02 NOV 2017: Some savvy airline passenger once stated, “The thing I look forward to the most when getting onto an airplane is getting off the airplane.” A perceptive and certainly widely held observation but one that clearly never found its way to the good folks in United Airlines’ marketing department.  

This week United proudly announced that it would soon be launching the longest non-stop flight to or from the United States – an 8,700-mile, 18 hours long jaunt between Los Angeles and Singapore. This takes over the top spot from UA’s San Francisco – Singapore service that covers a mere 8,446 miles.

Global aviation’s longest flight is currently hotly contested between Qatar Airways and Air India. The former’s Flight 921 covers the 9,032 miles from Doha to Auckland NZ in 17 hours, while the latter claims that its Delhi to San Francisco route clocks in at 9,389 miles. It seems however that Qatar cheats by taking a longer route than necessary in order to take advantage of tailwinds that shorten the trip time. That is to say, they don’t stick to the ‘orthodromic’ (there’s a word you don’t hear every day) route, which follows the great circle. Go figure!

What really makes no sense to me though, is precisely why airlines want to boast about such stuff. Isn’t it a bit like a dentist advertising, “NEW – The Longest Root Canal Surgery in Town”?

Yes, it’s wonderful when you can fly non-stop on routes that once involved a tech-stop or a connection but do they really need to holler from the rooftops that it’s going to be the equivalent of flying three Montreal to London sectors without getting off? Yippee.

Of course, “longest” can be defined in different way: It can be actual distance flown or the time from wheels up to touchdown. It can also be measured in terms of the inflight experience – but more on that later!

If one takes non-stop hours in the air as the single metric to determine the longest flight then, on a historical basis, none of the above would come close to qualifying. Between 1943 and 1945 Qantas - one of the world’s oldest airlines - operated “The Double Sunrise”, a weekly 3,000- mile flight between Perth Australia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Using a PBY Catalina flying boat that flew at 99 knots, burned just 100 litres of fuel an hour and carried only three passengers, the trip averaged 27 hours. Hence the name – you’d see the sun rise twice on each flight. It was on one of its slower trips that this service set the record for the longest ever times airborne - a staggering 32 hours 9 minutes. Boy what fun that must have been! After all that time jammed in a tight, noisy space, if you didn’t know your fellow passengers when you got on, you certainly did by the time you got off!

But the longest ‘serious’ commercial flight of all time was one on which I’d have loved to be a passenger. Trans World Airlines’ 1957 piston-engine, 64-seat, Lockheed L-1649 ‘Constellation’ flight from London to San Francisco took the 5,350 mile polar route and did it in 23 hours 19 minutes.


Apart from its range and endurance, the iconic ‘Connie’ has to be one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built and spending almost a full day in flight with TWA’s ‘white glove’ service must have been truly memorable.

Statistically speaking, my longest ever flight was (coincidentally) on Qantas from Sydney to Los Angeles - around 13 hours and 7,500 miles. If you were to ask what felt like my longest flight however, it would have to be one trip I did from Tel Aviv to New York on El Al.

Why? Well, it’s all about the company you keep. The Tel Aviv flight may be three hours shorter than the trip from Australia BUT on a flight that departs at one in the morning, when you find yourself seated in a tightly configured aisle seat, next to a snoring sumo wrestler-sized monster of a man … need I say more! I had to lean into the aisle to escape the blob who encroached by a good four inches over the armrest. Every time a cart passed it would bang into my shoulder: It was purgatory.

There is of course one other not so minor factor that plays into the length of a flight and that’s the class of service in which you travel. My two examples above are perhaps a little unfair as one was in first and one was in economy – I’ll let you guess which was which.

I’ve always estimated that, in comfort terms, one hour of actual flight time feels like about 50 minutes in a premium class seat compared to around 70 minutes in a typical economy seat: That’s a spread of 20-minute per hour.

So, to update the quip about what one should look forward to the most when getting onto an airplane, perhaps it should be “turning left.”

Premium cabins maybe get there at the same time as the rest of the aircraft but, as flights get longer, they can certainly do a lot to reduce the pain along the way.


Speaking of …

Madonna is worth an estimated $800 million, but she can still watch her pennies. The ‘Material Girl’  was snapped flying economy with Air Portugal on a flight from London to Lisbon on Tuesday.


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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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