Aircraft makers love to spruik their latest gadgets and entertainments to take your mind off the drudgery of long-distance travel.
The Airbus A380 superjumbo and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are actually creating their own demand for travel, such is the thrall in which they hold the public with a combination of hyperbole and real technological advances.
However, two things about the experience aren’t likely to change significantly for at least the next 20 years: the amount of personal space you’re allocated and the time it takes to get anywhere.
Yes, the technology is there for a halving of the time it takes to fly to London from the Australian east coast. However, it’s only on supersonic business jets now in development. For mass travel, the airlines are telling the plane makers there isn’t demand for supersonic air travel at all.
In the meantime, directed by their airline customers, the manufacturers are continuing to tinker with their products, which may show up before the end of this decade as a shortening of travel times for Australians on very long routes.
This would be achieved through the elimination of intermediate stops in new ultra-long-range developments of Boeing’s 777, Airbus A350 and perhaps the A380.
For the first time, it would be possible to fly from Sydney or Melbourne non-stop to London or New York 16,000 to 17,000 kilometres away.
However, what would ultimately make such flights possible would be demand, driven primarily by business travellers, for non-stop links between the US east coast and South-East Asia.
There are already non-stop flights between Singapore and New York (15,300 kilometres) and Singapore and Los Angeles (14,100 kilometres), but they are being operated by Singapore Airlines (SIA) with Airbus A340s accommodating just 100 business class passengers paying megabucks. Because the payload is so restricted, it’s not a big money-spinner for SIA, but it’s worth it for the airline to prevent its customers drifting away to one-stop services operated by its competitors.
The airlines are calling on the plane makers to give them a better return with savings in fuel consumption per seat of up to 15 per cent and the ability to move up to 300 people per flight.
(Qantas, for example, reckons it is at the extreme end of what is economically feasible with its new six-days-a-week service from Sydney non-stop to Dallas, Texas, operated with a Boeing 747-400ER with just 307 seats in four classes – about the same number of seats as the much smaller Jetstar A330-200. And that’s only 13,800 kilometres, more than 2000 kilometres short of New York.)
Then comes the next calculation: could you fill a plane with enough people desperate enough to get from Sydney to London in around 20.5 hours non-stop, compared with just under 24 hours with a stop in Singapore?
Would you be prepared to be wedged in a small economy-class seat for nearly a day without a break? All for a saving of two hours and some minutes? It sounds too much like solitary confinement.
It seems to me the next generation of flight – a so-called Zero Emission High Supersonic Transport (ZEHST), a concept showed off last year by Airbus, capable of sub-orbital flight between Sydney and London in under six hours – can’t come soon enough. But Airbus reckons such a Concorde replacement could still be 30 to 40 years away.
The trouble is unit costs – cents per seat per kilometre – are king. And the last thing airlines will do at the moment is increase their unit costs, especially now that the big economies of the northern hemisphere are struggling.
Are you happy to keep breaking your journey with an intermediate stop on ultra-long-haul routes? If you travel for business, how important is it to reduce travel time by the bare minimum number of hours, even if it means ultra-long unbroken flight?