During the first decades of aviation, seeing who could fly the longest distance was something of an obsession. And it was a costly one—many pioneering pilots died trying to set distance records. Since that time the ultimate goal has been reached: Custom-built aircraft have circled the Earth without refueling.
Ultra-long-haul (ULH) flying is an invention of the modern era—the old propeller planes that made long trips simply didn’t have the range or speed to comfortably carry passengers nonstop. They needed several stops for refueling and rest. Though range and endurance got progressively longer (the ultimate version of the Lockheed Constellation, the L-1649A, could fly London-to-Los Angeles nonstop), the jet age brought much faster airplanes with even longer ranges, making nonstop transoceanic flights routine.
Aircraft ranges have only increased since then. These days there are really only a few viable city pairs that can’t be connected nonstop: Sydney to London, for example, or Hong Kong to Sao Paulo. Even some of those can be connected if the airplane is light enough and the winds favorable, but of course an empty airplane can’t carry paying passengers. With a few notable exceptions, the real challenge these days is economics. Wikipedia has a list of the thirty longest airline routes, some of which are hanging on by a thread.
Long-haul flying is a tough economic niche to fill. Flying is governed by weight, and airlines face a choice between a full load of fuel and a full load of passengers. Generally airlines come down on the side of passengers—today’s long-haul airplanes have no trouble flying intercontinental routes with full cabins—but the longest flights force them to fly with empty seats. Of course the airplane itself can’t be shortened, so the penalty is hauling the infrastructure around for all those non-existent passengers.
Aircraft manufacturers have to make their airplanes as appealing as possible to the widest possible market, so they design their products carefully to walk the fine line between too much long-haul focus and too little. They’ve been solving this problem by building special long-range versions of their aircraft, so airlines that need them can have extra fuel tanks and upgraded structures to carry the extra weight. Airliners are continuously refined as they roll off the line, so later models often weigh less or are otherwise more capable than earlier versions. Often (but not always) manufacturers take advantage of this by releasing “extended range” or “long range” models. For example, the only model currently rolling off Boeing’s 777 production line is the 777-300ER (extended range). The -300ER’s range is indeed greater than its predecessors, and the airplane is often flown on ULH routes, though still at the cost of empty seats.
Both major airliner manufacturers have tried building ULH-specific airplanes, but it didn’t work out very well. Boeing built the 777-200LR and Airbus the A350-500 for just such flights. “Airbus and Boeing found out the hard way that there wasn’t much [demand],” says Richard Aboulafia, a prominent aviation analyst. “A340-500 and 777-200LR sold in very small numbers, a combined total of fewer than 100, and it only worked because they leveraged design changes for other [versions of those] aircraft.”
For years, Singapore Airways connected the enormous economy of Singapore with New York and Los Angeles using specially configured Airbus A340-500 on what were then the longest flights in the world. Their routes were so long that even the -500 couldn’t fly with a full load, so Singapore configured the aircraft with only 117 economy and 64 business-class seats—far more business-class than usual. It didn’t work. The airplanes were reconfigured with 100 business-class and zero economy seats, but it still lost money, and so was discontinued. Singapore still serves the U.S., but now lands to refuel in either Tokyo (when flying to L.A.) or Frankfurt (to NYC).
Of course, the big determiner of route planning is profit. The airline industry has notoriously small profit margins, and ULH are often the smallest. Relatively small economic disturbances at the origin or destination can potentially kill a ULH flight.
Yet there are some airlines that depend on these long-haul runs. Singapore and Emirates make the finances work by being what Aboulafia calls “superconnectors,” airlines that depend on transfer passengers rather than “overnight and destination” passengers for their business models. Both airlines fly only the largest airplanes, and only from their major hubs, though relatively few customers will actually stay there. Singapore was the first “superconnector” on a massive scale, but the Persian Gulf, geographically better-situated for global connections and flush with fossil fuel money, now hosts several such airlines: Emirates in Dubai, Qatar in Qatar, Etihad in Abu Dhabi and several smaller airlines.
“Singapore and Emirates have one thing in common, which is that they’re core to their nations’ national aviation strategy, and indeed their nation’s national development,” notes Aboulafia. “So what might not be profitable for British Airways, which strictly operates on the basis of profit and loss, might make sense if you want to create a manufacturing center with direct flights to everywhere…for Singapore, for Emirates it makes sense to have an airline at the core of their national development strategy, and in context, encouraging those airlines to connect all major markets is a good idea.”
“So much depends on the price of fuel,” says Aboulafia. “When Singapore discontinued that service we were mired in $100-per-barrel fuel. It looks a lot more feasible if fuel is set to stay at $47-per-barrel.”
But new airplanes, the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, are changing the economics again. They are built with newer technology, allowing them to burn less fuel and cost less to fly than previous entrants. Ideal for long, “thin” routes—those without many travelers—the 787 and A350 reduce costs to the point that some once-unattractive routes may soon be feasible. Singapore Airways thinks the new economics will make sense: They’ve just announced they’ll resume direct Singapore-New York flights when their A350 ULH versions start entering the fleet in 2018. Designs still on the drawing boards, like Boeing’s 777X, will change the calculations yet again. The A350ULH’s desired range is thought to be around 10,000 miles, which would enable all but the most distant operations—enabling direct New York-Singapore or New York-Sydney flights, though falling just short of making London-Sydney possible.