World's longest flight route review: Singapore Airlines SQ22 to New York, hour by hour

Inside the Singapore Airlines Airbus A350

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It’s not very often you board a plane bound for Newark, New Jersey, and get a champagne send-off with cabin staff providing a cabaret of songs from the great American songbook. Let’s face it. Newark doesn’t spring to mind when you think of great Discount Holidays © holiday destinations in the US.

Even the most ardent New Jersey fan wouldn’t claim that Newark ranks alongside San Francisco, New Orleans or Boston as a dream bucket city. So why all this hullabaloo?

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Watch the world’s longest range airliner’s final assembly

Watch as the world’s first Airbus A350-900ULR (ultra long range) is assembled, ready for delivery to Singapore Airlines.

The plane will fly the world’s longest non-stop route, Singapore to New York, from October 2018. Video: Airbus The world’s aviation media has gathered here at Singapore’s Changi Airport, ready to record every detail of this flight to Newark. Even Richard Quest, host of CNN’s Quest means Business show and the best-known aviation correspondent on the planet, will be hosting an online Q & A session from the comfort of business class.

The Newark flight is front-page news in Singapore’s The Straits Times, and a leading item on most of the news channels. Why? Because, if successful, SQ22 will re-establish Singapore Airline (SIA) as the holder of commercial aviation’s equivalent of the “Blue Ribbon” fought over so fiercely between the great Transatlantic liners before jets made ships such as the Queen Mary obsolete.

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The mission every one of the 150 passengers and 17 crew has signed on for tonight is to fly almost 17,000 kilometres non-stop aboard a brand new Airbus A350-900 ULR. This is the longest distance flown by a fully laden commercial jet, and we plan to do it in record time. Of course, this circus has little to do with Newark itself.

The bevy of “Singapore Girls” who urge us to join the plane do so under a banner marked: “Now Boarding: Non-stop Singapore – New York.” The SQ22 (and its return flight, SQ21) is an important milestone on the way to commercial aviation’s greatest ambition: a non-stop flight between two cities halfway round the globe from each other. For Australians, that means a non-stop flight from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane to London or New York.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s join the on-board party …

SIT BACK … AND RELAX: DIARY OF 18 HOURS WELL SPENT?

11.30PM SINGAPORE TIME It’s a curious feature of this flight that there’s exactly 12 hours’ difference between the departure and arrival airports, which makes it 11.30am in New Jersey.

The gate has closed and we’re all seated, ready to taxi. Roughly four-fifths of the 94 seats in premium economy are occupied, mostly by what appear to be genuine paying passengers.

The famous Singapore Girls welcome passengers aboard the inaugural flight. Photo: Steve Meacham

Three couples are travelling with babies, and there’s another group wearing identical black T-shirts with a slogan on the back celebrating that they’re passengers on the world’s longest flight. Another Singapore resident I’d met at check-in is a similar aviation anorak, but not a member of the club.

He’s loves inaugural flights and flies as many of them as he can. “How long will be you be spending in the US?” I ask. “Four hours,” he says cheerfully. “I’m on the first SQ21 back to Singapore tomorrow.”

Premium economy seats on board the A350-900ULR.

The fixed console means no spreading out to lie down on vacant seats. Photo: Supplied

“Why put yourself through the torment of back-to-back ULR flights?” “I just enjoy flying. I couldn’t do it if I was in the aviation industry, but I love being part of something like this.”

11.57PM: We take off on time (as if there was ever going to be any doubt!) and there’s spontaneous clapping as we soar above Singapore.

Singapore Airlines’ first non-stop flight to New York was in a new Airbus A350-900 ULR.

My seat, 35G, is on the port side of the middle four-seat block and there’s no one sitting next to me. Instantly I realise one of the drawbacks of the 10-centimetre premium economy console between seats. It doesn’t rise up, so there’s no stretching over into the neighbouring seat later in the flight.

12.05AM: I’m not usually one for monitoring the flight information, but since this is a historic trip I take particular note of the anticipated details. The projected route should take 18 hours 15 mins to fly the more than 16,000 kilometres. We’ll fly over parts of south-east Asia, China, Japan, the Bering Strait, Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland and the Great Lakes.

Halfway there. Passengers relax in the premium economy cabin. Photo: Steve Meacham

Since we’re ultimately headed for Manhattan, I listen to the orchestral version of Bernstein’s West Side Story by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra through the airline’s excellent (and very comfortable) headphones. 12.30AM: We’re served a plastic glass of champagne (surely SIA could afford glassware on a ULR flight?), a packet of nuts and the “improved” eyeshades (which you could buy in a £2 shop).

1AM: Dinner is served. The three choices in premium economy are: baked fish fillet with dill and caper sauce with vegetables and mashed potato; Oriental chicken rice with black mushrooms, chinese greens and fragrant rice; or roasted cauliflower steak with Tahini sauce, cherry tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and pumpkin.

The writer tries out one of the solo premium economy seats at the rear of the aircraft. Photo: Supplied

I opt for the latter, which turns out to be surprisingly filling. Is the food any healthier than usual, given Canyon Ranch’s involvement?

It’s hard to say. But I’ve definitely had tastier meals in premium economy. I skip dessert and coffee, given the time of night, and fall asleep, noting shortly beforehand that we’ve travelled 831 kilometres and are now flying at 929km/h at an altitude of 10,668 metres.

3.30AM: I wake and briefly try watching the latest film version of Chekov’s The Seagull. Stupid choice. I’m asleep before the film titles.

A commemorative certificate provided to passengers. Photo: Supplied

For the next few hours, I drift in and out of sleep as most of us do on planes.

I can’t fault the seat: the reclining angle (with calf rest), leg room and wrap-around headrests are comfortable. The air and noise quality is also noticeably superior. All three babies are sound asleep and there appear to be no snorers (at least when I’m awake).

6.45AM (Or thereabouts, I forget to check the time): I’m woken by the fasten your seat belts alarm and a particularly prolonged spell of turbulence. Turning on the flight map, I’m amazed to find we’re over the Kuria Trench. No, I’d never heard of it either, but our flight path says we’re slightly to the north of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island.

Members of the First to Fly Club, a group of aviation enthusiasts who meet for inaugural flights around the world. Photo: AP

As we head north over the remote Pacific there are far fewer cities to mark our progress, so the points of interest become ocean features known mostly only to geographers and marine scientists.

Even the occasional city worth a mention sounds exotic. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, for example, on our port side, sounds as if it has come out of a Tolstoy novel. By now we’ve travelled 6633 kilometres, helped by a tailwind that is now 155km/h.

The air temperature outside is minus 59 degrees, but I’m perplexed by the difference between our air speed (894km/h) and ground speed (1059km/h). Note to self: check why they’re two separate things when you’re back on ground level.

The Airbus A350-900ULR has a maximum range of about 17,900 kilometres. Photo: Airbus

9AM: The crew serve the mid-flight snack. It’s a pizza slice, not quite as healthy as I’d expected.

This is roughly the halfway mark and we’ve travelled 8276 kilometres. The outside temperature is minus 55 degrees. The flight map shows intriguing features I’ve never heard of: Detroit Seamount, Brewer’s Ridge, Emperor Trough, the Aleutian Trench.

And two of the babies are awake. The younger one (four months old) is crying, and another (six months old) is happily exercising in the aisle supported by his exhausted mother. 9.30AM Now awake, I’m prompted to exercise myself.

The galley at the rear of premium economy seems to have been commandeered by the black T-shirted guys, who turn out to be very friendly. They’re members of the First to Fly Club, a bunch of aviation enthusiasts set up 11 years ago who converse mainly on Facebook and generally meet only for inaugural flights. They’re a friendly multinational mob with about 20 members from countries as varied as Ireland and Australia, Germany and Singapore.

And they’re happy to share their opinions about airlines, aircraft and long-distance air routes. SIA is up there with their favourite carriers, they say (though they usually travel economy and have found SQ22 particularly expensive because of its absence of that class). They all agree the Airbus A380 is their favourite plane to travel in as a customer, while admitting crew they’ve met prefer working in Boeings (Why? “More galley space”).

They also explain why we seem to have experienced so many bouts of turbulence on this flight. To conserve fuel, the pilots are trying to maximise the tailwinds. When the tailwinds get too strong, the aircraft begins to shake – at which point the flight crew might direct the plane higher or lower.

It seems simple when explained. 10AM: Back in my seat, I watch The Catcher Was A Spy, based on a real-life story about a baseball player for the Boston Redsox who was sent by the forerunner of the CIA to hunt Hitler’s leading nuclear scientist. It’s gripping enough to keep me awake.

By the time it ends, we’re above Sarah Palin country, somewhere near Anchorage – but hardly anchored. 12.05PM: Having fallen asleep listening to David Bowie’s greatest hits, I take more exercise to the rear galley. The First to Fly mob are still there, but an Indian couple have joined them, with their 14-month-old baby.

They’ve worked in Singapore for the past few years but are now relocating to Philadelphia because he has a new job. Why take such a long flight with a young child, I ask? Because one long torment is better than two shorter ones, the mother replies.

2PM: After another unsuccessful attempt at watching a movie (Colin Firth in The Mercy), I awake to find we’re over northern Canada, with a mere three hours 29 mins to go. We’ve just passed Yellowknife and are heading towards Thompson. 3PM: The cabin lights go on and breakfast is served.

In premium economy this means: egg noodles with Chinese barbecue pork and vegetables: farmer’s egg casserole with chicken sausage, tomato and broccoli; or apple pancakes with maples syrup. The noodles are delicious. 4PM: We’re heading to the Great Lakes, and will cross the Canadian border with the US somewhere near Niagara Falls.

Most of the cabin is awake now, but in a semi-comatose state. The babies, naturally, are getting more restive at being kept confined. 4.45PM: The flight map shows we’re getting ever closer to Newark Liberty International, and that’s confirmed about 20 minutes later when Captain Leong comes back over the tannoy to say that we’ll be landing ahead of schedule and we’ll be starting our descent soon.

The weather, he says, is overcast with a current temperature in Newark of 18 degrees. Soon afterwards, he adds, “This has been a very auspicious flight for Singapore Airlines … cabin crew please prepare for landing.” 5.29AM (New York time) TOUCHDOWN! Frankly, it’s on the bumpy side, but it gets a round of applause anyway,

For the record, the actual flight time was 17 hours 52 mins – almost half-an-hour ahead of schedule. Our maximum airspeed was 930km/h. Our highest altitude?

12,500 metre. The coldest outdoor temperature en route was minus 58 degrees. Significantly, the tailwinds had varied between a low of 45km/h and a high of 278km/h – though we’d also faced a maximum head wind of 45km/h.

Now we face the part that really requires patience and fortitude: braving US Immigration at 6 on a Friday morning, then rush hour traffic into Manhattan.

VERDICT: IS THE NON-STOP FLIGHT WORTH THE TIME GAINED?

I asked the mother of the six-month-old boy if she’d ever attempt such a flight again with a baby. She groaned and said, “We have to. We’ve booked to go back non-stop on the way home in three weeks.”

But I saw her hand her son to her father-in-law who was waiting for them at the exit lounge – and any travails of the flight seemed wiped away. The Singaporean aviation nut I’d met during check-in (who seemed to have slept through most of the SQ22 flight) was eager to join the queue to board SQ21. The rest of us?

Ask us in a few days when we’ve recovered.

The world’s longest flights

  1. Singapore-Newark (New York) 16,700km
  2. Doha-Auckland, Qatar Airways, 14,529km
  3. London-Perth, Qantas, 14,496km (Read Traveller’s flight review[1])
  4. Dubai-Auckland, Emirates, 14,200km
  5. Los Angeles-Singapore, United Airlines, 14,113km
  6. Houston-Sydney, United Airlines, 13,833km
  7. Sydney-Dallas, Qantas, 13,804km
  8. San Francisco-Singapore, United Airlines & Singapore Airlines, 13,592km
  9. Atlanta-Johannesburg, Delta, 13,581km
  10. Abu Dhabi-Los Angeles, Etihad, 13,502km

TRIP NOTES

FLY Singapore Airlines SQ22 and SQ21 non-stop flights from Singapore to Newark Liberty International and return will fly three times weekly, departing Singapore on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. See singaporeair.com[2]

Steve Meacham was a guest of Singapore Airlines.

See also: Why only seven of the world’s longest-range airliner will be built[3]

See also: The future of non-stop flights: Five destinations we want direct flights to[4]

Oct 15 2018

References

  1. ^ Read Traveller’s flight review (www.traveller.com.au)
  2. ^ singaporeair.com (urldefense.proofpoint.com)
  3. ^ Why only seven of the world’s longest-range airliner will be built (www.traveller.com.au)
  4. ^ The future of non-stop flights: Five destinations we want direct flights to (www.traveller.com.au)

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