One giant leap.

One giant leap.

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The story of aviation is certainly all about balance. How can you go further but still carry a profitable amount of payload? It is all about trade-offs. You can certainly fill an aircraft to the brim with payload, but you will have to leave fuel behind in order to be light enough to get off the ground. You can alternatively load up with fuel to go a long way, but you will then have to leave passengers and cargo behind, so once again you can become airborne.

Even with the newest technology those simple laws of physics still apply.

The Air New Zealand Boeing 787-9 will be the tool of choice when Air New Zealand opens its new long range route, Auckland to New York in 2020. The 787 is one of the new breed of giant twin jets using composite materials in their construction which offers greater strength at lower weights. This is the great enabler for ultra long range routes.

It seems, however, that every few decades improvements in technology allow us to take that next step. Whether it be the materials used in aircraft manufacture, the power and reliability of engines or the corrections to design theory. All evolved through lessons, often learned at a high cost. For instance, the move from canvas and wood to aluminium, the lessons learned about metal fatigue. The advent of the Jumbo jet, which brought travel to the common man. All, like our foray into supersonic travel, have been game changers. Some of these technologies have stayed and grown, others proved to be less popular. Not necessarily because they were bad in any way, but because they weren’t economical in most cases.

When all is said and done, airlines and airliner manufacturers are businesses with shareholders who expect to make a profit on their investment. Airlines find routes on which they can make a profit carrying passengers and/or cargo in a profitable way. Attracting customers depends on offering the service at a cost that is competitive and palatable to the market. The airline industry carries horrendously high operating costs. High fuel costs, aircraft that cost millions each as well as maintenance and other costs. So minimising cost, without impacting the level of service or safety is paramount.

The QANTAS Boeing 787-9 is currently being used on the ultra long range Perth to London route. QANTAS is embarking on what they call Project Sunrise which will see new non-stop routes opening from Australian cities to points all over the globe. On the 19th October 2019 a proving flight left New York to fly non-stop to Sydney, an exhausting 19 hours and 16 minutes.

Like any industry, it is important to use the right tools for the job. Airliners are those tools, and each of those models and variants has a very specific purpose and niche in the market. For example, smaller twin jets which can fly short to medium ranges to carry a small number of passengers more frequently. Larger transcontinental jets that carry many more passengers over greater distances.

So back to balance. The travelling public is becoming ever more mobile. Holiday makers travelling all over the globe to find those, as yet, unspoiled destinations. Business travellers, similarly, need to get to all sorts of far flung destinations to close that deal. To the business traveller, time is money, so get me there quickly. To the leisure traveller, too many hours in that economy class seat are soul destroying, among other things.

This is where technology is currently being focused. Being able to fly further from more origins to more destinations. What does that mean?

Let’s look at the iconic Boeing 747. It was designed to operate out of big city airports. It is big and needs a big runway to take-off and land on. So, the system, known as hub and spoke was used. For example, you take the Boeing 747 from London Heathrow to New York JFK, then change to a smaller commuter airliner to go on to a secondary city. That makes for a long journey, not very convenient. There were several factors that led to things being done this way. One is engine reliability. Aircraft and their engines need to be certified (ETOPS) to fly long over water routes. This is particularly true of twin jets.

For many years, aircraft like the 4 engine Boeing 747, Boeing 707, Douglas DC8, Airbus A340, as well as the 3 engine Douglas DC10 and Lockheed L1011 were the mainstays of trans-oceanic travel. Airbus perhaps came a little late to this game with the Airbus A380. Certainly, a marvel of aviation technology, the A380 has not met its sales potential for Airbus. Existing customer airlines have shortened their orders as they have seen that the game has changed.

The age of the giant twin jet is upon us.

Engine technology has enabled the production of engines with a far lower failure rate then in the past. Through testing and the resultant certification, large twin-engine jets like the Boeing 787, Boeing 777 and Airbus A350 are able to fly further from the nearest available airfield then past twins. This is what makes trans-oceanic travel possible.

Delta flies one of the worlds longest non-stop routes from Johannesburg to Atlanta which takes around 16 and a half hours using the trusty Boeing 777-200LR. Shortly we should being seeing the newer Boeing 777X, which will come out in in a 777-8 and 777-9 variant.

The economics are obvious. Twin jets require less spares to be kept in store, less maintenance. Not being as big as their Jumbo and Super Jumbo predecessors, they can fly into smaller airfields, doing away with the need to transfer through busy main hubs.

So, what about the further part?

The new twins, particularly the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, use a high percentage of composite materials in their construction. Carbon fibre and plastics provide strength but at a lower weight than aluminium. This delivers benefits in having a lighter aircraft with the same if not higher strength. Keeping the base weight down enables a higher payload which is great news for the airlines operating them.

Back to the balance. Being able to carry a higher payload means we can carry more fuel without leaving as many passengers behind for those long-haul routes. This is important for more remote parts of the world, like Australia and New Zealand. QANTAS the Australian national carrier, for its part, is focused on Project Sunrise. The aim is to fly non-stop from Australian capital cities to major destinations around the world, like London and New York. They have already been operating from Perth to London non-stop for a few months now, a flying time of 17 hours 45 minutes. On 19 October 2019, QANTAS took delivery a Boeing 787-9 with which they performed a publicity flight under the number QF7879 from New York to Sydney, non-stop. The flight took 19 hours 16 minutes and carried 50 odd passengers and crew. Data was taken of how each passenger dealt with the nearly 20-hour flight. It will be interesting to see their findings when they are publicised as this may help us to understand and mitigate the effects of super long-haul flight.

Air New Zealand announced that they would commence flying non-stop Auckland to New York, a flying time of between 17 and 18 hours. The options for travellers in a hurry to get to their destinations are certainly about to explode. Whilst these services will no doubt be aimed at the upper end of the market for now, I’m sure they are looking at ways to make sitting in economy for those extended flying times possible.

AirlineOriginDestinationMilesDurationAircraft Type
Singapore AirlinesNewarkSingapore9,53418h 45mA350-900 ULR
Qatar AirwaysAucklandDoha9,03217h 50mBoeing 777-200LR
QANTASPerthLondon9,00917h 20mBoeing 787-9
EmiratesAucklandDubai8,82317h 5mAirbus A380
Singapore AirlinesLos AngelesSingapore8,76917hA350-900ULR
United AirlinesHoustonSydney8,59617h 15mBoeing 787-9
QANTASDallas Fort WorthSydney8,55717hAirbus A380
Philippine AirlinesNew YorkManila8,52016h 45mA350-900ULR
Singapore Airlines and
United Airlines
San FranciscoSingapore8,44616h 35mSQ A350-900ULR
UA Boeing 787-9
Delta Air LinesJohannesburgAtlanta8,43916h 25m777-200LR

How do you feel about super long-haul flight? Would you be keen to take a nearly 20 hour flight, and what class of travel would you travel in? We would love to hear how you travellers feel about that?

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