet travel has been clouded by the experience of immigration queues, diminishing leg room and pay-as-you-eat stale bread rolls.

And now we are entering a new age of long-distance travel. As of next week, the Auckland-Doha route, which launched last year, has competition. Next Saturday, Qantas flight 9 will leave Perth, Australia, heading west to London Heathrow. The first direct link between Australia and Europe will take 17 hours in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner (15 hours and 45 minutes the other way, thanks to prevailing jet streams).

Then, some time this year, Qatar Airways expects to lose its record. Airbus has just completed its first A350-900ULR (ultra-long-range) that can fly up to 9,700 miles and more than 20 hours. Singapore Airlines wants to use it to revive its 19-hour Singapore to New York route. Qantas has also fuelled an ultra-long-haul arms race by challenging Airbus and Boeing to tweak its aircraft for a London-Sydney route, which would be almost 20.5 hours, and 10,500 miles. The airline is also eyeing up New York, Rio and Cape Town.

Almost 70 years since the de Havilland Comet launched the commercial jet age, we are on the brink of being able to journey halfway around the world — 12,450 miles — without touching the ground. There will be no two cities on Earth that cannot be connected. Think of that. “The idea that you’re covering these vast distances, like an ocean liner in the glory days of transatlantic travel, while sitting in comfort with food and drink at 30,000 feet, is mind-blowing even to me,” says John Strickland, a British aviation consultant and former network planner for British Airways.

It evokes a more starched spirit of epic journeying that Qantas launched with its Kangaroo Route in 1947. On December 1 that year, a Lockheed Constellation L-749 with four piston engines left Sydney carrying 29 passengers and 11 crew, all impeccably dressed. After six stops (Darwin, Singapore, Kolkata, Karachi, Cairo and Tripoli, including two nights in hotels) and 55 hours in the air, they touched down in London four days later. Each passenger had paid £585 (more than £20,000 in today’s money) for the privilege of what felt at the time like time travel.

A publicity shot for Qantas's Kangaroo Route from 1948
A Lockheed Constellation used for the first Qantas flights to London on the Kangaroo Route between 1947 and 1954

Much has changed in seven decades, and it is the fuel-efficiency of modern jets that enables this new era. Singapore Airlines first launched its New York route in 2004, using a heavy four-engined Airbus A340-500, but cancelled it after the financial crash, when passengers were no longer prepared to pay a premium for the increasingly costly fuel required to keep them in the air.

Carbon-fibre-reinforced composites mean aeroplanes are ever lighter— despite the immovable burdens of people, fuel and coffee — which is important because long flights require more fuel, much of which is burned in its own carriage. “The Jumbo has a maximum take-off weight of 400 tonnes, but the fuel itself weighs 180 tonnes when full,” explains Dave Smith, a retired BA pilot. “For every 10 tonnes of fuel you load on, you will burn three tonnes just to carry it.”

Passengers are lightweight by comparison. My flight to Doha carries 259 people, or about 20 tonnes of flesh. But, unlike fuel, the human payload doesn’t get lighter as the flight goes on. Today, many ultra-long-haul airlines are selling seats at a premium; costlier tickets mean fewer passengers. A return to Perth on Qantas will start from £1,095 in economy, up to at least £4,240 in business. The economy cabin will be smaller than normal, too. Singapore Airlines is rumoured to be ditching economy on its revived New York link.

Without passengers, airliners can really fly. In 1989, when Qantas took delivery of its first longer-range 747-400, it flew it from London to Sydney, but with only 23 people on board. The galleys had to be stripped bare and the pilots monitored the weather constantly while recalculating their range. They landed on fumes after 20 hours and nine minutes.

But the limit I am interested in is human — and in economy. Is it worth almost a full day and night of confinement just to save a few hours? It strikes me some time after the beef (“quite good,” says my neighbour Katrine, a Norwegian beef geneticist flying home to Oslo after an agricultural conference) that I will have never spent so long in one place. It gets dark over Indonesia and stays that way as we trace Earth’s shadow. It all adds to a sense of dislocation. Without WiFi on my seven-year-old plane, it’s also the longest I’ve gone without the internet for at least a decade. Flying may not be nearly as glamorous as it was once, but this, I have no doubt, is one of the flight’s unalloyed pleasures.

Simon Usborne's in-flight lunch of slow-cooked beef in tomato sauce
Brunch: chicken cooked in Catalan-style sauce

But what of my veins? To get to Auckland, I had already endured a seven-hour flight from London and a 16-hour flight from Doha, and my diary only allowed me to spend 10 hours in New Zealand (crazy, I know). In three days and nights, I am spending a total of 50 hours in plane seats, travelling 24,000 miles. Before I departed, I recalled the great DVT (deep vein thrombosis) scare, which peaked in 2000 after the death of Emma Christoffersen. The 28-year-old woman developed a clot after a Qantas flight from Sydney to London, via Singapore. Clots that form in the inactive lower leg can be fatal if they travel to the heart and lungs. Fevered press coverage triggered multiple lawsuits, but soon died away.

“I would definitely take precautions,” Professor Charles McCollum, vascular surgeon and DVT specialist, warned me. The threat was — and remains — real, if not as terrifying as those headlines made it seem. He suggested taking aspirin to thin my blood, and wearing compression socks to stop it pooling in the lower legs. In 2001, McCollum helped devise a method for machine-knitting custom socks. He sent a man to scan my legs and a pair of Isobar Compression socks arrived two days later. On the flight, my calves feel pleasantly embraced, and my feet do not swell.

I went for a swim during my brief stop in Auckland, and met Tex Edwards, a New Zealand former telecoms executive who travels to London and the US on business about once a month. He told me he saves a good NZ$100,000 (about £52,000) a year by flying only economy, and has pool memberships in several airport hotels as part of a pre-flight exercise regime. He recommended yoga and no alcohol. I ignore the no-booze bit, but on the plane, I start watching a Qatar Airways yoga video on my little screen. It’s designed for passengers (lots of neck rolling), but I find the instructor’s mystic intonation insufferable and switch off for the sake of my blood pressure.

An in-flight Qatar Airways yoga video

Following McCollum’s advice, I get up often, and push my heels into the floor to empty my calf veins. Before long, the emergency exit area in front of me becomes a strange sort of gym, where bleary-eyed travellers in athleisure and neck cushions try desperately to stretch between faltering naps. A nearby baby who had started the flight with a tantrum is happily now asleep, squeezed into an airline crib like a tinned pilchard. There are only eight hours to go.

Beyond serving sufficient food, Qatar has done little to make such a long flight easier. The seats on the older 777s are as worn as a Grand Central shoeshine’s, and many lose legroom thanks to the entertainment systems underneath. Qantas is going further. The Dreamliner helps; all that carbon fibre saves weight but is also more durable, allowing for a more earthly cabin pressure and humidity. Qantas has also worked with the Charles Perkins Centre, a disease and lifestyle research institute at the University of Sydney, to optimise its ultra-long-haul service.

Much of it looks like window dressing — it’s hard to see how a “Probiotic BC30 infused Botanica cold-pressed juice shot” is going to take the edge off 17 hours in economy — but, says Professor Stephen Simpson, the centre’s director, “we’re trying to use this opportunity to do good science.” So the cabin lighting encourages the brain to shift time zones (shorter wavelengths by day, longer at night). And protein-rich ingredients in evening meals are selected for higher levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes sleep hormones.

For the first six months of the service, about 20 people per flight — 7,000 people in all — will wear devices on their legs and wrists, to monitor vital signs including heart rates, sleep patterns, breathing and movement. The guinea pigs will record their behaviour, including food and drink consumption. Qantas says it will use the research to improve its service further, while Simpson plans to publish a study. “Much of the existing literature derives from the study of military or pilots,” he says. “There’s virtually nothing on the travelling public.”

All of it will come too late for me. After about 11 hours, somewhere over the Bay of Bengal, I head to the back of the plane to stand outside the main galley. My head is aching and my eyes feel dry. I spare a thought for the crew of 15, plus four pilots, who work in six-hour shifts, retreating to bunks when they can. “The best is to sleep in the middle because if it’s at the start you are not tired,” says flight attendant Alejandra. She lives in Doha and says she enjoys the challenge of longer routes. She only wishes there were one to her home in Mexico City.

Journalist Simon Usbourne onboard a Qatar Airways flight at London Heathrow. Photographed by Greg Funnell for the Financial Times, 8th March 2018.
Simon Usborne on board a Qatar Airways plane at London Heathrow © Greg Funnell

I go back to my seat and snatch an hour or two more of sleep (memory-foam neck cushion, foam ear plugs, padded eye mask, noise-cancelling headphones). By hour 15, with almost three to go, time really starts to crawl. A final movie? Go on then.

Soon we’ve crossed the Arabian Sea and begin our descent. I chat briefly to Katrine, the beef scientist, and we’re struck by how long ago our initial conversation feels. “This is OK but more than 20 hours would be too much,” she tells me. “And next time I won’t eat all the snack box at one time.”

At last, the thud of rubber on tarmac. There is no cheer on landing, only a tired gathering of belongings. I unfold my legs and step off the plane, feeling less perky than the cabin crew still look.

I’ve survived the world’s longest flight, and feel in little hurry to step back into the ultra-long race across the skies. I dare not calculate my carbon footprint but I am left in slightly dizzied awe by the possibility of such travel and by the experience of flying to the other side of the world and back in three days. I go in search of a shower at Hamad International. It’s past midnight and I have time for a stroll, too, before my 1:55am flight to Heathrow — barely a hop at seven hours.

Simon Usborne was a guest of Qatar Airways

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