SINGAPORE – Singapore Airlines reclaimed its bragging rights as operator of the world's longest flight last week as it relaunched nonstop service between Singapore and Newark Liberty International Airport near New York City.
Singapore Airlines previously held the crown with the same route until 2013, when it was canceled. Now, with new Airbus A350s in its fleet, Singapore is back on the route. It launched the service Thursday with the first flight from Singapore.
On Friday, the inaugural nonstop departure for Singapore left from Newark. The aircraft and its 161 passengers completed the 9,535-mile route about an hour quicker than its 18-hour, 30-minute scheduled time.
Now that it's back, the new Singapore-Newark flight shaves hours off most of the current connecting options for flights between Singapore and the New York City area.
It's a welcome change for regulars of the route like Bill Rosenthal, a publishing executive from New York City. Rosenthal began flying the route back in 2006 during Singapore Airlines' previous run on the route that ended in 2013. Rosenthal says he's lost count of how many times he's done it, but he estimates he averages three to four visits per year.
When Singapore discontinued the route, he went back to Singapore's longer, one-stop option that goes via Frankfurt, Germany.
“It's so much easier to get on the plane in New York, sit for a really long time, and then walk off the plane in Singapore,” he said as the flight ticked into its 14th hour somewhere over Chengdu, China. “I'll go right back to taking this flight on a regular basis,” he added.
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While the flight was comprised of mostly business travelers like Rosenthal and media, there was no shortage of "avgeek"-types on the plane, too. Their reason for taking the flight? Because they could.
Nestled in the very last row of the airplane, Philip Lewis had an elaborate video setup.
“It's my first inaugural flight, and I want to film the full flight, especially this one. It's the longest one in the world,” he said. “I thought it would be a novelty.”
Lewis flew in from England just for the flight, taking another Singapore Airlines flight from Manchester, England, to Houston before flying to Newark.
It was a huge roll of the dice, considering that Lewis wasn't 100% positive that his row would even have a window. “It made me a bit nervous,” he said.
But luck came through for Lewis. Not only did he get his window, his seat was one of a handful that stood alone by itself in the very rear of the premium economy cabin. It even came with its own storage area that, as it turned out, was perfectly situated for the tripod.
The camera had been dutifully rolling since the aircraft pushed back over 16 hours ago.
“You just need two battery packs, 11 hours each, and a camera that can be constantly plugged in. And a 128-gigabyte card.”
“Hopefully it will be enough,” he said.
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Of course, time isn't the only superlative on Friday's flight, the return flight of Singapore Airlines' relaunch of its record-setting Singapore-Newark route.
On board are 35 bottles of champagne and 60 bottles of wine – 30 red and 30 white, according to Singapore Airlines Food and Beverage Director Anthony McNeil, who's also a chef.
In total, over two tons of catering and catering equipment was loaded onto the airplane, said McNeil.
While much of that weight is glassware and china, the rest is from all the food and beverage necessary to support a massive onboard menu.
Business-class menus offered choices between sous-vide cooked beef fillets with mushroom cream sauce, baked cheese-herb crusted halibut and an oriental chicken noodle soup, among others. Appetizers, two dessert choices, a fruit and cheese cart, and coffee and tea service rounded out the dining options.
Premium economy offered choices between pan-fried fish in a Thai curry sauce, braised beef with roasted garlic and herb roasted chicken breast. And, just as in business class, flyers could choose among appetizers, desserts, bread, and coffee and tea service.
And in both cases, that's just what's available for lunch. Dinner, served around the 12-hour mark, was equally as extensive.
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And then, of course, there's snacking.
According to McNeil, this meant offering more than just potato chips and chocolate bars. Instead, he says the carrier opted for more substantive and healthy items like noodle bowls, soups and sandwiches.
“Often times, the snacks fulfill a gap in the schedule, so when you look at the clock and there's still 10 hours to go and you want something different to do rather than watch a movie, dining provides you a little bit of a release from the flight as well,” he said.
In total, McNeil said there were 480 different meal combinations offered on the flight.
“We have people that want to eat really simply, and we've got people that want to eat big filets and have a beautiful glass of wine,” said McNeil. “We need to cover a broad spectrum of passengers flying,” he said.
On this particular flight on this particular airplane – the new "Ultra long-range" variant of the Airbus A350 – there are only 161 passengers aboard. In part to save weight, the airline installed only 67 business-class seats and 94 premium economy seats. There is no economy.
Both cabins feature large TV screens that can access 1,200 hours of content, 200 more than normal Singapore flights. They also all have in-seat power, Wi-Fi, USB ports, storage and small amenity kits.
Business class, however, has the added bonus of full lie-flat seating.
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It is quite the journey for the crew, as well. Seventeen total crew members share the time, split between four pilots and 13 crew.
For Friday's lead pilot, Capt. Indranil Ray Chaudhury, the Newark inaugural was almost too good to be true.
“It's the coolest thing you can ever do,” said Chaudry during a break in his duties. “I love to fly, but you don't often get an opportunity like this: brand new aircraft, inaugural, flying over the poles? It's a dream!”
The route, which on Friday took the aircraft within miles of the North Pole, presents some unique challenges for the pilots.
“As soon as you enter the polar route, you have to fly on true heading,” said Chaudhury. While pilots often use magnetic headings to determine location and direction, magnet-based compasses will often produce erratic, unpredictable results in the polar regions.
There's also the question of where you can land the airplane in the event of an emergency. With nothing but sea ice and remote Arctic islands, there isn't much to choose from. Typically, twin-engine jets are approved to divert only to airports up to 180 minutes (three hours) away. But the sheer remoteness warrants the need to extend that to airports up to 240 minutes away.
“You need special approval from the regulators,” said Chaudhury.
In fact, the flight often passes so far away from civilization that the airline installed a specialized closet just in case someone passes away before the crew can land.
Fear not, though; the airline says it has yet to be put into use.
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It is not the first time the two cities have been connected. Singapore flew the route starting in 2004, making it the undisputed long-haul king. The flights were operated with the Airbus A340-500, then one of the only airplanes capable of flying such a distance. While regulars of the route loved it, the jet's four gas-guzzling engines and very limited passenger load of only about 100 made it financially unsustainable. Singapore canceled the route in November 2013.
But the introduction of Airbus' new two-engine A350-900 "ULR" made the resumption of the route possible.
The jet is technically a derivative, or sub-species, if you will, of Airbus’ already popular A350 line of aircraft. The wide-body jet was first delivered in 2014, designed with long-haul flying in mind. Currently offered in two major models, the -900 and the -1000, the jets carry between 250 and 350 passengers, depending on how each airline chooses to configure them. The ULR variant is based off the A350-900.
Both are made of lightweight composite materials and use the latest in engine technology.
Airbus says passengers will notice the aircraft’s wide cabins, high ceilings and extra-large windows.
“You’ll notice the quieter cabin as soon as you take off,” Airbus spokesperson Sean Lee said during a pre-flight interview.
Lee says the cabin is five decibels quieter on average, compared to competing aircraft.
“This makes it easier to relax or sleep without the need for noice-canceling headphones or ear-plugs,” said Lee.
In addition, the jet’s carbon-fiber composite build enables airlines to set the cabin altitude to the equivalent of 6,000 feet – more comfortable to humans than the equivalent of 8,000 feet found on most airplanes. The result means more humidity inside the cabin, leaving flyers feeling less dry and worn out during – and after – a long flight.
There also are the changes that the passengers won’t notice.
Airbus says the jet carries an extra 6,300 gallons of fuel over its standard A350 jet, good for an impressive total of about 43,500 gallons.
Other changes, including extending the jet’s wingtips, help eke out every last ounce of performance.
The changes result in a jet that is capable of flying up to 11,100 statute miles and staying aloft for more than 20 hours, making the resumed Singapore-Newark flight possible for the plane.
At present, Singapore is the only airline to have ordered the ULR variant of the A350, with seven on order. But Airbus' Lee says several other airlines are considering the aircraft.
As more of the specialized airplanes enter Singapore's fleet, the airline will use the jet to relaunch another U.S. route – Singapore-Los Angeles – in November. That flight will be a comparatively short 8,770 miles.
Both routes are the latest salvos in what has become the era of the ultra-long-haul flight. Qatar Airways last year launched what has now fallen to the second-longest flight on earth, a 9,032-mile connection between Doha, Qatar, and Auckland, New Zealand. Qantas claims third place with its new, 9,010-mile journey between Perth, in western Australia, and London. That service began earlier this year, the first-ever regularly scheduled airline flight to operate nonstop between Australia and Europe.
As long flights have proliferated, routes now don't even break the top 10 without flying about 8,400 miles – roughly 16 hours of flight time.
For all the hoopla of the Newark-Singapore relaunch, however, none of today's top-10 longest routes have yet to hold a candle to the longest scheduled nonstop flights in history, at least when measured by time.
That record was set 61 years ago in 1957, says John Hill, assistant director of the SFO Museum in San Francisco.
“Pan American Airways started nonstop West Coast–Europe service with the Douglas DC-7C in 1957,” he said, a distance that was otherwise unheard of at the time.
TWA followed not long after with the Lockheed L-1649 Starliner, flying nonstop between San Francisco and London. The flight time remains the undisputed record, often exceeding 23 hours, said Hill.
While elaborate meals and ample space were common in that era of air service, it wasn't always a pleasant ride. Unable to fly as high as today's jetliners, long-range aircraft of the day often had to fly through rough weather – instead of over it – making for a bumpy ride. Add in four large piston engines, and those planes also were much noisier.
But even then, there was an option to upgrade. The cost to upgrade to a fully reclining sleeper seat? A whopping $50 – or about $437 when adjusted for inflation – on the Pan American flights, according to Hill.
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