November 2022, Virtual
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Last week”s news that Singapore Airlines (SIA) is to kit out five of its ultra long-haul Airbus A340-500s in business-only configuration to New York and LA, took a fair few people by surprise.
The carrier will remove 81 seats leaving just 100 privileged passengers cosseted in premium luxury, but they”re going to need it aren”t they? At 18.5h, this has to be just about the longest revenue service going, but SIA clearly feels it”s on to something by offering business-only cabins.
It has already recognised that passengers will clearly resent being on such a vast journey if shoehorned into the back, so it offers only business and premium economy on the existing transpacific routes.
Out of interest I looked at a globe the other day and traced the gargantuan Changi-New York route. There”s an awful lot of blue involved, not to mention a vast fuel requirement to get across it.
And with oil prices leaping stratospherically north, SIA must have had its backroom staff poring over the numbers to make it work.
According to the airline, it has a waitlist on most days for its current business class passengers on existing transpacific services, so there does appear to be real demand.
But can it work for others? There has been speculation that Virgin Atlantic might run aircraft non-stop down to Perth from London, but even with the carrier”s very decent economy service, might this just be a distance too far?
During Tony Blair”s premiership, the British prime minister famously flew nearly 19h non-stop from Brussels to Melbourne, but he presumably had the advantage of being able to stroll about the aircraft virtually by himself. The rest of us won”t have such prairie-like spaces to roam.
Air New Zealand also operates vast distances ” particularly Auckland-Los Angeles at 12h45min ” and says that its premium economy cabin is increasingly popular with capacity rising to 39 seats at between 38” and 40” on its Boeing 747s.
Emirates operates Dubai-Houston which comes in at a hefty 16h or so, but as trans-polar routes open up ” subject to crossing permission from the likes of Russia and China ” will more and more airlines join the ultra long-haul rush?
And what is the psychological impact of spending such an enormous amount of time cooped up in one small space? It”s all very well airlines encouraging us to trot around the aircraft to avoid DVT, but we can”t all do it without disrupting everyone else.
Last year I resolutely flew 12h in steerage trundling over northern Russia”s vast emptiness on route to Shanghai, and with China Eastern”s in-flight films not quite Oscar-winning, I was climbing the walls by the time we touched down. And that was before a 20min dash across the airport to catch the connecting 10h leg to Melbourne. (And while we”re at it, what is it about Asian carriers that makes them force down all the blinds at 10am? It feels like flying in a tin can).
Slogging down to Melbourne was an endurance test and if it becomes the norm ” non-stop or not ” airlines are going to have to think at the very least of improving seat pitch ” not a popular idea in the boardroom ” or providing ever more inventive ways to divert 400 passengers over the mid-Pacific.
And fanciful talk of the A380 coming replete with casinos, shopping malls and cinemas has withered on the economic vine ” this is a workhorse aircraft whose primary function is to improve the bottom line. Baldly put, if you want frills, you will simply have to part with a bit more of the folding stuff to turn left.
Carriers have also previously mooted the idea of providing dormitory-like economy accommodation in vast rows of bunks. For incredibly long routes this could work, but at the obvious expense of any significant on-board service. And can you fall asleep at the drop of a hat? I certainly can”t and the thought of being herded into bed with strict instructions not to talk after lights out, doesn”t fill me with great joy.
Boeing is promising all sorts of innovations when its 787 Dreamliner enters service with ANA later this year and indeed at the recent Business Travel Show, insisted it had focused on the economy passenger.
But ultimately it”s up to the airlines. And with a raft of potential low-cost operators already flying long-haul ” Oasis, Air Asia X, Zoom et al, will passengers just have to shrug their shoulders and grimly resign themselves to putting up with mammoth journeys in ever-closer proximity to each other?
And lurking behind all this lies Ryanair. The airline has hinted it might launch a long-haul low-cost model with prices as low as ”10. But as it seems to be locked in mortal combat with so many airports, regulators and even French presidents, extending its battles across the Atlantic or even further could prove fascinating.
In the end, perhaps the premium economy concept will emerge as the real winner. Airlines that run it such as Virgin are already reporting great success and maybe for those needing to spend 18h airborne, this will be the interim solution. Pass the eyeshades.
Editor ” ABTN