Planes, trains, automobiles, feet …
Ultra-long-range flights have become a reality but are travellers ready to brave 19 hours aloft?
A steady drive south from New York on the I-95 with minimal breaks will get you to balmy Miami in about 18 hours. It’s a long haul on arrow-straight freeways negotiating traffic and, perhaps, a spot of enlivening road rage. But some might ask, “Aren’t there easier places to get to with a coconut tree and a pink bikini?” Like Singapore.
The new Singapore Airlines Airbus A350-900 service from the Big Apple to the Lion City has an official time of 18 hours and 40 minutes, but it can be completed in less. Buoyed by tailwinds, the inaugural flight on Nov 9 from Singapore to JFK airport in New York touched down in less than 17 hours, to take on the mantle of the world’s longest flight currently in operation.
This was a mammoth undertaking for a crew of four pilots and a few passengers as the plane cut through the skies skirting Japan, Anchorage and Chicago to complete 8,984 nautical miles (10,331 standard miles or 16,638km) burning 97.5 tonnes of aviation fuel.
Ultra-long-range flights at the farthest limits of machinery and man — at least for those packed like sardines for endless hours — have captured the imagination of airlines everywhere since the heroic Qantas experiment flying nonstop from Sydney to New York and London in late 2019.
SUNRISE TO SUNSET
While these were not scheduled commercial flights, “Project Sunrise”, as Qantas dubbed it, aroused considerable public curiosity but was derided by plane buffs as a marketing gimmick with just a handful of passengers in fully reclining business seats, not your typical long-haul crush.
Qantas used a Boeing B787-9 Dreamliner for the 19-hour flight. But then came Covid-19. Demand and dreams crashed and, just three months after a brave rollout, the project was mothballed.
Several flights in the 17-hour range have been operated with varying levels of commercial success — Singapore-Newark by SIA, Doha-Auckland (17 hours 40 minutes) by Qatar Airways, Dubai-Auckland by Emirates and Perth-London by Qantas.
This is a long way from my first international flight on an Air India B747 in the autumn of 1977 that took me, hopping and stopping just about everywhere, from New Delhi to London, via Damascus, Rome and Paris (if memory serves me). We were handed Coca-Cola and I foolishly, if unwittingly, paid a small fortune to buy a glass or two of wine for the lady sitting next to me out of my fast-dwindling US$21 foreign allowance.
It has to be said that the twin scourges of scarcity (money) and discomfort (seating) at a time when just being aloft was a novel experience, made flying all the more exquisite. We didn’t fly particularly high and I spent my time identifying natural features below that appeared close enough to touch.
The 1970s were a time of milk-stop runs before advancing technology ushered in long-haul nonstops that brought an abrupt end to the aspirations of several cities like New Delhi, which fell off the map, as flights efficiently linked mega-hubs like Hong Kong to London, bypassing all the rest. For travellers, India remains the “dark subcontinent”, even today.
Will travellers take to ultra-long-haul flights in 17-inch seats, battling deep vein thrombosis and boorish or bulky neighbours? Comments vary from, “It was really tough” (with PPE suits donned) to, “I must confess there were times I felt really irritable” (without Covid protection on an earlier flight). Take your pick.
Of course there is the lure of maximised time at the destination in a world that frowns on long absences from the desk. Yet, as the globe hurries by without a chance to savour the changes in topography, culture, dialect and food as you hurtle through anonymous latitudes and longitudes, you miss out on the essence of travel — the journey, the immersion, the conversation, the unforeseen dramas and the magnificent tales saved not on a smartphone but in the mind, that rarely used mushy bit between the ears.
RIDING THE RAILS
While I often forget the specifics of various flights that monotonously blur into one another, I vividly recall our scorching three-day train journeys as kids to spend the summers with our stern paternal grandmother in Kerala who dished out hymns, threats of a caning and delicious dosas, all in one fluid motion.
En route, the platform tea was served in clay kulads that we later gleefully smashed on the rails. The soft drinks man heralded his arrival by tinkling arpeggios with a metal rod on his ice-cold bottles. Bookstores with impossible names like Higginbotham’s sold James Hadley Chase and Louis L’Amour novels and Archie comics by the kilogramme.
Always sweet-talked by some shifty train attendant, my mother would order giant ice slabs in leaking tin tubs to create the illusion of air-conditioning as water swamped our steamy compartment. “Train the fan on the ice, darlings,” she’d coo as my brother and I sweatily went about the task, too exhausted to object.
Would I trade all that for a 19-hour flight cocooned from fellow passengers and divorced from any sense of my regal, irritable, sleepless passage aloft? Hmm. Well, at least the air-conditioning on flights works better than ice blocks. A Happy Covid-free New Year to all.