THE LONG GOODBYES
By Joe Brancatelli
November 20, 2013 --Let me explain exactly how long the 18-hour nonstop flight between Newark Airport and Singapore's Changi Airport really is.
As you cocoon in one of the 100 pods that Singapore Airlines sells on the all-business-class service, there's time for a multi-course "supper" served shortly after the 11 p.m. departure. There's time to watch all 24 episodes of the sixth season of The Big Bang Theory. There's time to squeeze in a few hours of work. There's time to screen Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine while you "nibble" on Thai-style fried rice from the "light bites" menu. There's time to sleep for several hours. There's even time enough for a leisurely three-course breakfast before landing around dawn two days later Singapore time.
But if that kind of marathon appeals to your business-travel schedule and sensibilities, there's hardly any time at all to book a flight.
After more than nine years of operation, Singapore Airlines ends the world's longest nonstop service on Saturday. The Newark-Singapore cancellation comes a month after Singapore Airlines retired its nearly 18-hour-long flights between Los Angeles and Singapore, the world's second-longest nonstops.
The long goodbyes signal the twilight of ultra-long-haul flying, which the travel world loosely defines as nonstops lasting longer than 14 hours. Earlier this year, Philippine Airlines scrapped its 16-hour service between Toronto and Manila. Three other ultra-long-haul runs were dumped last year: Delta Air Lines' 16-hour nonstop between Detroit and Hong Kong; American Airlines' 15-hour Chicago-New Delhi route; and Thai Airways 17-hour flights from Bangkok to Los Angeles. Another pioneering ultra-long-haul, Thai's 17-hour Bangkok-New York service, was grounded in 2008. Delta's 17-hour Atlanta-Mumbai route ended in 2009.
What's killing ultra-long-hauls? The usual suspects. For starters, the price of oil, which sells for $95 a barrel on New York markets now, but was around $40 a barrel when Boeing and Airbus designed planes that made ultra-long-haul nonstops possible. Worse, airlines burn pricey jet fuel to carry the fuel needed to fly such long journeys. The Airbus A340-500 aircraft that Singapore Air deployed is "pretty much a fuel tanker in the air," Standard & Poor's analyst Shukor Yusof told Bloomberg News.
Worst of all, business travelers haven't been eager to pay super-premium prices for air travel since the 2008 financial crisis. When Singapore Air began the 18-hour nonstops, it expected a 15 percent price premium over its one-stop flights. Last week, however, the New York-Singapore nonstop cost about $9,000 roundtrip, roughly the same as a business-class roundtrip on an 8-hour flight between New York and London.
The end of the nonstop Singapore runs is bad news for fliers headed to Southeast Asia and grim tidings for Singapore Airlines.
For us, losing the nonstops means adding at least two hours and as many as five hours to a Singapore itinerary. Fliers in the New York metropolitan area who want to continue flying Singapore Airlines must use its connecting service from John F. Kennedy Airport via Frankfurt. For Southern California fliers loyal to Singapore Airlines, it’s now an LAX-Tokyo-Singapore connection.
Losing the nonstops also means adding as much as a day's travel time for connections to other Asia destinations. When I first flew the Singapore Airlines nonstop from Newark in 2004, I was lucky enough to be seated next to a World Bank consultant and she perfectly explained the practicalities.
"This nonstop saves me an entire day getting to Katmandu," Dr. Fredi Munger said. "After we land, I'm catching a flight to Nepal and arriving in time for a dinner meeting. Before, I had to spend an overnight somewhere before making the connections."
While I'm not much of an airline geek, I eagerly flew Singapore Air's remaining nonstop one last time earlier this month. You sit in the widest seat in the skies. The 100 pods are configured 1-2-1 on a huge aircraft designed to carry as many as 280 passengers. At 36 inches wide, they're the equivalent of two coach seats. In lounge-chair mode, the leather-covered seating area is a massive 30-inches across. It converts to a large bed that I found extremely comfortable for sleeping.(The traveler behind me on the Singapore-Newark run spent most of the flight reading on his bed in the lotus position.)
Most passengers on the flights are professional fliers who don't socialize. Besides, Singapore Airlines keeps the cabins dark through much of the 18 hours to maximize sleeping and quiet time. There's at-seat power, a pair of USB connectors, in-flight WiFi and a pop-up tray table that makes a spacious desk. Singapore Airlines flight attendants are famously attentive and meals, snacks and beverages are never more than a push of a call button away. Each pod has a 15-inch video monitor and Singapore stocks its in-flight entertainment system with a gigantic library of diversions. Last week there were 243 movies from around the world, 358 television programs, 800 music CDs, 22 radio channels and 80 video games.
The problem with the Singapore Airlines nonstops and similar ultra-long-haul flights? They don't make financial sense for the airlines. In Singapore Airlines' case, it has tried the New York and Los Angeles runs in two variants. When launched in 2004, there were 64 business-class seats and 117 premium-economy chairs. Singapore's so-called Executive Economy service was extremely comfortable and a fabulous bargain, but a few years before its time.
During the halcyon days before the global financial crisis, Singapore Air was selling so many business-class seats that it switched to the 100-seat all-business arrangement. But its timing was ironic. The business-class-only configuration launched on May 15, 2008, four months to the day before Lehman Brothers collapsed and destroyed the premium air-travel market.
Although Singapore Airlines is happy to rid itself of the problematic ultra-long-hauls—Airbus is buying back the five aircraft used on the runs—the loss of nonstop service to the two largest U.S. markets creates its own challenges for one of the world's most respected carriers.
According to the CAPA Centre for Aviation, Singapore Air will now be forced to compete with 20 carriers that offer one-stop flights into its home market. The loss of the nonstops also means Singapore Airlines is reducing the total number of premium-cabin seats it sells in the U.S. market by 26 percent. The airline is only partially offsetting the loss by adding 24 business-class seats each day on the Airbus A380 super-jumbo aircraft it flies into Los Angeles and New York. (Singapore also operates one-stop flights from San Francisco and Houston.)
Worse for a network carrier like Singapore, it can now only sell two-stop connections to the nearby markets in Southeast Asia. That puts it at a competitive disadvantage with Cathay Pacific, which offers U.S. travelers many nonstop options into Hong Kong and easy one-stop connections throughout Asia. Cathay is growing, too. It adds a fourth daily nonstop to Hong Kong from Los Angeles in June and a nonstop route from Newark in March. There are also Cathay nonstops from San Francisco, Chicago and New York's Kennedy Airport.
The end of Singapore's nonstops "is an opportunity for us," says Tom Owen, Cathay's senior vice president of the Americas. "We can promote short connection times in Hong Kong to key destinations such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. It even makes us the fastest connection to Singapore."
For those looking for the "thrill" of flying the longest nonstops, however, it is time to look elsewhere. Want to say you have flown the longest distance, try the Qantas nonstop between Dallas/Fort Worth and Sydney. It's 13,814 kilometers compared to the 15,332 kilometers of the Newark to Singapore flight. The longest flight time will soon belong to Delta's Atlanta-Johannesburg run. That 13,570-kilometer flight clocks in at 16 hours and 55 minutes.
Of course, that's comparative kid's stuff for those who can say they once flew Singapore Airlines' longest hauls ever.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
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