London - A doctor friend was far from encouraging. ‘You’re what?’ he said, on hearing that I was to be the first British journalist to try the world’s longest non-stop commercial flight — a 9,031-mile Odyssey from Doha, the capital of Qatar, to Auckland, New Zealand.
‘Oh, yes,’ I said. ‘We’ll be crossing ten time zones and the journey should take about 17½ hours.’
He rattled off a list of dos and don’ts, starting with strict instructions to buy a pair of properly fitting flight stockings to reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), followed by advice to take a small dose of aspirin shortly before take-off to make my blood less inclined to clot.
He kept going: Antiseptic wipes, hand gel and an anti-viral nasal spray because, as he put it: ‘You are going to be in a small, metal tube for nearly 18 hours with re-circulated air and several fellow passengers will have contagious bugs.’ Lovely.
So, here we are, thundering down the runway in a Qatar Airways Boeing 777-200LR (Longer Range) carrying 323 tonnes of cargo, including 400 kilos of food, 135 tonnes of fuel, 259 stoical passengers and their luggage, and nearly a thousand bottles of water.
Then we’re off, lifting into the Arabian sky to begin the marathon journey. We’ll be airborne long enough to watch the entire Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies (with a 55-minute interval in between).
For the first few hours, the plane cruises at 33,000ft, but once it is lighter — as it consumes fuel — the pilot will increase altitude to 41,000ft, which is more fuel-efficient because the air is thinner.
There are four pilots — two captains and two first officers — and 15 cabin crew. The pilots do five to six-hour stints, disappearing to their flat beds up a tiny spiral staircase at the front of business class between shifts.
The flight attendants divide into two groups. After serving the first of several meals, one group adjourns to the back where, squeezed above economy, there’s a long aisle with individual bunks.
‘Many of us volunteer to do this route,’ says Siddharth, 35, the cabin services director, who is from Delhi. ‘There are certain benefits.’
Really? Turns out that the appeal is two days off before a trip and two-and-a-half days off after it. There’s certainly a sense of adventure about the flight. Qatar Airways’ motto is ‘Going places together’, but there are moments when you can’t help thinking ‘Going crazy together’ might be more apt.
My strategy is far from radical: settle myself in my seat, a meal, then a movie, followed by a saunter around the block (which is how I view my cabin circuit), some reading (I’ve brought along Anna Karenina, which at 853 pages should just see me through), a stiff drink and finally a few hours of shut-eye, before repeating the cycle again. And again. . .
Before leaving, I had spoken to Mail columnist Dr Max Pemberton about the wisdom of taking a sleeping pill.
‘Some people might, but I wouldn’t on a flight that long,’ he said. ‘It could immobilise you for many hours, with dangerous repercussions.’ The dreaded DVT again.
There is more leg room in economy on this flight than on a regular British Airways or Virgin Atlantic plane from London to New York, so I suppose you could try some exercises at your seat. But it’s not a lot more space.
There is plenty of entertainment. Both business class (which starts at £4,600 per person for a round trip from London and gets you flat beds, a la carte eating and a range of wines) and economy (from £879) offers 560 movies and some 3,000 other options, including games, puzzles and quizzes. A lot of people are watching the musical La La Land — but as the hours roll past, I’m starting to feel like I am in La La Land.
‘Could I have a cup of coffee,’ I ask a member of the crew as we hit the 13-hour mark. ‘Yes, of course,’ he says kindly. ‘Although you do have one in your hand already.’
The impact of extreme long-haul flying on the body is well-documented.
A 2002 study in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry concluded that extra-long flights are followed by ‘severe sleep disturbance, impairment of cognitive functions and mild depression’. Dehydration, disruption of the internal clock and hormonal disturbances are to blame.
One study suggests flying east to west makes depression more likely, but another said going west to east was worse.
Certainly, there is a large body of opinion that travelling through several time zones (try crossing ten!) to the east causes worse jet lag because you lose all those hours rather than gain them, and it’s harder adapting your body clock so you go to sleep earlier than it is to push on later than usual.
After 14 hours, my nostrils feel unpleasantly dry.
According to the Journal Of Environmental Health Research, the chance of developing a cold is more than 100 times greater on a flight than on the ground.
I drink bottle after bottle of water, which keeps me reasonably hydrated and guarantees I have to get up to go to the loo every hour or so to keep my limbs moving.
I try to imagine I’m in a fancy spa to help me drift away, albeit one with the constant purr of an engine rather than ‘mindful’ music.
Professor David Gradwell, from King’s College London’s Centre For Human And Aerospace Physiological Studies, says that long-haul passengers should avoid decisions on matters of importance while in the air.
‘For most of us, 8,000ft is tolerable and most people will function fairly well above that as well, but it is probably not the best environment in which to make major decisions,’ he said.
There are few announcements from the flight deck, which I appreciate.
But eventually, the captain announces our final descent.
Hallelujah and Hello Auckland! Much as it has been a remarkable experience, I can’t honestly say I’m looking forward to the return leg . . .
In for the long haul: Mark nods off.