Why I Don’t Think Most Ultra Long-Haul Routes Will Work


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Qantas launched the first non-stop route between Australia and Europe when it flew its first flight from Perth to London at the end of March but it’s far from being the first airline to fly an ultra long-haul route. United operates a service between Houston and Sydney which takes between 16 and 17 hours, Emirates flies between Dubai and Auckland which can take over 17 hours and Qatar Airways currently flies the longest flight in the world (9,032 miles) between Doha and Auckland which I tried out shortly after the route opened.

Airlines are starting up these routes because modern airline technology is allowing aircraft to fly further and further without refuelling and because they believe that there’s a real demand for non-stop travel across long distances…..but I’m not sure they’re correct.

If you’re ensconced in the comfort of a Business Class cabin (as I was on my Auckland – Doha flight) 17+ hours in an aircraft isn’t a particularly bad place to be. Yes the trip length can drag but, when you have decent food and flight attendants bringing you wine and champagne, it’s not exactly a test of endurance.

The same can’t be said for the poor souls sitting in Economy Class.

In Economy Class the Qantas 787-9 Dreamliner that flies between Perth and London offers 32″ of leg room and seats that are 17″ wide. That’s not a whole lot of personal space for someone who’s going to  be confined to their seat for 17 hours.

Qantas 787-9 Dreamliner Economy Class

The United Airlines Dreamliner that flies between Houston and Sydney offers the same seat dimensions as the Qantas aircraft and just 3″ of recline. That’s going to be negligible for someone trying to get some sleep on a 17 hour flight.

The Qatar Airways offering in its 777-200LR is considerably better with 33″ of leg room and seats that are over 18″ wide but, when all is said and done, passengers are still trapped in an Economy Class cabin (with all the downsides of that cabin) for 17+ hours without a break.

Why would people subject themselves to that?

For Business Class passengers there may well be a time-saving benefit to flying non-stop between places like Australia and the UK but can the same really be said of Economy Class travelers?

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard and Economy Class traveler say that he’d prefer 17 hours in an Economy Class cabin without a break over 21 hours of traveling time in Economy Class where there’s a 2 hour break somewhere around the mid-point.

Right now that’s a choice that passengers actually have.

They can fly between Perth and London without stopping (and be confined to an Economy Class cabin for 17+ hours)…..

……or they can choose to stop off in Doha and break the journey up.

As it happens, not only would a passenger on this route have a bit of respite in Doha but he/she would also have a wider seat than if he/she chose the Qantas Dreamliner.

Unless you’re in a real hurry (and how many people really are?) why would you choose to fly non-stop?

This is the problem I think airlines will soon have to face

Business Class flyers may well see a benefit to traveling long-distances without stopping because they’re flying in relative comfort and the time savings may be important to them….but most routes need Economy Class passengers as well as Business Class passengers to survive.

For the first few years Economy Class passengers will undoubtably try out the ultra long-haul routes to see what they’re like but, given the passage of time, travelers will become more educated in what these routes are like to fly (at the back of the aircraft) and I don’t think they’re going to like it.

When I flew in Business Class between Auckland and Doha I was never uncomfortable but, after about 12 hours had passed (and we were still not exactly close to our destination), I really wanted to go back to the Economy Class cabin and ask the passengers at what point they thought this was a good idea….and if they’d do it again

I didn’t end up walking back and asking those questions as I didn’t particularly want to get lynched but I genuinely would have loved to hear some answers.

Qatar Airways 777-200LR Business Class

Singapore Airlines says it plans to fly non-stop between Singapore and New York in the very near future and there are already strong indicators suggesting that the aircraft flying this route will only offer Business Class and Premium Economy seating – this ultra long-haul route may well not offer an Economy Class cabin.

This would seem to make sense and fits in with how I see ultra long-haul routes progressing.

Singapore – New York is undoubtably a route that would attract a lot of premium cabin traffic so Singapore Airlines will probably find it relatively easy to fill an aircraft with high-fare paying passengers…but how many other routes could this be said about?

Perth – London? No.

Sydney – London? Doubtful.

Houston – Sydney? No.

Doha – Auckland? No.

Dubai – Auckland? No.

The only way I can see ultra long-haul routes appealing to Economy Class flyers is if they’re priced significantly cheaper than the non-stop routes but I can’t see that happening.

On a randomly selected set of dates the non-stop Qantas flight between Perth and London is 50% more expensive than the 1-stop option with Emirates…

….and the journey times aren’t exactly all that different. Why would anyone confine themselves to an Economy Class cabin, without a break, for 50% more than a routing that gives them a chance to truly stretch their legs and gives them a break from the aircraft?

The same will be true when (if?) Qantas launches its non-stop service between Sydney and London.

I have no idea how long that flight will be (presumably at least 18 hours) but I can’t see why anyone would choose to fly that sort of distance in an Economy Class cabin when they can take a little longer and have a break somewhere like Singapore.

Emirates flirted with the idea of offering a non-stop service between Dubai and Panama (8,500+ miles) but the route was cancelled before ever starting. This was almost certainly because there wasn’t anywhere close to the amount of demand needed to fill the aircraft and, while in this route’s case the numbers were bad before a single aircraft took off,  I think the same fate will eventually befall a lot of other ultra long-haul routes too.

Bottom Line

Ultra long-haul routes may appeal to business travelers who don’t mind paying more to save some time (not that much time) but I can’t see the long-term appeal to Economy Class passengers.

I’m sure some ultra long-haul routes will be successful as airlines manage to fill the aircraft with premium cabin passengers but, unless there are changes made that I can’t as of now foresee, I expect a good number of these routes to start up and fail as Economy Class passengers realise that they don’t actually offer any real benefit to them.

If airlines are going to keep making Economy Class cabins tighter and tighter they can’t realistically expect travelers to want to spend any more time in them than they absolutely have to….and that’s whats going to kill a lot of ultra long-haul routes.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Apart from the publicity of having the first non-stop service fro Australia to the UK I am not sure what the point of this particular flight is. Australia has a population of around 24 million with Western Australia having about 2.5 million, so the vast majority of people travelling to the UK are from the eastern seaboard and will still have to stop somewhere on their way, either Perth or an Asian or Middle East airport for most. In addition this new service decreases the number of passengers flying Qantas to the UK, down from 2 x A380 flights to 1 A380 and 1 787. Also anyone whose final destination isn’t the London will have an additional flight out of London, much better to fly to Asia or the Middle East and then direct to your final destination if that is available.

  2. Interesting article, but I disagree. If and when Qantas launches non-stop flights from Sydney to London and New York, they’ll fill each plane day after day, regardless of whether business, premium or economy. Australians in particular, just want to overcome the tyranny of distance and the thought of being connected by a single non-stop flight to London, New York and eventually Paris and or Frankfurt is a powerful psychological factor for us on the east coast of Australia. Perth to London is just the appetiser. But Sydney to London/NYC/CDG/FRA non-stop? Bring it on!

    • Naturally I don’t have an Australian perspective on things so you may have a point…but it takes more than Australians to fill a plane going to/from OZ.

      Also, once Aussies experience the discomfort of ultra long-haul Economy I have a feeling that a good number will choose the “tyranny of distance” over that experience 🙂

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