How long would you travel to avoid changing planes? 14 hours? 15? 16? What would test the limits of your endurance? There are extremes that would defeat even the most hardened traveller, and Qatar Airways Flight QR21 from Auckland to Doha is one of them: it’s the longest flight in the world, clocking in at over 17 hours non-stop.
Last month, for CNN Business Traveller, I decided to take on this aeronautical equivalent of curling up with a copy of War & Peace – travelling from Doha to Auckland and back again. The stats for one leg of the trip are mind-blowing: in its 17 hours and 30 minutes’ flight time, the Boeing 777-200LR will cover 14,550 kilometres, it will carry four tonnes of catering equipment and its crew will serve 868 meals in economy alone, along with 2000 cold drinks and 1100 cups of tea and coffee. 1,500 napkins will be used to wipe everything clean.
The reason for the flight’s existence is partly serendipity. Around a decade ago, when the first generation of Ultra-Long-Haul planes was born, routes like Bangkok to Los Angeles opened up; but rising oil prices put paid to them soon after. With oil prices now hovering at historic lows and the arrival of new, lightweight, super-efficient aircraft, suddenly the cost of hosting such a mid-air marathon becomes viable.
Auckland airport’s CEO, Adrian Littlewood, can see why Ultra-Long-Haul (ULH) is suddenly in vogue: “These ULH aircraft – current 777 and 787s and A350s... are really opening up direct services to New Zealand like never before. Combine that with fuel prices lower than they have been for some time, that makes ULH travel really attractive.” Such flights are also a boon for the country, too: “Each one of those wide body planes on a daily service adds about 200 million dollars to our economy,” Littlewood told me.
Geographically, the Gulf carriers are well placed to capitalise on the new appetite for distance. You can reach pretty much anywhere from the Gulf. For Qatar Airways there is an element of prestigious one-upmanship to take into account, too. CEO Akbar Al Baker, who joined me on the trip, admitted that running the longest flight in the world was a nice thing, but also felt that any longer might be stretching the passengers’ endurance too far: “I think 17, 18 hours is really the limit of a passenger sitting in an aeroplane; when you start flying 20, 22 hours then it becomes a little much.”
Qatar won’t retain its crown for long though. There are more ULH flights coming, including the granddaddy of them all: Singapore to New York, which will clock in at well over 18 hours. Right now, the only limit to these planes is how long passengers are prepared to be in the air.
You need more than a couple of movies and a judiciously swallowed sleeping tablet to cope with such vast distances. During my flight, I air-tested a couple of accessories. Firstly, compression socks: these push the blood that pools in the legs back into the heart, decreasing the risk of blood clots – well-worth guarding against on a trip like this one. I also tried out the Philip Stein Sleep Bracelet, which claims to help me ‘rebalance my circadian rhythms’ using ‘proprietary sleep technology’. I also make sure I find time for a bit of in-seat exercise and stretching.
The toll on the flight attendants and pilots is very tough, but the plane has a built-in haven from the seemingly endless service. Up in the dark and tranquil crew rest area, directly above passengers’ heads, the scene is very different to that below: full mattresses, bedding, vanity mirrors, this is real comfort. There is no in-flight entertainment of course – that might distract them from the task in hand, which is harvesting as much sleep as possible. Each crew member is well versed in the skill of sleeping on demand, one tells me, and tries to get a tidy five hours’ sleep on these trips.
As for the passengers, all that I spoke to – even a couple travelling with a parent and two children, one of which was just six months old – seemed to be taking it in their stride. The prospect of the destination, and the good humour of the tireless crew, seemed to keep everyone’s spirits on the right side of despair.
Eventually, and I really do mean eventually, we come in to land. With the outbound and return flights I have spent 33 hours in the air in just three days. Gruelling it may have been, but it was clear that both passengers and airline were happy with their arrangement. For now at least, it seems like ULH is here to stay.