On February 3, 2004, Singapore Airlines made history when it launched the longest scheduled nonstop flight in commercial aviation history. Fourteen hours and forty-two minutes after departing Singapore’s Changi Airport, flight SQ020 touched down at Los Angeles International having covered 7,609 nautical miles — a distance representing more than a third of the earth’s total equatorial circumference. They were 78 minutes early.
Scheduled time for the westbound leg, flight SQ019, is an unprecedented 18 hours and 42 minutes, actual duration varying with wind and weather. Bring plenty to read, and leave your circadian rhythms at home. The effects of traversing ten time zones and the international date line make for some quirky logistics: Leaving LAX at 8 p.m., passengers land at Changi just after sunrise two mornings later. Leaving Changi at 4 p.m., they land at LAX at, yes, 4 p.m. on the very same day. Some advantageous winds and it’s possible to arrive, as it were, before you depart.
For the inaugural, Singapore sold a three night hotel and airfare (economy) package at just over $1,300. Standard fares will be around $1,100. Not bad for a routing almost thrice the flying time of New York-London.
Never one to rest on its laurels, the airline is already planning a New York-Singapore nonstop for next fall that will match or beat the existing pairing. Precise mileages and routings are not yet known, but the flight will proceed up over Canada and the Arctic, then southward, so to speak, across Siberia and down through China. (This “great circle” is the shortest way of connecting eastern North America and Asia, despite how it appears on most flat maps and atlases.)
Both services will be flown by the newest variant of the elegant, four-engine Airbus A340 — the A340-500. The -500, visually distinguishable from earlier A340s by its wider cowled turbofans, carries enough fuel (56,750 gallons) for more than 21 airborne hours. Emirates put the jet in service late last year between Dubai and Sydney, but Singapore has taken the fullest advantage of its capabilities.
Singapore has proved its typically innovative self in figuring out how to keep 200 or so passengers fed, distracted, and comfortable — to say nothing of sane — for durations heretofore experienced only by astronauts. They’ve gone with a two-class arrangement — a business class, which it brands Raffles Class (after the famous Sir Stamford, eponym of the country’s most famous hotel), and something called Executive Economy. Raffles customers, having parted with $5,000 for the privilege, may doze in fully-flat sleepers or visit the extra posh lavatories that include their own windows. While less extravagant, Executive Economy comes with five inches of extra legroom and a spacious, seven-abreast layout (normal coach seating for this model is eight across). All economy seats have 9-inch video screens and a choice of 30 films. While an A340 can hold more than 300 people in a maximum density configuration, Singapore’s -500s have only 181 seats. Having plucked a fare from every row, the airline says it can make up the difference by having expanded the Raffles section.
With flight times now exceeding the gestation periods of many small mammals, there are growing concerns about an affliction known as deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, allegedly caused by protracted exposure to the knee crushing confines of most economy seats. Known also as “economy class syndrome,” it’s a condition where potentially lethal blood clots form in the legs and can spread through the body. Thus far there’s no full scientific consensus as to what extent a plane’s cramped quarters contribute to DVT, but those on lengthier trips should avoid remaining sedentary for extended periods of time. On Singapore’s marathon nonstops, passengers are encouraged to frequent the inflight buffet lounge, an alcove laid out with snacks, fruits, and beverages. The intent here is not only one of diversion, but to entice people to stretch their legs at regular intervals. For those who wander in barefoot after sleeping, the buffet zone has heated floors.
I’m still waiting for a postflight garbage report. Veteran fliers will know what I’m talking about: By the time most intercontinental flights are docking at the gate, the aisles, floors, and seats have come to resemble a the scene of a dumpster explosion, the volume of refuse (cups, wrappers, bottles, bodily fluids and food) increasing proportionally with time spent aloft. For 18 hours, I’ll venture the passenger-to-trash weight ratio is about 1:1.
As with most longer-haul aircraft these days, the planes are equipped with crew bunks and rest areas, in this case in a secluded lower-deck chamber accessed by a rear staircase. Two teams of pilots alternate cockpit shifts, while 14 flight attendants — still known around the biz, like it or not, as “Singapore Girls” — work the aisles and restock the buffet. That’s only three fewer attendants than staff the airline’s 747s, which have twice the number of seats.
Singapore Airlines formed in 1972 when Malaysia-Singpapore Airlines was split into separate entities, the two Asian nations taking possession of namesake carriers for the first time. (To this day one notices a likeness between them — flight attendants at both companies wear an almost identical sarong kebaya, for instance.) While Malaysia Airlines is itself a world class brand, Singapore Airlines went on to build one of the industry’s most successful transit hubs at Changi. Although Singapore the nation is home to only four million people, Singapore the airline operates a 95-strong fleet of the newest widebody planes, the vast majority of them 747s and 777s.
It also built an unsurpassed reputation for pampering, having garnered more passenger service accolades over the past 32 years than anybody else. Aboard its 747s, first class fliers relax in private suites with 76-inch seatbeds and down-filled duvets. On request, attendants perform turndown service while patrons change into Givenchy pajamas. Clearly they’ve outdone themselves to make their 18 hour megahauls as palatable as possible, and we have to wonder if a US carrier entrusted with the same challenge would come anywhere close to their levels of care.
Knocked to second place in all this, by the way, is Continental Airlines’ Newark-Hong Kong service, which until last week held bragging rights as world’s longest, clocking in at 7,334 nautical miles (about 16 hours). Like the soon to come New York-Singapore pairing, it goes up over the North Pole before bending southward over Russia and China.
If you’re wondering who rounds out the top five, it’s hard to say. Lists like these are bound to be met by bickering over a few minutes or miles. It depends if you’re talking time, distance, and whether a flight goes nonstop in one or both directions. In 2001 United Airlines began going New York-Hong Kong and advertised the nonstop as the planet’s lengthiest. Shortly thereafter Cathay Pacific inaugurated matching service. Neither was profitable and both were curtailed, passing the baton to Continental. While all this was happening — South African Airways claimed its Atlanta-Cape Town held the edge, while some insisted it was that same airline’s longstanding JFK-Johannesburg, both going nonstop only in the eastbound direction.
Have experienced the JFK-Johannesburg route myself, as a passenger on South African’s flight SA202, I can attest to the 14 hours and 46 minute ride having been less uncomfortable than you’d expect. I know it was exactly 14 hours and 46 minutes because there was a digital timer bolted to the bulkhead, triggered by retraction of the landing gear to provide a minute by minute update. Watching the hours tick by seemed a tortuous proposition until a certain passenger was bold enough to tape a piece of paper over the clock.
So as you can see the whole range thing is sometimes slithery business, not only with regard to the distances themselves but the airplanes used to cover them. Asking which planes have the longest range isn’t a totally fair question. It differs substantially among and within specific types. Watch the suffixes. There’s not just an Airbus A340, there’s the A340-200, -300, -500, and -600. You’ll find all sorts of dashes attached to Boeings as well; -200s, -300s, -500s, LRs, ERs, and so forth. All are available with technical options (engine types, auxiliary fuel tanks) equating to differences in range. Thus it’s unfair to say, out of hand, that one plane has a longer range than another. Does an A340 outdistance a 777? Some do, some don’t. And a larger numerical suffix does not equate to greater duration. The A340-500 has longer reach than the -600. A Boeing 767-200ER outlasts a 767-300ER. If you enjoy graphs and charts rich with asterisks and fine print, go to the manufacturer’s websites and knock yourself out. What it comes down to is this: The Boeing 747, 777, and Airbus A340 are the three most common equipment on ultra-long range routings. When it flies, the A380 will join them.
This past year, incidentally, became the first ever in which Airbus both outsold and outordered the product line from Boeing. With the behemoth Airbus A380 looming on deck as the next big thing (figuratively and literally), Boeing is eager to announce production of its 7E7 Dreamliner, only its second all-new design in more than 20 years, and by many accounts a do or die move for a manufacturer whose line has grown stagnant. The Dreamliner’s niche will be medium range, medium capacity.
While the Dreamliner takes shape, Boeing’s 777-200LR (Long Range) is set for entry in 2006. Able to span 9,100 miles without refueling, almost every major city-pair on earth will be connectable with this astoundingly long-legged aircraft. That includes the previously unimaginable New York-Sydney.
Quaint seem the days, thirty or so years ago, when Pan Am executives sat in their Park Avenue skyscraper, scratching their heads over ways to make a 747 reach Tokyo without refueling. We’ve since closed not only the physical gaps between continents, but the ones between imagination and technology — perfecting not only the science of how to get there, but the art of doing so comfortably.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.