They have plenty of appeal, but can airlines afford to keep them going amid rising fuel costs?

What’s the definition of an ultra long-haul (ULH) flight? It can best be described as a nonstop flight taking over 16 hours. It was two South East Asian carriers, namely Thai Airways and Singapore Airlines (SIA), which started the ball rolling back in 2004. Both of their nations suffer a geographic disadvantage compared to the likes of Hong Kong because Bangkok and Singapore lie that much farther from North America.

Thai Airways and SIA were finally able to launch their first nonstop flights to the US thanks to Airbus and its A340-500. This four-engine aircraft was able to fly further than any other at that time. It meant both Thai and SIA could launch nonstops to Los Angeles and New York, the latter taking up to 19 hours.

Airbus must have hoped global A340-500 orders would follow, but Thai and SIA remained the most significant customers. Why? Because ULH flights are uneconomical in terms of fuel consumption, so the cost of operation will depend on the cost of fuel at any given time.

A new dawn

Airbus’ hopes that Air France might order some A340-500s were dashed when the then-CEO branded the aircraft as “flying fuel tankers.” In fact the ‘sweet spot’ for a long-haul flight is a sector of around eight hours, as former CEO of Air Asia X, Azran Osman Rani, claimed when the Malaysian budget carrier quit Europe in 2012.

ULH flights are fuel inefficient because so much fuel is carried that, in the early stages of flight, fuel must be burnt solely to carry fuel. During a time of high fuel costs, Thai cancelled its US flights after a few years, although SIA did its best to maintain service until 2013. Thai never returned to the US but, using the improved economies of Airbus’ twin-engined A350-900, SIA restarted both routes in 2018.

These continue to this day, although rumours have surfaced that SIA is looking at changing the onboard layout so that revenue can be boosted with more premium seats. Previously it had done this with its A340-500s converting them, latterly, to an all-business class layout.

The next big ULH development for those of us in Europe is Qantas’ Project Sunrise.

A former Qantas boss said Australia suffered from ‘the tyranny of distance’, hence Qantas’ plans to operate more ULH nonstop flights. Perth-London nonstop started in 2018 with B787s and Qantas plans to launch Sydney-London nonstop in 2025. The roughly 20-hour journey will be the new longest passenger flight in the world – beating even SIA’s Singapore-New York link.

Qantas also hopes to add Paris and Frankfurt to its nonstop network later, along with New York. Although the situation may change, Qantas currently offers a multi-class configuration for its B787s on the London route with economy, premium economy and business seating. For Project Sunrise it will use the Airbus A350-1000.

Unexpected detour

ULH flights are not easy, though. This is what Air New Zealand (Air NZ) discovered to its cost when it launched Auckland-New York nonstop. It found the 17.5-hour New York to Auckland sector more of a challenge than Auckland to New York owing to weather conditions. It has meant that Air NZ must fly with a reduced payload if it wants to operate nonstop. In turn this affects profitability. Even then the best laid plans can go astray depending on weather conditions, which can change even when the flight is aloft.

The current issue of Russian overflying rights is also impacting some routes. After avoiding Russian airspace for several months, Cathay Pacific has now rerouted its Hong Kong-New York flight over Russian airspace to both save time and to offer a greater payload.

Air India is also a beneficiary of the geopolitical situation. Being able to operate through Russian airspace has enabled it to expand its US network with a new nonstop service between Mumbai and San Francisco.

By contrast the ban has meant that North American carriers have had to suspend or modify their flights to India. For example Air Canada now has to route its Mumbai service via London rather than being nonstop.

ULH flights are uneconomic but commercially vital. That fact ought to mean we can expect more ULH in future, though much will depend on fuel costs.