An oncoming wave of super-long direct flights promises to change the way we travel around the globe. Andrea Bennett reports on the future of flying
Since February, it has been possible to live your life in two hemispheres—or at least to feel as if you did. When you board Singapore Airlines Flight SQ20, you leave Changi Airport at 4 p.m., cross 10 time zones in 18 hours without stopping, and arrive in Los Angeles at 4 p.m. the same day. The flight can shave up to three hours off the carrier's normal route, and is made possible by the Airbus 340-500, which has the longest range of any commercial aircraft in operation today.
SQ20 isn't the only super-long-haul flight to debut in 2004. At press time, Singapore was also planning to begin nonstop New York-Singapore service this summer, and Emirates Airline expected to launch 13-hour direct flights from New York to Dubai. Also coming up: nonstop service from New York to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, and Toronto to Hong Kong on Air Canada.
Of course, such flights aren't entirely new—Continental Airlineshas intermittently offered direct service between New York and Hong Kong since 2001—but today they represent a growing trend. In just a few years, we may be not only flying farther without needing to stop in hubs but also enjoying unprecedented comforts in the air.
Whether longer-haul direct flights become the norm depends in part on which of the world's two largest aircraft manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, wins more business from the airlines as international travel increases.
Airbus is betting that carriers will want to offer point-to-point service on certain routes while also continuing to stop in hubs on others. The company has already taken the lead in manufacturing planes that can fly farther; as of May, it had logged orders for 22 A340-500's (which can fly 8,650 nautical miles) and 84 A340-600's (7,500 nautical miles). At the same time, its major next-generation plane, scheduled to begin flying in 2006, is the A380, a monster double-decker that can carry up to 555 passengers. The idea behind it: transport more passengers to popular hubs on fewer flights, thus easing congestion. The A380 has proven equally attractive to carriers—Airbus currently has 129 on order. Emirates, for example, is using the A340-500 on its New York-Dubai route, and is also buying 45 A380's; Nigel Page, a senior vice president of commercial operations at the airline, expects that these planes will travel between Dubai and European hubs.
Boeing, for its part, sees direct flights as the way of the future. According to spokesman Tom Brabant, the company believes that travelers want to fly "where and when they want" and prefer more frequent nonstops between smaller, less busy terminals. To fill this perceived need, both of Boeing's next-generation planes are long-range: the 777-200LR, which will be able to fly nearly 10,000 nautical miles when it goes into service in 2006, and the 7E7, a smaller, lighter fuel-efficient plane that can fly up to 8,500 nautical miles. The company has identified 450 possible new city pairs that these planes might serve, such as Detroit-Beijing.
This approach is a gamble for Boeing, which has trailed Airbus in sales four of the past five years (Boeing delivered 281 commercial aircraft in 2003, Airbus 305). It's arguable that a more diversified product line will continue to give Airbus an edge, but either way, according to Virginia-based aviation analyst and historian George Hamlin, there should be a growing market for longer-range aircraft. If the major international airlines stick to operating shorter flights between a small number of heavily used hubs, Hamlin says, low-cost carriers could create new point-to-point routes and capture business, much as they've done within the United States and Europe. (Low-cost carriers now control about 14 percent of Europe's market and 22 percent of America's.)
For now, flying longer-haul international flights on some routes simply makes good business sense for many airlines. By capitalizing on greater fuel efficiency and eliminating multiple take-off, handling, and refueling charges, airlines can increase profits per flight. What's more, says Singapore Airlines spokesman James Boyd, these new flightsallow carriers to bypass restrictive government regulations. "Singapore and the United States have an open-skies agreement, and we can fly as much as the market will allow," he notes. "But that's not true of some intermediate destinations. It was a drag on growth."
These flights also give airlines an opportunity to win the business of the customer they most want: the international business traveler. Recent Business Travel Monitor data from American Express (the parent company of this magazine) shows that the typical domestic business-class fare from Newark to San Francisco plunged 78 percent between December 2002 and December 2003, mostly due to competition from low-fare carriers. Because business travelers are the passengers most likely to demand first- and business-class seats for longer flights, new super-long-haul flights offer the airlines a chance to recoup losses in the domestic market by selling a greater number of the higher-priced international tickets (see "High Flying," below).
The International Civil Aviation Organization projects that world passenger traffic will rise by 4.4 percent in 2004, taking the airline industry back into the black for the first time since September 11, 2001; in 2005, traffic is expected to increase by 6.3 percent. What a growing number of longer nonstop flights may signal more than anything else is renewed optimism about travel among those who are willing to pay a higher price in exchange for extra comfort and, even more important, extra time. As George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, puts it, "Time has become the new scarce commodity."
New York-based writer Andrea Bennett reports on commercial aviation for Travel + Leisure.
To better serve passengers paying a premium on new super-long flights, many carriers, including those listed below, have reinvented their services.
• Emirates Airline reduced the capacity of its A340-500's flying between New York and Dubai in order to devote more space to the front of the cabin. Its 12 fully enclosed first-class mini-suites (cost: about $7,000 round-trip) have electric sliding doors, seats that recline flat, telephones, in-flight e-mail service, 19-inch video screens on which you can choose from 50 TV channels and 100 movies, plus vanity tables, mini-bars, and room service. The 42 seats in business class—which recline to a nearly flat position and have built-in massagers—are all located next to a window or on the aisle.
• Cathay Pacific redesigned the cabins on its new long-haul planes so that eight first-class passengers can browse a private gallery of images from Hong Kong photographers while either helping themselves to food at a buffet table or ordering from a menu on demand. Seats have phone, fax, and e-mail service; they recline flat and have a pitch of 79 inches. The 21 business-class seats are wider (20 1/2 inches) and longer (75 inches) than those on normal routes and come with e-mail and telephone service.
• Singapore Airlines designed its Los Angeles-Singapore A340-500's to carry just 181 passengers in two classes. In Raffles Class (business), the 64 SpaceBeds recline flat and have a 64-inch seat pitch (six more inches than on the company's other planes). At 20 inches, Executive Economy seats are the widest of any economy-class seats in the air. Both cabins have self-serve bars and snack counters.