Singapore Airlines' move to reclaim the crown for the world's longest flight has thrown the future of ultra-long haul travel into the spotlight. At the same time, it also highlights the different approaches airlines are taking.

The Singapore-Newark service could take as much as 18 hours and 45 minutes, but so far flights have been at least an hour quicker than that.

For the airline, it's very much of a case of dipping its toes into reinventing the travelling experience, relying largely on its much-awarded existing service and product to make life better on the 16,700km journey.

From a US health retreat partner there are some healthier, lighter food choices, specially designed non-alcoholic drinks on flights, videos on wellbeing at 40,000 feet, but not much more. It hasn't laid on pyjamas - only passengers in suites on A380s get pjs.


The airline's senior vice president, sales and marketing, Campbell Wilson, told the Herald most passengers don't use them.

In business class, the airline is also using current generation seats which have been around for a few years, although there are more modifications in premium economy that were praised by seasoned travellers who tested them.

While it's a bit more of the same on the inside, the new generation fuel efficient Airbus A350-ULR itself should be the game changer for Singapore, which couldn't make its older model Airbus A340-500s pay on the route.

It ended up with 100 business class seats only, and choppy demand and fuel cost blowouts meant it canned the service in 2013 after nearly a decade of trying to make it work.

Inside the flight deck of the Singapore Airlines A350-ULR. Photo / Grant Bradley
Inside the flight deck of the Singapore Airlines A350-ULR. Photo / Grant Bradley

The airline - named this month by Time as a ''Top 50 Genius Company'' - is determined not to see that happen again.

Its new plane has a premium economy cabin with 94 seats in a 2-4-2 configuration (although there are six single seats at the rear that will be much sought after), 67 in business and not a lot of room for much else. There's no lounge or bar area as some other airlines have.

Wilson says it is an expensive service to run and the airline wants to make every square metre of the plane pays.

''This is a long distance and high cost operation and we want to use the space for revenue generation.''


The airline was building the case to resume the route when oil prices were at US$100 a barrel. While they are rising, they're not at that level yet and the new A350 offers fuel savings of around 20 per cent on the planes they replace.

A part of the 67-seat business class cabin about SQ22. Photo / Grant Bradley
A part of the 67-seat business class cabin about SQ22. Photo / Grant Bradley

While Singapore now holds the record, the Middle Eastern giants fly some of the longest routes in the world. Emirates has its bar up top of its A380s for premium passengers to stretch out and "zero gravity" seats are being introduced in its first class suites in 777s .

Grant Bradley flies from Singapore to New York on SQ22

Qatar Airways' 777-200s flying from Auckland to Doha should be retrofitted with its patented Q-suites in business class in the first part of next year - very private if you want, but capable of being transformed into a flying meeting room or a family retreat.

Air New Zealand is eyeing longer routes over the next few years to tap into the east coast of North and South America, but unlike Singapore Airlines, an alliance partner, it can't afford to be cautious.

It will make a step change in the cabins of new planes replacing the Boeing 777-200s from 2022. The launch of the 13,200km Auckland-Chicago route at the end of November is a sign of things to come.

Air New Zealand says flight time for its new Chicago-Auckland route will be approximately 15 hours northbound and just over 16 hours southbound.

New York is on the radar, but that's 14,200km away and a new aircraft may be needed. The airline needs planes capable of carrying a full load of passengers and cargo there - and more to the point, back again, into prevailing winds.

A group of fans who target pioneering flights were on board. Photo / Grant Bradley
A group of fans who target pioneering flights were on board. Photo / Grant Bradley

Right now Air New Zealand has work going on in secret to develop new seats for its next long haul aircraft. Overseas and local experts are experimenting with zero gravity seats that take the pressure off the body to make for a more restful ride. New ways are being developed to cancel out noise, annoying on even the newest aircraft.

Its last secret ''Hangar'' project led to the development of the Skycouch which garnered publicity, although not as many orders from other airlines as hoped.

Unlike Singapore Airlines' all-premium plane, Air New Zealand has to consider how to make life comfortable for passengers in economy. Although the airline's long range planes have an increasing skew towards the higher yielding premium market, economy is still crucial to what is primarily a leisure carrier.

The next plane choice is looming and Air New Zealand is being wooed by Airbus with A350s and by Boeing with its larger 777X, which is still being developed and yet to fly. A variation of the Dreamliner is also a possibility.

It's not only in the air that airlines flying ultra-long haul need to be thinking about how to enhance the passenger experience.

Qantas had designed a new lounge in Perth with special lighting and food. Photo / Supplied
Qantas had designed a new lounge in Perth with special lighting and food. Photo / Supplied

For the growing number of premium passengers, lounges are important, as Air New Zealand was reminded last week. For its groundbreaking flight to London, Qantas designed a lounge in Perth around the wellbeing of passengers on what is now the third longest commercial flight.

There's "light therapy" in the 15 shower suites to help adjust the body clock, a wellbeing studio with stretching classes and a refresh area providing hydrating face products.

A "hydration station" serves drinks including fruit-infused water, sparkling water and herbal tea. While there are reports that the yoga studio is not in great demand, the lounge and the work the airline is doing with the Charles Perkins Centre on passenger sleep and wellbeing is a sign that marathon travel is serious and Qantas wants to be at the forefront.

How much it will share with its new buddy - Air New Zealand - remains to be seen but that would be one benefit of the partnership which kicks in at the end of this month.

Airlines are taking passengers further in their planes, and there will be growing demand from those on board to do things differently along the way.

Survival tips for the ultra-long haul

• Get busy - working to a deadline helps

• Be prepared for spotty Wi-Fi

• If not working, make sure you have the binge TV of your choice downloaded if there's nothing that really takes your fancy on the in-flight entertainment

• Do your research - exactly what do the airlines offer (ie, what's in the amenity kit, do they offer pyjamas?)

• Don't drink alcohol