As the technological capabilities of aircraft evolve, a number of airlines are jumping on the opportunity to introduce ultra long-haul routes in a bid to bring passengers out of the stopover lounge and ferry them to their end destinations faster.

Earlier this year, Qantas launched a new direct flight from London to Perth, a 17-hour journey spanning a distance of nearly 14,500km. Marking the first and only direct flight between Australia and the UK, the so-called ‘kangaroo route’ is part of a new push by the company to connect Australian and European airports.

Qatar Airways currently takes the prize for the longest commercial flight in the world, having operated a direct Boeing 777-200LR service between Auckland and Doha since February 2017. The distance between the two capital cities is 9,032 miles, with the shortest flight time clocking in at 17 hours and 40 minutes.

The trend towards ultra long-haul flights is set to ramp up in the future, with Qantas and Singapore Airlines (SIA) set to launch further eye-wateringly long routes and aircraft manufacturers racing to support them with more efficient aircraft. But why now?

Fuel efficiency and decreasing costs

Ultra long-haul flights are hardly a new concept for the industry. Back in 2004, SIA introduced its 14,113km flight from Singapore Changi to Los Angeles International Airport, as well as a 15,344km odyssey from Singapore to New York’s Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). The latter remains the longest regular distance ever travelled by a commercial airliner.

“In the late 2000s, a rapid rise in fuel prices and an economic crisis resulted in many long-distance flights being cancelled.”

In the late 2000s, a rapid rise in fuel prices and an economic crisis resulted in many long-distance flights being cancelled. Ultra long-distance trips made by gas-guzzling aircraft, such as the Airbus A340-500, were no longer financially viable. At the time SIA’s New York to Singapore flight was discontinued, oil prices topped out at $110 a barrel.

Nevertheless, developments in technology have since made aircraft more fuel-efficient, causing airlines to bring non-stop journeys back to the table. Take, for example, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft, which are said to be 20% more fuel-efficient than similar-sized commercial jets, partly due to lighter carbon fibre composite materials that make up half of their structure. Taking to the skies for the first time in April, Airbus’ A350 XWB features carbon fibre fuselage and wings, as well as new fuel-efficient engines created by Rolls-Royce.

“There has always been interest in ultra long-haul flights, but the definition of ultra long-haul changes with the capabilities of each new generation of aircraft,” says IATA head of corporate communications Perry Flint. “Today, aircraft like the 787 and A350 are pushing the definition even further out.”

With the addition of Airbus’ A350 to its fleet, SIA is set to re-launch its London to New York route from October. A SIA spokesperson says that the twin-engine aircraft is “much more efficient, enabling the ultra long-range flights to be operated in a commercially viable manner”.

“Despite an Open Skies agreement between Singapore and the US, SIA’s growth in this market has always been constrained by aircraft range limitations,” says the spokesperson. “Until the ultra long-range aircraft (ULRs), there has been no aircraft capable of non-stop operations in a commercially viable manner, meaning that our potential for flights from the US was limited. By enabling us to bypass intermediate points, the ULR reanimates the opportunities of Open Skies, creating possibilities for future growth.”

The appetite for ultra long-haul routes has also kicked off due to an overall decline in aviation fuel costs since the end of the previous decade. The Centre for Aviation calculated that fuel costs decreased from 30% of airlines’ total revenue in 2014 to 25% in 2015.

While aviation fuel prices are once more on the rise, according to leading energy information provider Platts, it’s clear that this is not deterring airlines from seeking out new markets. Airbus and Boeing are currently competing to create a new plane for Qantas that would be able to fly non-stop from Sydney to London. As part of this project, deemed Project Sunrise, Airbus is reportedly reducing seat capacity, adding more fuel cells and modifying engines onboard its A350 planes.

The impact on airports

Ultra long-haul flights are set to open up new direct routes for airports that were previously too far away. Project Sunrise is expected to put Australia’s Eastern seaboard within reach of Paris, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro and New York. It has been called “the last frontier in global aviation” and “the antidote to the tyranny of distance” by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce. Meanwhile, SIA has said that the new service will offer its customers the fastest way to travel between the two cities, and also help boost connectivity at Changi Airport.

“The premium price of ultra long-haul flights is likely to be more attractive to business travellers, making them more exclusive.”

More ultra long-haul flights could serve to take business away from former stopover locations, but Flint says that this is not a new development. “For example, the introduction of the 747 gave airlines the capability to bypass former stopover locations,” he says. “Airports and destinations at risk of being bypassed by longer-range aircraft will need to develop their value proposition to attract air travellers.”

Ultimately, some commentators maintain that passenger demand for conventional flights will not decline, partly because some passengers prefer the idea of a stopover to spending such lengthy amounts of time on board. The premium price of ultra long-haul flights is likely to be more attractive to business travellers, making them more exclusive. Reuters reported in March that the most recently launched global non-stop flights cost about 20% more than those with a stopover.

Time will tell whether ultra long-haul flights do become the norm in the manner that some industry executives suggest. Nevertheless, as it stands at the moment, Flint concludes that as “ultra long flights represent a small percentage of the total number of flights at an airport, it’s not clear whether the impact is significant”.