A spree of “world’s longest flights” is on the way, powered by the globe-spanning Airbus A350-900 Ultra Long-Range jet which will allow airlines to launch new time-saving routes without a halfway stop-over to refuel.
And, if travellers are lucky, we'll see those aircraft and their seating geared to suit those seemingly endless hours above the clouds.
Today’s extensive treks which share the podium for the world’s longest flights – such as Qantas' Airbus A380 from Sydney to Dallas, and Qatar's Boeing 777-200LR between Doha and Auckland – operate on conventional aircraft with standard seating.
In the case of Qantas, that means everything from 14 private first class nooks and 64 business class pods to some 400 seats across premium economy and economy.
None of these seats are any different to the Flying Kangaroo’s other A380s which sometimes make a trip barely half the length of the Dallas marathon, such as the lazy eight hour lope from Sydney to Hong Kong.
Singapore Airlines' launch of the Airbus A350-900 Ultra-Long Range jet in 2018 could change that for the better.
The A350ULR – created as a bespoke build for Singapore Airlines but now under consideration by several other airlines – will let the Singaporean flag-carrier resume non-stop flights between Singapore and the USA, potentially including a 19 hour stretch to New York.
(The Star Alliance member currently flies to Los Angeles and San Francisco via Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo, New York via Frankfurt, and Houston with a stop in Moscow.)
'Executive economy class'
Singapore Airlines previously ran non-stop flights from Singapore to Los Angeles and NY-adjacent Newark on older Airbus A340 jets but axed the service in 2013 due to rising fuel bills.
Those A340s were initially fitted with 64 of SQ's Airbus A380-style business class seats and 117 'executive economy class' seats, the later being more akin to domestic business class in width and legroom, although in their final years of flying the jets were upgraded to an all-business class 100 seat layout.
In a nod to those early New York and Los Angeles flights, Singapore Airlines CEO Mr Goh Choon Phong has previously told Australian Business Traveller that he is looking beyond the A340’s ‘all business class’ model, saying “It will probably be more than just business class, I think it will be a mix of cabin classes.”
Singapore Airlines’ long-legged A350 will have around 170 seats – approximately 80 less than its new standard-issue A350-900s.
First impressions: Singapore Airlines' Airbus A350 business class
SQ's A350ULR mix
But could some of those 170 seats be standard economy class benches?
When Singapore Airlines’ launch order for seven of the A350-900ULRs was announced last year, Airbus Executive Vice-President for Strategy and Marketing Kiran Rao said "I can’t go into details on the type of layouts they’re looking at, but it would be a premium service."
However, speaking with Australian Business Traveller on the sidelines of an Airbus media briefing in London last month, Rao revealed that “during the evaluation Singapore Airlines did ask for a regular economy class seat.”
“They have the option to put regular economy in (but) will they or won’t they… what they will do I’ll let them decide, that’s a question you need to ask them.”
When Rao says “regular economy” on the A350 he's talking of a different and far more generously-proportioned seat than most people would picture – it’s a comfy 18 inches wide, and on our A350 flights there's much-appreciated room around the knees.
That said, Rao expects that airlines flying the new extended-range A350-900 from 2020 – which will see its range extended by 500 nautical miles over the debutant jet launched just last year, for a maximum range of 8,100 miles – will not shy away from economy seating.
Airlines buying the revamped A350-900 will “start to do not 19 hour flights but maybe 17 or 18 hour flights, and when you're doing 17 -18 hours, for sure those customers will have the normal 18 inch economy class seat in the aeroplane.”
A spokesperson for Singapore Airlines tells Australian Business Traveller that “at this stage no decision has been made on the cabin layout for our A350-900ULR aircraft that will enter service in 2018.”
“We are continuing to analyse all options to ensure the most suitable configuration is chosen for the world's longest flights.”
New business class
What seats, then, are travellers likely to see on Singapore Airlines’ epic 19 hour flights?
There’s little doubt that business class will occur the larger part of the A350ULR.
The route from Singapore to Los Angeles and New York is a well-monied one and in the days of SQ’s non-stop A340 flights attracted more than its share of high-flying executives, especially from the financial sector.
On the A350ULR those passengers will be ensconced in Singapore Airlines’ next-generation business class seat – a design due to be launched in 2017 and moving one generation beyond the current and already exceptional model.
First class suites?
And beyond business class?
As Airbus’ Rao admits, Singapore Airlines has certainly considered economy class – but whether the carrier eventually opts for 18 inch wide economy seating (ideally matched with a little more than standard legroom) or raises the baseline to its well-regarded premium economy seat (below) remains to be seen.
But the luxe suites will certainly face a squeeze, and not only from uncertain economic conditions – exactly how much loose change will be jangling in A-list and C-level pockets take by the time the A350ULR is flying and into the years beyond?
The continued improvement of business class – SQ’s own Boeing 777-300ER business class seats being a stellar example – makes it harder for airlines to define and differentiate first class, and justify its much higher price tag.
For what it’s worth, Singapore Airlines’ A350-900ULR is also expected to deliver the full Airspace experience of Airbus’ new-wave cabin design (show below).
“You take the recent order by Singapore Airlines of the A350-900URL” suggests Rao. “These passengers are going to be in that aeroplane for 19 hours. You cannot put them in a plane for 19 hours and give them a space that will drive them nuts!”
Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT