Long-haul flight tips: How to cope on the world's longest flight routes

Singapore Airlines resurrected its nonstop service from Singapore to the New York area on October 11, taking the lead once again for the longest nonstop commercial flight.

This is the second time around for this super-long flight. The airline flew the route between June 2004 and November 2013 with modified Airbus A340 jets. Originally, the flights were operated with both business class and extra-legroom "executive economy" cabins and later in an all-business class configuration with just 100 seats. The new service will offer premium economy and business class.

Although the original nonstops remained popular with customers, the airline's bean counters hated them: in order to fly nonstop, the planes were fitted with larger fuel tanks, and carrying all that extra fuel added extra weight and extra weight burns extra fuel in an un-virtuous cycle. The A340, with four thirsty engines, was a bit of a gas guzzler to begin with, all of which made the flights uneconomic when fuel prices edged up.

This time around, Singapore will be flying Airbus A350ULR (ultra long range) jets on the route. The two-engined A350 burns less fuel per passenger mile than the A340, making nonstops financially viable once again.

But will passengers be viable after an ultra-long flight?

I twice flew the previous nonstop service round-trip, once in economy and once in business class, and I'm happy to say that I managed to sleep soundly, without popping a pill, even in economy.

Indeed, I discovered that it's far easier to get a solid chunk of sleepy time on ultra-long flights compared to merely long-haul ones. Nothing is going to keep the average person awake for 18 or 19 hours, whereas many shorter- or merely long-haul flights, depending on the time of day they depart and arrive, make sleeping difficult.

For example, I flew recently from Los Angeles to Osaka nonstop, about a 12-hour flight. We took off at 2pm and landed in Osaka around 2am LA time. Since I normally hit the hay at midnight (and wake up at 8am) by the time I felt drowsy the cabin crew were turning on the lights in preparation for the final meal service and arrival procedures. Likewise, I can never sleep on a New York-to-London flight leaving at 6 or 7pm and arriving 6 hours later, which is why I always try to take the last flight of the day on that route or even the daylight departures on British Airways or Virgin Atlantic.

In contrast, Singapore's second-generation nonstop will depart Newark at 10:45 am and land in Singapore 18 hours and 45 minutes later, a schedule that should allow plenty of time for a deep sleep after 10 or so hours or so of flight.


Similarly, the return flight, scheduled to depart at 11:35 p.m. and arrive at Newark at 6 a.m. local time, should present no obstacle to those wishing to sleep the recommended eight hours or more.

Even better, the A350, like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, is more sleep-conducive than previous models. There are two reasons: first, both planes keep more of the humidity we passengers produce, through perspiration and respiration, inside the aircraft (if that sounds gross, worry not: these planes also filter and "scrub" recycled air much more effectively than previous aircraft); second, they are able to keep the interior air pressure about 2000 feet lower than a 777 or Airbus 340 can do.

Both measures provide a better sleep environment. Higher humidity prevents eyes and throats from drying out (dehydration can add to insomnia) and lower cabin pressure or "interior altitude" makes breathing easier and prevents high-altitude sickness. If you've ever had weird dreams on an alpine ski vacation you know what I'm talking about. The longer the flight, the more pronounced these benefits become.

And we passengers can make sleep more likely on super-long flights by following a few simple steps: drink only water just before and during the flight (alcohol might cause you to sleep at first but the dehydration and other effects will wake you up a few hours later); use those eyeshades and foam earplugs if provided (or bring your own if not) because even with the shades drawn airline cabins are a cesspool of light pollution and the noise created by the engines and the HVAC system is anathema to sleep; and pretend the inflight entertainment system is broken. Watching a scary or intense thriller before bedtime is a sure path to insomnia. Read a book or magazine instead. Preferably something boring.

We'll be seeing more super-long-haul flights in coming months and years. Qantas is looking at Sydney-to-London nonstops lasting 20 hours or more (in March the airline launched Perth to London at 17 hours and 20 minutes).

See: Passenger verdict on Perth to London non-stop flight economy class

And while the new routes and new planes make sleeping easier, they may be bad news for super-connector Persian Gulf carriers that rely on their geographical advantage to link any two spots in the world with a single stop. Passengers, given the choice, prefer nonstop flights, even long nonstops. Connections take longer and add the possibility of misconnections, and although commercial air travel is very safe, most accidents happen on takeoff or landing.

The world's longest flights

  1. Singapore-Newark (New York) 16,700km
  2. Doha-Auckland, Qatar Airways, 14,529km
  3. London-Perth, Qantas, 14,496km (Read Traveller's flight review)
  4. Dubai-Auckland, Emirates, 14,200km
  5. Los Angeles-Singapore, United Airlines, 14,113km
  6. Houston-Sydney, United Airlines, 13,833km
  7. Sydney-Dallas, Qantas, 13,804km
  8. San Francisco-Singapore, United Airlines & Singapore Airlines, 13,592km
  9. Atlanta-Johannesburg, Delta, 13,581km
  10. Abu Dhabi-Los Angeles, Etihad, 13,502k


See also: Hour by hour: My epic trip on board the world's longest flight

See also: Why only seven of the world's longest-range airliner will be built