Why is this interesting? - The Ultra-Long-Haul Edition

On twenty hour flights, the human body, and whether two should be combined

Colin here. There’s an arms race currently happening between airlines to launch new, ultra-long-haul flights. Qantas just ran a 10,000-mile test flight direct from New York to Sydney, just a hair longer than Singapore’s Newark to Singapore flight. As Rafat Ali, founder of Skift rightly points out, this is mostly PR fodder for journalists that like an expenses-paid junket. There is a disproportionate amount of coverage for something that doesn’t exist yet. Project Sunrise is Qantas’s ongoing experiments to figure out how to crack direct flights from Sydney to New York and Sydney to London. Along with it, there’s been a lot of scientific experimenting around what is required to keep humans comfortable in the air that long. This includes everything from humidity-controlled cabins on the 787 Dreamliner aircraft, the amount of sleep-inducing tryptophan in some of the food, as well as other elements of wellness, like meditation and even the amount and type of lighting in the lounge. 

Why is this interesting?

The question here remains how long is too long? There is an obvious commercial appeal for these types of direct flights. Businesspeople want to arrive as quickly as possible, and if you consider families traveling with children, a stopover en route can be a logistical nightmare. Singapore Airlines made the right decision, in my opinion, to not ram coach seats into their direct service, instead opting to frame it as a premium product. There are lie-flat business seats and large, well-designed premium economy seats. To do a typical economy class seat might be slightly too torturous on a flight of that length. 

But, as the FT pointed out, this is in fact happening. Some of the long-haul routes, like Doha to Auckland, are being run on planes without any customizations or retrofits, which seems like a recipe for pain:

But the limit I am interested in is human — and in economy. Is it worth almost a full day and night of confinement just to save a few hours? ...It all adds to a sense of dislocation. Without WiFi on my seven-year-old plane, it’s also the longest I’ve gone without the internet for at least a decade. Flying may not be nearly as glamorous as it was once, but this, I have no doubt, is one of the flight’s unalloyed pleasures. 

But what of my veins? To get to Auckland, I had already endured a seven-hour flight from London and a 16-hour flight from Doha, and my diary only allowed me to spend 10 hours in New Zealand (crazy, I know). In three days and nights, I am spending a total of 50 hours in plane seats, travelling 24,000 miles. Before I departed, I recalled the great DVT (deep vein thrombosis) scare, which peaked in 2000 after the death of Emma Christoffersen. The 28-year-old woman developed a clot after a Qantas flight from Sydney to London, via Singapore. Clots that form in the inactive lower leg can be fatal if they travel to the heart and lungs. Fevered press coverage triggered multiple lawsuits, but soon died away.

Is the human body ready to deal with flights that are this long? Doesn’t a stopover allow for a break, a shower, and a chance to stretch your legs? Despite the alluring PR value of these types of projects, it remains to be seen if the passengers are actually ready to deal with the stresses of these types of flights and if there’s enough market appeal to fly them. The more I read about sleep, recovery, and jetlag, the more I understand the toll that long-haul travel extracts from the body, no matter how plush or comfortable the environs. My guess is Singapore has the right approach: Marketing the flight as a premium product for time-sensitive business travelers, but I question if the overall market—across every cabin—is as strong as the airline business strategists predict. (CJN

Chart of the Day: 

WSJ on the growth of German discount grocers Aldi and Lidl in the US. “The privately owned foreign companies have increased sales with their simpler stores that offer fewer products at lower prices. In response, U.S. grocers are lowering prices on staples such as milk and eggs and adding more products the discounters aren’t known for, such as fresh foods. The battle comes as supermarkets already are fighting to keep customers from shopping more online.” (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

PS - Friend of WITI Steve Bryant (4/22 - Maslow Edition) is looking for a full-time content strategist to join his Brooklyn-based team at Article Group. “Experience overseeing content requirements, conducting content audits, performing gap analyses, and building client presentations is a must.” If you are that person or know someone who is, please make sure to mention you found the job here. Steve said he’d buy us dinner if we help him find someone.


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