SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Long-haul flights halfway across the globe are making a comeback, even with oil prices close to their highest in four years.
About six months after Qantas Airways started a direct service from Perth to London, Singapore Airlines (SIA) is bringing back its 16,700km jump to New York on Oct 11, pipping Qatar Airways' Doha-Auckland route to reclaim the title of the world's longest commercial flight.
Advances in technology and the advent of aircraft that guzzle less and carry more fuel are helping to make the Singapore route viable again, five years after US$100-a-barrel oil contributed to the demise of the flight, which will take as long as 18 hours and 45 minutes.
Last month, SIA took delivery of the first of seven Airbus A350-900 Ultra Long Range aircraft that it will use on the route, as well as for non-stop services to Los Angeles starting in November. Qantas has asked Boeing and Airbus to design planes that can fly even farther - from Sydney to London or New York.
For those wincing at the idea of being cooped up for almost 19 hours in a 67m tube at 35,000 feet, here is what to expect on the flight from Changi Airport to Newark Liberty International:
Forget cattle class. The Airbus jet that will ply the route carries a maximum of 161 passengers, compared with 253 on the airline's existing A350-900s. That means more space, with 67 flat-bed seats in a 1-2-1 configuration for business class, and 94 premium-economy places in a mostly 2-4-2 arrangement at the rear.
While the premium-economy seats offer a 20cm recline, the pitch - the distance between yours and the one in front - is a standard 96.5cm, 10cm less than on some of Japan Airlines' long-haul flights.
SIA says it will serve dishes on super-long routes that try to offset the effect of being stuck in a seat for a day.
The airline's "Wellness Set Menu" offers prawn ceviche, organic chicken and zucchini pappardelle. A tie-up with Canyon Ranch offers "science-based recommendations and strategies for improved sleep, balanced meal choices and exercises that promote circulation". Try the braised pork with citrus or the seared chicken and wide zucchini ribbons for dishes with less salt and sugar and more turmeric and fennel that Canyon says promote hydration and nutrition.
As with other Singapore Air long-haul routes, you can eat local favorites such as chicken rice and beef hor fun, or "Book The Cook", a service that allows you to order dishes like lobster thermidor or rib-eye steak up to 24 hours before the flight.
And if the airline's International Culinary Panel of celebrity chefs cannot tempt you, you can always pre-order a burger.
For the Internet-addicted traveler worried about being incommunicado for almost a whole day, the flight offers Wi-Fi, for a price. A business-class ticket gets 30MB of data for free. An additional 20MB, just enough for an hour on Facebook, costs US$6 (S$8.30), with bigger packages offering up to 200MB for US$28. SIA says data speed could be 4-8 Mbps, depending on active users, satellite coverage and weather conditions.
For film-lovers, that should not be a problem. The airline has added 200 hours of movies and television shows to the 1,000 already available, with everything from new releases like Ocean's 8 (2018) to art-house and international movies.
The four SIA pilots (two captains and two first officers) on each ultra-long-range A350-900 are not allowed to fly to New York unless they have not flown for 48 hours prior to take-off. They get extra downtime on board, with at least eight hours of rest, compared with 5½ hours on a typical long-haul service, according to SIA. When they land in New York, pilots have three nights off before flying back to Singapore.
The 13-strong cabin crew will get at least four hours' rest during the flight and two days to enjoy New York before the return leg.
When SIA scrapped the previous Singapore-New York flight in 2013, oil was trading at around US$100 a barrel. With crude prices above US$80 again, the carrier is relying more on technology to mitigate the fuel bill.
That means keeping the plane as light as possible.
Lightweight composites, including carbon fibre, make up the bulk of the A350-900ULR, while new wing tips help reduce drag, Airbus says. The revamped model consumes 25 per cent less fuel than aircraft of a similar size and performance, according to Ms Maria Luisa Lucas Ugena, Airbus's head of A350 product marketing.
The plane has a higher ceiling, bigger windows and a wider body, with less noise in the cabin and LED lighting that is designed to reduce jet lag. Composite-based planes can also tolerate higher cabin pressure, which means more oxygen and moisture in the air, making for a more comfortable flight.
Weight savings alone will not get the plane to Newark in one hop. Airbus rejigged the fuel system on a standard A350-900 and pumped 17 per cent more jet kerosene into the tanks in the wings. The plane can now hold about 43,590 gallons of fuel, or more than 270 gallons a passenger on a full flight. The A340-500s that plied the route until 2013 had 58,870 gallons for only 100 customers.