We’re now drawing closer to an era of travel which some high flyers will look forward to, while more will dread: the age of ultra-long flights.
Earlier this month Singapore Airlines snatched the crown for The World’s Longest Flight with its non-stop service between Singapore and New York.
Crossing 13 timezones and darting halfway around the world, it’s a marathon 18 hours and 45 minutes, although the benefit of jetstreams and tailwinds has seen he first few flights come in under 18 hours.
And there’s more of these flights to come. Qantas wants to begin direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to New York and London from 2022 under its ambitious Project Sunrise – and those tests of humans endurance will stretch to 18-20 hours.
Last week I travelled twice on Singapore Airlines’ epic journey, once in each direction – almost 36 hours and some 33,400 miles – in both business class and premium economy.
This gave me some first-hand insight into the passenger experience on an ultra-long flight and where we need to go from here.
The first take-away: airlines which want to launch globe-striding flights need to rethink flying. What has in the past worked for 12-14 hours shouldn’t apply to 18-20 hours. This is not only up to 50% longer than those conventional long haul flights, but it really pushes the limits of endurance or at least tolerance.
A better business class
Secondly, standard business class isn’t good enough. An 18-20 hour flight needs to have the very best business class. Right now I rate that as Qatar Airways’ impressive Qsuite – with its sliding doors, high levels of comfort and superb finish, the Qsuites offer just about everything a business traveller could want.
Yet even that private suite could seem like a well-appointed cell towards end of a 20 hour flight. Airlines need to consider a business class suite designed from the ground up for 18-20 hours, rather than tweak an existing design.
I’m beginning to wonder if this needs to be something between business class and first class suites. A larger footprint with a seperate seat. Something like Lufthansa used to have on its Boeing 747s...
... or a very downsized version of the latest first class Airbus A380 suites of Etihad (below) and Singapore Airlines.
It doesn’t need to be as large, nor as plushly appointed – but we’re taking of a mini-suite with a bit more space beyond just a seat.
And yes, this would require more precious real estate on the aircraft and that in turn would mean higher prices – but if airlines are confident of demand for non-stop routes, this would allow them to deliver a truly premium product to match that premium price.
On the modified Airbus A350 which Singapore Airlines uses to fly between Singapore and New York has just two classes: business and premium economy. There are no fancy first class suites and no super-cramped economy seats.
I found my New York-Singapore flight in premium economy to be surprisingly bearable, if a bit tough on posture for the amount of time spent in the seat.
But economy, as we know it, doesn’t belong on an 18-20 hour flight – and I doubt any airline would reinvent economy to the point where it becomes too close to premium economy. I'd be worried they would simply lowball economy to retain a gap to premium economy and justify the that cabin’s higher pricing .
Qantas says it wants all four cabin classes on the Project Sunrise jets, from first though to economy, and is already casting around for new-design seats.
I’d rather airlines keep the cheap seats on the regular routes such as Sydney or Melbourne to London via Singapore, but non-stop to London? Just give me a choice between a super-sized business class suite and a comfortable premium economy seat.
Beyond those seats, passengers will need an alternative space so they can change their scenery, stretch their legs and break up the mental monotony of the journey.
This could be some raised round tables where you stand near a self-serve snack bar and chat with fellow travellers.
It could be a cafe-style lounge, similar to what Qantas is planning for its Airbus A380s from March next year (below).
It could even be like the little business class bar on Virgin Australia’s Boeing 777s to Los Angeles.
Qantas is already thinking ahead on this, with notions of using part of the cargo hold of its Project Sunrise jets for everything from lounges to relaxation zones for stretching.
Dine on demand
It’s good to encourage eating at certain times to help passengers adjust body clock to the destination of their timezone.
However, I’m a fan of the 'dine on demand' approach – letting passengers choose anything from the menu to have at any time during the flight. This is not only more personal but it avoid the whole cabin being woken up when not everybody wants to eat.
Yes, inform passengers of ideal meal times – but then let them take responsibility for their own timetable and inflight schedule, because not everyone has the same needs.
Inflight meals need to be geared towards wellness. Yes, it’s that dreaded buzzword – but science-based wellness works.
Qantas and Singapore Airlines are both delving into this, but in my opinion Qantas is doing it much better. I far prefer the taste and diversity of Qantas’ wellness meals, developed by Neil Perry and The University of Sydney.
Qantas also has the right idea in making some of these dishes available in the airport lounge before you fly. After all, what you eat in the lounge will be digested during your flight, so it makes sense to start on the right foot with wellness meals.
There’s still a place for comfort food, but the more healthy tasty wellness meals and drinks on offer, the better.
I’d also suggest that airlines move away from large main meals and encourage smaller servings more often.
There’s no sense tucking into a four-course meal when you’re going to be sitting for the next eight hours.
A handful of smaller dishes throughout the flight – again, tied to dine on demand – would be lighter on your digestive system but keep the metabolism humming along.
Even on ‘normal’ flights today I often feel that a simple tasty baguette with prosciutto, cheese, tomato and basil would hit the spot nicely.
While airlines are rethinking meals, they should rethink amenity kits too. Go beyond the basics. Instead of regular socks, consider compression socks. Rather than a small vial of moisturiser, how about including a moisturising face mask?
What practical passenger-centric changes would you like to see on ultra-long range flights of 18-20 hours?