Ultra long-range flights earned the titles of newspapers and tv news during the last couple of years, as Australian national carrier Qantas (QF) started testing a non-stop connection between New York and Sydney while Singapore Airlines (SQ) resumed its Singapore-Newark route. At almost 18 hours in the sky, that is the longest regular commercial service existing today. But the overall record for a non-stop commercial flight (in point of time aloft) has been resisting for the last 64 years and it’s highly possible that many more years will pass before it to be overpassed.
Commercial aviation’s went through different phases since travelling by air became a common thing. The first one, during the Fifties and Sixties, was the golden age of luxury and comfort: ample seating, restaurant-like menus and drinks, perfect onboard service. In the Seventies, when the masses discovered air travel, capacity became the priority, with aircraft like the Boeing 747, the Douglas DC-10 and the Lockheed Tristar defining a new model of long-haul travelling; on the other hand, speed was as important: cutting flight times reported on the airlines’ timetables was a “must” to be among the best. And the best of the best was, of course, Concorde, with its supersonic speed.
As the skies (and the airports) became more and more crowded, to respect those flight times indicated on the timetables became a more and more impossible task. And that made passengers unhappy. So, in the Nineties, reliability and “punctuality” were on top of the minds of airlines’ executives and the result were artificially increased flight times on those same timetables: a trick which allowed flights taking-off late to arrive on-time.
In the last two decades, as more fuel-efficient aircraft became available, very long non-stop flights have become the latest trend. This new age started with the Boeing 777-200LR and the Airbus A340-500, which could fly without load restrictions for 14-15. The Toulouse four-engined aircraft was employed by Singapore Airlines on sectors exceeding the 17 hours, to Los Angeles (LAX) and Newark (EWR). But that was possible only by reducing to some 100 (all Business Class) the seats installed onboard and as oil price soared at the beginning of the 2010s, those services became economically unviable and were stopped.
Then came the super fuel-efficient Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. And the airlines’ ambitions were revived. While Singapore Airlines re-launched its SIN-EWR non-stop service (but JFK took the place of the New Jersey airport as flights have been resumed after a pause forced by the Covid pandemic), which stands today as the longest as in point of distance as time aloft (17 hours and 50 minutes, officially), Qantas inaugurated the first ever non-stop connection between Europe and Australia, using its Boeing 787-9s to link Perth (PER) and London (LHR). Shortly after, the Australian carrier launched Project Sunrise, whose ultimate goal is to operate regular non-stop services between London or New York and Sydney, with flight times approaching the 20 hours mark.
Although the Covid pandemic is putting in discussion the viability of such ultra-long commercial flights for the years to come, on October 20, 2019, one of the airline’s Boeing 787-9s indeed flew non-stop between New York and Sydney: the test flight, operated with just 49 passengers and crew onboard, was airborne for 19 hours and 16 minutes, establishing a new record for a passenger jet flight.
Yet, that extraordinary jump across the planet is far from what has been, for as many as 64 years, the record for the longest ever flight duration, which belongs to a Trans World Airlines (TW)’ Lockheed Super Constellation. In the Fifties and Sixties, the now defunct carrier was (along with its US rival Pan Am, equally disappeared from the skies) the undisputable leader in long-haul flights, particularly between the USA and Europe and the USA and Asia. The record was set on TWA’s first London to San Francisco flight on October 1-2, 1957 as its L-1649A stayed aloft for 23 hours and 19 minutes, covering the 5,350 miles (8,610km) at an average speed of 229 miles, or 369km per hour.
A performance that, even with today latest technology jets, will still take long to be surpassed, even admitting that today air travellers (very different from those more pioneering ones) would likeably choose to stay on a plane for almost an entire 24-hour day. (Photo header Wikimedia Commons / Sander van der Wel)
What do you think of ultra long-haul? Would you travel on a 18+hour long flight? And, if yes, in which class? Let the Guru know!