The World's Longest Flight: What It Means For Pilots

The longest commercial flight in history is now being offered by Singapore Airlines. You will be able to board an Airbus A350-900ULR (emphasis on the Ultra Long Range) in Singapore and fly nonstop, approximately 19 hours, and land in New York.

From a pilot’s perspective, just the thought of it makes our backside ache and circadian rhythm cringe. Then, we quickly calculate flight and duty time regulations. After using fingers and toes to count the hours and rest, it is all doable since there are rest areas and extra crew. Then, we realize how efficient it would be to get all our monthly flight hours done during just a few trips like this.

Compared to regional airline flying, with short hops and 5-7 flight legs per duty day while flying in the weather instead of over it, the thought of getting an airplane into the air, putting the autopilot on and performing one landing after 19 hours has an appealing ratio for pilots with thick logbooks, especially those who must commute to their base. The wear and tear on a pilot isn’t just from the trips they fly, it’s also the enormous amount of time spent getting to and from work. Aircrews don’t get paid until the cabin door is closed, so all that time commuting, pre-flighting and sitting in the aircraft waiting for passengers to board is unpaid time.

It adds up, so flying longer legs is also more efficient for a pilot’s paycheck.

With layers of new technology that allows for an endurance flight halfway around the world, there are also a few extra challenges that factor into these types of long-haul flights. First, this trip will cover ~9,520 statute miles (8,272 nm) so every type of weather situation will be confronted during this trip. Even though this airplane will be flying over most of the weather, the flight planning calculations are enormous. Inevitably, there will be towering cumulonimbus somewhere along the route that requires a diversion around it, you just don’t know when and where or how far the diversion will be.

"The route will also pass over or near restricted airspace, airspace conflict zones and vast oceans, all of which have unique rules and regulations."

This aircraft’s ability to carry enough fuel for this flight requires pause to think about the aircraft performance on takeoff. Carrying ~299,200 pounds (44,000 gallons) of JetA fuel with max takeoff weight of 617,000 pounds, and max landing weight of 456,000 pounds, is putting the aircraft on the edge of capability on takeoff if an engine failed. If there should ever be a reason to return to the airport after takeoff, the weight of the airplane will make for some tough choices by the pilots.

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Airplanes are most efficient once they’ve reached their optimum cruising altitude. With rising fuel costs, being able to operate as long as possible at higher altitudes increases the return of investment for each seat filled. For these ultra-long hauls, it will be even more important to fill each seat, so don’t expect to have room to stretch out. Every seat will be filled.

"With a finite supply of jet fuel and prices governed by ever-changing technology and politics, we will continue to see these efforts towards efficiency over comfort."

For those of you sitting in the back-middle row, I hope you bring books. Lots of books…and movies, and games and someone great to talk to. Look at the person sitting next to you right now. Now imagine sitting next to them nonstop for 19 hours, and you can’t escape. If you want to test the endurance of your relationship, this would be a true test. How about the family with two little kids sitting next to you? Don’t forget your earplugs. If you don't know the person sitting next to you, you will by the end of the trip.

You’ll even have time to start writing your own book! Maybe you could write about what it’s like sitting still in a tiny seat for 19 hours, plus the ground time while you inevitably wait for a gate. They simply forgot you were coming since you said you were on your way…19 hours ago.

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