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Ultra-long haul flights take off

Lower fuel prices and more efficient aircraft are making the ultra-long haul sector feasible again

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Why airlines are taking on the longest non-stop flights ever.

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ARE WE THERE YET? Lower fuel prices and more efficient aircraft are making the ultra-long haul sector feasible again.

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SIA will reclaim the title of operating the world's longest flight from Oct 11 as it commences its service to Newark Liberty International Airport, using the ultra long range (ULR) variant of the A350-900 (above). Covering a distance of some 16,000 km, the travel time each way will be up to 18 hours and 45 minutes.

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In March, Qantas started operating a 17-hour flight between Perth and London using Boeing's 787-9 (above) in what was Australia's first direct link to Europe. According to a spokesperson, the service is exceeding expectations, with load factors of over 90 per cent in premium cabins such as Business and Premium Economy.

FROM October, the world’s longest commercial flight will depart from Changi Airport and land in New York – once again. The non-stop service, operated by Singapore Airlines (SIA), was axed by the carrier in 2013 amid high fuel prices, but new, efficient aircraft and relatively cheaper fuel are making the near-19 hour trek more feasible now.

Dubbed ultra-long-haul flights, they allow time-starved business and premium travellers to cut travel time by avoiding a stop-over, while carriers gain an edge over their competitors and can also justify tagging a premium onto the airfare.

Then there is undoubtably the glamour of holding the mantle of operating some of the world's longest flights.

Among them currently is Emirates' Dubai-Auckland route, and Qatar Airways' Doha-Auckland route - currently the world's longest at 17 hours and 30 minutes - although SIA will reclaim that title from Oct 11 as it commences its service to Newark Liberty International Airport, using the ultra long range (ULR) variant of the A350-900. Covering a distance of some 16,000 km, the travel time each way will be up to 18 hours and 45 minutes.

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Singapore's flag carrier will also launch direct, 15-hour flights to Los Angeles on Nov 2, using the A350-900ULR, an aircraft type for which it is the launch customer. Meanwhile, it is bumping up frequencies on its existing non-stop services to San Francisco that month. From Nov 28, it will add three more flights per week to its daily, direct Singapore-San Francisco service which is operated using the A350-900.

All in, SIA will link Singapore and the United States with 27 weekly non-stop flights by year-end. In particular, its premium capacity is set to increase significantly since its ULRs are only configured with Business Class and Premium Economy seats - but this is clearly a calculated move.

"Economy... is a low-yielding and extremely competitive segment of the market that SIA prefers to cede to other airlines," points out CAPA - Centre for Aviation analyst Brendan Sobie.

SIA previously pulled the plug on its non-stop flights to both New York and Los Angeles in 2013 as stubbornly high fuel prices and weak demand from business travellers made it tough to operate the route profitably. But lower fuel prices today, vis-a-vis the stratospheric levels seen in recent years, as well as the introduction of fuel-efficient, twin-engine aircraft have changed the playing field.

The carrier began flying non-stop to Newark and Los Angeles in 2004, first using a combination of business class and premium economy seats aboard a gas-guzzling, four-engine Airbus A340-500 aircraft. It then decided to bank heavily on corporate demand by configurating its A340s into an all-Business Class product. This backfired as the combination of surging fuel prices and waning travel demand after the 2008 global financial crisis forced it to later cease the direct services.

This time around, the premium carrier has chosen a two-class configuration with 67 Business Class and 94 Premium Economy seats. Passengers who want to fly Economy or want to break up the long journey with a stop-over can opt for the airline's one-stop service to New York, via Frankfurt, and Los Angeles via Tokyo. (But the carrier is suspending its Singapore-Seoul-Los Angeles route after Nov 30)

CAPA's Mr Sobie noted that SIA's current capacity to the US will rise by 13 per cent in the coming months vis-a-vis current capacity. But this is still 4 per cent lower than the second half of 2013, before it suspended the non-stop services to New York and Los Angeles.

Highlighting that the US remains an important market for the carrier, a spokesperson for SIA also pointed out that ultra-long-haul services is a key part of its strategy to cater to multiple market segments. "We have a diversified route network which is integral to ensuring that Singapore remains a hub, which requires a mix of short-haul, medium-haul, long-haul and ultra-long-haul operations," the spokesperson added. The airlines hasn't ruled out a fourth non-stop destination in the United States aside from San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles either.

Are we there yet?

SIA isn't the only one jumping on the ultra-long-haul bandwagon.

United Airlines also operates non-stop Singapore-Los Angeles and Singapore-San Francisco flights using Boeing's Dreamliner. However, come October - a year after the service was launched, and just before SIA pushes out its new flight - it will cease the Singapore-Los Angeles service. Instead the US carrier will double down and add a second, daily non-stop flight out of Singapore to San Francisco.

Philippines Airlines too is planning to launch non-stop flights to New York in October, although with a three-class configuration that includes economy seats as it caters to a different market segment from the premium carriers. This would give it the only economy, non-stop product between South-east Asia and New York through its A350-900s.

And in March, Australia's Qantas started operating a 17-hour flight between Perth and London using Boeing's 787-9 in what was Australia's first direct link to Europe. According to a spokesperson, the service is exceeding expectations, with load factors of over 90 per cent in premium cabins such as Business and Premium Economy.

At the same time, Qantas is eyeing non-stop flights out of Sydney and Melbourne to London and New York by 2022 in a challenge dubbed "Project Sunrise", said to be in a reference to flights operated over the Indian Ocean by the Flying Kangaroo during World War II which were long enough to witness two sunrises.

This, Qantas boss Alan Joyce has been quoted as saying, would be "a last frontier in global aviation. The antidote to the tyranny of distance".

It has tasked plane-makers Airbus and Boeing with manufacturing aircraft that will be able to handle such a feat, for which Airbus is reportedly pushing the ultra-long-range (ULR) versions of its A350-900s and A350-1000s, while Boeing is said to be modifying its 777-8 model.

Unlike SIA, which is going with a premium-focused product, Qantas is likely to opt for a four- cabin configuration of First Class, Business Class, Premium Economy and Economy.

The carrier is also mulling over the introduction of flexible zones onboard, with social spaces such as lounges, exercise zones and even work stations to enhance the travel experience for passengers. For instance, Qantas is reportedly considering turning parts of the cargo hold into bunk beds. All these considerations, no doubt, would have to be weighed against payload restrictions, as it seeks to fit enough seats onboard to make the product profitable.

The bigger challenge might well be to help passenger stay comfortable during the 22-hour schlep. To do this, it will bank on new technologies and scientific research, tying up with Sydney University's medical research centre to design the in-flight experience and develop ways to improve passenger well-being. According to a report from Australia's Traveller, this includes finding ways to curb jet lag by playing around with meal timings and lighting. It is also studying passenger behaviour on the recently launched Perth-London route.

In April, Qantas reached out to seat manufacturers for submissions for both Economy and Premium Economy seats, which need to take into account a plethora of factors ranging from comfort and space to storage and entertainment.

A Qantas spokesperson said: "Project Sunrise is ultimately about giving customers a choice, whether they want a non-stop service or a series of shorter rides to get to their destination."

To hub or not to hub

Speaking to reporters in June at the annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association in Sydney, Qantas' management said that it is open to more direct routes out of Australia to points such as Frankfurt, Paris, Chicago and Rio de Janeiro.

But while such non-stop services could mean passengers end up bypassing hubs like Changi Airport, such air hubs still remain relevant, the Qantas spokesperson added. "Coupled with our Singapore-based Jetstar Asia network, Qantas is able to leverage Changi as a hub to tap the Asia Pacific air travel market as a support for our long-haul services from Singapore. Singapore is also a popular destination for business and tourism in its own right for Australians."

Other industry watchers say that ultimately, ultra-long-haul routes are niche and relatively small in proportion to global traffic, which means they are not a huge threat to hubs such as Changi.

Lim Ching Kiat, managing director (air hub development) at Changi Airport Group (CAG), highlighted that new planes such as the B787s and A350s also deliver opportunities to grow the Singapore hub with new links, providing greater convenience for passengers. Last year, passenger traffic between Singapore and the United States grew by 30 per cent to over 690,000 passengers, aided in part by the introduction of new flights.

Mr Lim said: "CAG sees the potential of new non-stop flights to more cities in North America such as Chicago, Seattle, Vancouver and Toronto, where non-stop flights are now a possibility with the latest aircraft technology."

He went on to add: "Ultra-long-haul flights provide more options for travellers. While they will be popular with those who are time-sensitive, we believe there will be passengers who would prefer breaking their long journeys with a stop-over."

The bottomline

But such long-haul routes may still be challenging, analysts caution, even with the introduction of fuel-efficient, next-generation aircraft, what with oil prices heading north.

While Emirates and Qatar Airways have not disclosed the profitability of their respective ultra-long-haul routes to Auckland, transport equities research firm Crucial Perspective estimates that loads on the Dubai-Auckland and Doha-Auckland route are about 82 per cent and 81 per cent respectively.

Chief executive of Crucial Perspective, Corrine Png, said: "Travel demand is seasonal on (these) routes and judging from their fare offerings, we believe these are low-yielding routes. It is even harder to make money now for these ultra-long-range flights, given the higher jet fuel prices."

At the same time, she pointed out that while the routes may not be profitable, they serve a purpose by contributing positively to the airlines' individual networks.

She said: "Qatar Airways and Emirates have been expanding their fleets aggressively and need to broaden their network reach to fill up their planes, especially for their European business. They are essentially leveraging their strong network in Europe to attract more passengers to fly between Europe and New Zealand via their hubs in Dubai/Doha, instead of via other hubs like Singapore and Los Angeles, given the similar travelling time."

The marketing buzz that comes with operating one of the world's longest flights doesn't hurt either.

Commenting on SIA's likelihood of successfully operating the non-stop routes to the US, Mr Sobie said: "SIA has a much better chance at achieving long-term profitability on non-stop routes with the A350-900ULR than the A340-500 even if fuel prices continue to rise. But there are a very limited number of markets that are potentially viable. I think SIA is hedging its bets with the ULR as the aircraft can easily turn back into a non-ULR, should seven prove too many."

SIA has ordered a total of seven of the ultra-long-range variant of the A350, and will use the same type of Business Class and Premium Economy seats on the A350-900ULR as it does on the A350-900. It is due to take delivery of its first ultra-long-range A350 in September from planemaker Airbus.

Mr Sobie went on to say: "Generally speaking, I would say it's still difficult to make these kinds of routes work as you need sufficient premium traffic. Other South-east Asia-US routes of similar length, for example, lack this."

Aside from Singapore, the only other market which has strong enough premium demand to sustain such ultra-long-range operations is Australia, he added.

Still - if done right - ultra-long-haul routes could be a win-win for both the airlines that are choosing (albeit carefully) to operate them, and the travellers who are keen to fly them.