Are long-range flights on the rise in 2019?

Are long-range flights on the rise in 2019?

By Fred Strickland

What is a long-range flight?

Although commercial flights are categorized into short, medium, and long, there are no “official” definitions of these terms. Today, the various airlines tend to define a short-haul flight as being under 1,500 kilometers, a medium-haul flight as between 1,500 kilometers and 2,200 kilometers, and a long-haul flight as one that’s over 2,200 kilometers.

There are numerous short- and mid-range aircraft coming to market but only two long-haul aircraft. These are the newest long-haul aircraft offerings:

  • Airbus A350 XWB. Over 70% of the construction materials for this plane are carbon composites, titanium, and advanced aluminum alloys. The wings change during flight to have the best wing loading. It has lower draft and consumes less fuel. The latest-generation Rolls-Royce Trent WB engines are quieter and more efficient. Thus, it has lower operating costs — about 25% lower when compared with previous-generation aircraft. It can carry between 280 to 366 passengers.
  • Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Details are thin, but it appears that carbon composites are used. It can carry between 242 to 330 passengers.

The shift to long-haul flights began in 2018:

Eric Rosen, a contributor to the travel column of Forbes, observed that 2018 marked the beginning of “super-haul flights,” when airliners started to introduce new long-haul routes or reestablish previous long-haul routes. 

In March 2018, Qantas began a 17-hour route between Perth, Australia, and London.

Singapore Airlines had a route that went between Singapore and New York but had dropped it. In October 2018, this 19-hour route was brought back.

Also in October 2018, Philippine Airlines, with no fanfare, started a Manila to New York route.

These and other airliners are purchasing more fuel-efficient aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350. In addition, the airliners are finding new ways to help passengers combat jet lag. These solutions range from higher cabin pressures and higher humidity to different menus and special cabin-lighting sequences.

Some airliners are going with smaller aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 MAX and the Airbus A321LR. These offer good fuel economy, seating for 200-plus passengers, and a range of over 4,000 nautical miles. For example, in April 2018, an Airbus A321LR flew a test flight that covered 4,750 miles, which would be a new long-distance record for a single-aisle, twin-jet aircraft.

The Israeli airline Arkia took delivery in November 2018 of the Airbus A321LR. Arkia has plans for flights that last over 4 hours to locations such as London, Paris, and Spain, as well as Nairobi, Kenya (3,713 kilometers away), Mumba, India (4,061 kilometers), and others.

Arkia is not the only airliner that wishes to use smaller aircraft for longer routes. Airbus has a huge backorder for its A321 series aircraft; in December 2018 there were over 2,000 unfilled orders. 

What are the longest air routes?

As of January 2019, the following are the 10 longest non-stop routes:

  1. Delta Airlines flies the 8,439-mile route between Johannesburg and Atlanta. It takes 16 hours and 50 minutes. Delta uses the Boeing 777-200LR aircraft.
  1. United Airlines and Singapore Airlines fly the 8,447-mile route between San Francisco and Singapore. United takes 17 hours and 20 minutes, whereas Singapore takes another 15 minutes. United uses the Boeing 787-9 aircraft, while Singapore uses two versions of the Airbus A350-900 aircraft.
  1. Philippine Airlines flies the 8,520-mile route between Manila and New York. It takes 16 hours and 35 minutes and uses the Airbus A350 aircraft.
  1. Qantas flies the 8,578-mile route between Dallas–Fort Worth and Sydney. It takes 17 hours and 10 minutes and uses the Airbus A380 aircraft.
  1. United Airlines flies the 8,596-mile route between Houston, Texas, and Sydney. It takes 17.5 hours and uses the Boeing 787-9 aircraft.
  1. Singapore Airlines flies the 8,770-mile route between Singapore and Los Angeles. It takes 17 hours and 50 minutes and uses two versions of the Airbus A350-900 aircraft.
  1. Emirates Airlines flies the 8,824-mile route between Dubai and Auckland. It takes 17 hours and 10 minutes and uses the Airbus A380 aircraft.
  1. Qantas files the 9,009-mile route between Perth and London. It takes 17 hours and 25 minutes and uses the Boeing 787-9 aircraft.
  1. Qatar Airways flies the 9,032-mile route between Auckland and Doha. It takes 17 hours and 50 minutes and uses the Boeing 777-200LR aircraft.
  1. Singapore Airlines flies the 9,534-mile route between Singapore and Newark. It takes 18.5 hours and uses the Airbus A350-900ULR.

The trend is to continue to add longer routes. Thus, it is possible that an airliner will publish a new route that is over 10,000 miles long and requires 20 hours to cover. Qantas might be the first airliner to do this. Qantas needs support from its pilots and from Australia’s aviation regulators in order to fly the 21-hour route between Sydney and London. If approved by these groups, then the first flight could take place in 2022.

What are the economics of long flights?

In addition to understanding aeronautics, the pilot must understand the bottom line. Flying an aircraft faster will consume more fuel, but being able to fly more routes means more money. Nature can provide a bonus with tailwinds that push the aircraft along.

Corporate travelers are interested in the longer nonstop flights and are willing to pay extra. The typical upcharge is about 20%. One writer compared the fares on the Singapore and New York route and found a one-stop flight might cost $967 USD, whereas a nonstop flight might cost $1,953 USD.

Airliners have to figure out how to address crew duty day lengths and fatigue. Qantas uses four pilots on its 17-hour route between Perth and London. The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority is looking into solutions for fatigue. Nighttime flights are best for passengers because they can sleep through the time changes, but aircrews must work through the body’s normal sleeping periods.

Another issue is the composition of the aircrew. Captains are paid more than first officers, and first officers are paid more than second officers. Singapore Airlines uses two captains and two first officers. Qantas uses one captain, one first officer, and two second officers. Since second officers are not qualified to handle the takeoff and landing phases of a flight, someone else must be in the seat. Qantas could change the training programs or the composition of the aircrew. 

What are the takeoff and landing parameters for a commercial airliner?

The typical takeoff speed is around 150 mph. Bigger aircraft and heavier aircraft will need a faster speed. The actual speed is based on the air temperature and the aircraft’s weight. The landing speed is selected to be slower, and this is based on flap settings. For example, a fully loaded Boeing 747 would lift off the runway at 184 mph and would have a landing speed around 166 mph.

How much weight an aircraft is carrying determines the length of the required runway. For example, a Boeing 747-8 that is between 92% and 98% of its maximum landing weight would need 6,750 feet for the model 747-8i and 7,500 feet for the model 7474-8F. Denser air, such as at sea level, would reduce these figures to 4,750 feet and 5,500 feet, respectively. Cold air temperatures, flap settings, reverse thrusters, and intense use of the brakes could reduce these figures. In a test of extreme emergency landings, Boeing was able to land with about 4,200 feet. A good rule of thumb for obtaining the minimum runway length is aircraft length times 8. Thus, for a Boeing 747-8, which is 250 feet long, the figure would be 2,000 feet.

What’s new for airports?

When ranking airports, there are various ways to do this. It could be done by land area, by runway lengths, or by passenger volume.

To a certain point, current airports can handle many of the new-generation aircraft. The next-generation airports have become exciting destinations in their own rights. The following are noteworthy airport enhancements:

Dubai has been the scene of a massive construction project.  Al Maktoum International Airport opened in 2010. It added passenger service in 2013. In 2015, 72 million passengers were handled. Improvements will enable the airport to support 220 million passengers. Other projects will prepare this airport for the World Expo 2020, which could draw in 25 million visitors. The plans include a total of five 4.5-kilometer-long parallel runways and a state-of-the-art automated baggage handling system that can handle about 240 million bags per year.

When the fourth terminal is completed, the Singapore Changi International Airport will be able to handle 82 million passengers a year.

There is a plan to add a third runway at the Hong Kong International Airport. When completed, this airport will be able to handle 102 million passengers a year.

Some airport authorities have decided to make the experiences at an airport an enjoyable time. The Hong Kong airport has a golf course, a large IMAX theater, upscale restaurants, and the Dream Come True Education Park. The Singapore airport has a rooftop pool, movie theaters (one is a 4D venue), gardens, and a four-story slide. Upscale shopping and special museums are being added to numerous airports. For a long layover, a person could take a 3-hour tour through the streets of Amsterdam. Some airports offer a rent-a-room option or a sleeping pod. And there are many changes in the works at other airports.

Bengaluru International Airport has two major projects. One project is the CAT III-B, which is an advanced navigation system that helps aircraft land and take off during heavy fog. The other project is the addition of a second terminal that is CAT III-B compliant. The airport authorities have asked the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research to conduct a 40-month atmospheric study. The hope is that new insights will help the management of flights and supporting activities. With advanced warning, the impacted flights could be rescheduled to a time when the fog is expected to be gone.

In February 2018, the Indian government announced a project called NextGen Airports for Bharat Nirman. When the project is finished, airports in India will be able to handle 5 times more capacity, or a billion more trips a year. The 15-year project will touch about 100 airports. 

A year later, several projects were started in Arunachal Pradesh, which is in the northeastern part of India. There will be a new airport at Hollongi. The airport at Tezu in the Lohit district will be upgraded. A supporting rail network will connect these airports with key locations. A tunnel will be constructed that will connect the Tawang Valley to other parts of Arunachal Pradesh. And a new hydroelectric plant will be built in order to provide power to these new infrastructure sites as well as to the rest of the area.

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