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Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaUltra-long-range flights become a reality but are travellers ready to brave 19-hours aloft playing space invaders?

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Scene from The Darjeeling Limited

Owen Wilson (centre), Adrien Brody (right) and Jason Schwartzman in a scene from the side-splitting 2007 film 'The Darjeeling Limited' built around a comic but mystical train journey through India.

A STEADY drive south from New York on the I-95 with minimal breaks for Savannah’s historic district or a juicy Arby’s roast beef sandwich will get you to balmy Miami in about 18 hours. It’s a long haul on arrow-straight freeways negotiating traffic and, perhaps, a spot of enlivening road rage. It begs the obvious question, ‘Aren’t there easier places to get to with a coconut tree and a pink bikini?’ Like Singapore.

In fact, on the new Singapore Airlines A350-900 service from The Big Apple to Lion City with an official block time (chocks-off to gate) of 18 hours and 40 minutes, the flight can be completed in less. Buoyed by tailwinds, the inaugural flight on 9 November from Singapore to JFK, touched down in less than 17 hours to take on the mantle of the world’s longest flight currently in operation.

This was a mammoth undertaking for a crew of four pilots and a few passengers as the plane cut through the skies skirting Japan, Anchorage and Chicago to complete 8,984 nautical miles (or 10,331 standard miles) burning 97.5 tonnes of aviation fuel.

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Ultra-long-range flights at the farthest limits of machinery and man – at least for those packed like sardines for endless hours – have captured the imagination of airlines everywhere since the heroic late 2019 Qantas experiments flying nonstop from Sydney to New York and London. While these were not scheduled commercial flights, ‘Project Sunrise’, as Qantas termed the research exercise, served to arouse considerable public curiosity but was derided by plane buffs as a marketing gimmick with just a handful of passengers in fully reclining business seats, not your typical long-haul crush.

Crucially, behind the scenes Project Sunrise provided a conveniently large stick for Qantas to beat down feisty unions to renegotiate rosters and working hours, system wide.

{This is a long way from my first international flight on an Air India B747 in the fall of 1977 that took me, hopping, just about everywhere, New Delhi to London...

Both Boeing – desperate for a comeback – and Airbus, pitched in with ideas with the latter suggesting a modified A350-1000. Qantas eventually ran with its existing fleet of B787-9 Dreamliners. Then came Covid-19. Demand and dreams crashed and, just three months after a brave rollout, the project was mothballed.

Several long-range flights in the 17-hour range have been operated with varying levels of commercial success – SIA’s Singapore-Newark, the Qatar Airways Doha-Auckland (17 hours 40 minutes), Dubai-Auckland by Emirates, and Perth-London by Qantas. Compared to these minnows, the 20th October 2019 Qantas Project Sunrise flight from New York to Sydney was aloft a staggering 19 hours and 16 minutes.

This is a long way from my first international flight on an Air India B747 in the fall of 1977 that took me, hopping and stopping just about everywhere, from New Delhi to London, via Damascus, Rome, and Paris (if memory serves me well). We were handed Coca-Cola pours and I foolishly, if unwittingly, paid a small fortune to buy a glass or two of wine for the lady sitting next to me out of my fast dwindling US$21 foreign allowance. It drove home the fine line between gallantry and the gallows.

It has to be said that the twin scourges of scarcity (money) and discomfort (seating) at a time when just being aloft was a novel experience, made flying all the more exquisite. We didn’t fly particularly high and I spent my time identifying natural features below that appeared close enough to touch.

The Seventies was for milk-stop runs before advancing technology ushered in the age of the long-haul nonstops that brought an abrupt end to the aspirations of several cities like my very own New Delhi, which fell off the map, as flights efficiently linked mega-hubs like Hong Kong to London, bypassing all the rest, consigning these doomed towns to a pink-eye 2am postscript. For travellers, India remains the ‘dark subcontinent’, even today.

Will travellers take to ultra-long-haul flights in 17-inch seats, battling deep vein thrombosis and boorish or bulky neighbours? Comments vary from, ‘It was really tough’ (with PPE donned) to, ‘I must confess there were times I felt really irritable’ (without Covid-19 protection on an earlier flight). Take your pick.

Of course there is the lure of maximised time at the destination in a world that frowns on long absences from the desk. Yet, as the globe hurries by without a chance to savour the changes in topography, culture, dialect and food as you hurtle through anonymous latitudes and longitudes, going blotto on cheap plonk and small-screen entertainment, you miss out on the essence of travel – the journey, the immersion, the conversation, the unforeseen dramas, and the magnificent tales saved not on a smartphone but in the mind, that rarely used mushy bit between the ears.

While I often forget the specifics of various flights that monotonously blur into one another – ‘K for coffee’ (translated as, ‘Care for coffee?’) or ‘Mepchu’ (may I help you?) – I vividly recall our scorching three-day train journeys as kids to spend the summers with our stern paternal grandmother in Kerala who dished out hymns, threats of a caning, and delicious dosas, all in one fluid motion.

En route, the platform tea was served in clay ‘kulads’ that we later gleefully smashed on the rails. The soft drinks man heralded his arrival tinkling arpeggios with a metal rod on his ice-cold bottles. Bookstores with impossible names like Higginbotham’s sold James Hadley Chase and Louis L’Amour novels and Archie comics by the kilo. Always sweet talked by some shifty train attendant my mother would order giant ice slabs in leaking tin tubs to create the illusion of air-conditioning as water swamped our steamy compartment. “Train the fan on the ice, darlings,” she’d coo as my brother and I sweatily went about the task too exhausted to object.

Would I trade all that for a 19-hour flight cocooned from fellow passengers and divorced from any sense of my regal, irritable, sleepless passage aloft? Hmm. Well, at least the air-conditioning on flights works better than ice blocks. A Happy Covid-free New Year to all.

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