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How Far Can You Fly?

The recent operation by Qantas of a non-stop test flight between New York and Sydney was the latest indication of a growing trend for very long non-stop flights. However, how many more of these ultra-long routes are there left to serve, especially those with viable traffic volumes and can passengers really handle such lengthy flights from the physical perspective?

Some years ago there was a burst of negative publicity over long flights and Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), the most serious complications leading to loss of a leg for some affected. DVT was the result of passengers sitting in one position on a long flight for too long and various experts commented that every passenger should get up and walk around the aircraft regularly during their flight. This was also something that could affect pilots as they spent even longer than passengers in their flight deck seats, usually going on board some time before the first passengers. While those paying to fly have some leeway, pilots, by the very nature of their job will still be spending longer in their seats and even more so as a result of security measures now in place. So is the thirst for ever-increasing range good or bad?

A study by OAG looked at the longest routes not yet served by non-stop flights in the world and came up with a Top Ten. These super-long routes currently average 170,000 annual passengers and an average range of 7,500 miles, with passengers flying them having to connect between flights at least once in each direction. All these routes operate to and from destinations in Asia, with five connecting Asia and the United States, and the other five connecting Europe to the Middle East and Asia. The challenge for airlines is whether these types of ultra-long-haul routes would be sustainable – environmentally, financially and from the health point of view.

Two of these routes, Paris to Bali and London to Brisbane, are of a distance beyond the range of any commercial aircraft currently operating with a Great Circle Distance of 9,149 nautical miles and 8,932 nautical miles between the origins and destinations respectively. Flying time for these types of distances would be over 20 hours and are obviously not for the faint hearted as those on the recent New York-Sydney flight experienced.

The remaining eight unserved routes are within range of today’s aircraft with Los Angeles – Saigon the most popular. In the twelve months between August 2018 and July 2019, over 270,000 passengers travelled on indirect routings between these two points. A further 171,000 passengers travelled between San Francisco and Saigon, reflecting the strong growth Vietnam is currently experiencing as a tourism destination. Bangkok in Thailand is also popular, with over 250,000 passengers travelling from Los Angeles airport indirectly to Bangkok and 140,000 from New York’s JFK airport.

Until recently neither Thai nor Vietnamese carriers were able to operate to the US due to the lack of US clearance (Thai Airways International flights operate via codeshares with All Nippon Airways, EVA Air, Lufthansa, Asiana Airlines and Brussels Airlines) but Vietnam Airlines recently received the go ahead after reaching US FAA standards.

While Vietnam Airlines now have the Airbus A350-900 in service, which can comfortably cover the 7,000 miles between Los Angeles and Saigon, there are question marks about the financial viability of the route. Is this a market where there are enough passengers prepared to pay a premium to travel without stopping somewhere on the way? With many travellers lured to Vietnam because it is relatively unknown and inexpensive, or to visit friends and relatives, will they also be price sensitive about their flights? Whatever the size of the market, route economics may prevent a non-stop service from starting.

Whilst there is apparent demand for many of these routes, is it airline-driven or passenger demand driven? F