From here to eternity | Sunday Observer

From here to eternity

Air travel has made the world a much smaller place. Today, no place on Earth is more than 24 hours away from another, with the possible exception of Antarctica. The credit for this “shrinking of the world” should go to one invention – the airplane. A journey that took days by boat now takes only a few hours by air.

But, air travel comes with one major caveat: No, I don’t mean the knee-crunching “cattle class”, but rather the dreaded transit. This is one bugbear you have to bear if you travel say, beyond 11,000 Km. No one likes to spend hours at a strange airport with nowhere to go (most airports won’t allow transit passengers to go out, with the exception of airports such as Singapore Changi). Some transits can last as long as 12 hours, which can make a journey twice as long. There is also the possibility that your luggage can end up on a different connecting plane while you take another.

The obvious solution is to see whether you can hop on a single plane that will take you straight to Destination B from Destination A. For short flights such as Colombo-Singapore, there are plenty of direct flights available. But if you have to travel to the US from Colombo, a transit is inevitable. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers have been concerned about this “transit factor” for years, but the necessary technology to operate Ultra Long Range (ULR) flights have come on stream only recently.

The first development in this regard was the introduction of fuel efficient long range aircraft such as, Airbus A350 and Boeing 777 and 787 Dreamliner, which can fly nearly 15,000 Km without modifications. The two leading manufacturers have readied improved versions of these airplanes that are capable of going much further, in collaboration with engine makers such as, Rolls Royce, GE, Pratt and Whitney and CFM. One example is the Airbus A350-900 ULR (Ultra Long Range) that can fly over 20 hours non-stop.

Launching and operating a non-stop flight of that length is no easy task (multiple crews, available emergency airports, food supply, water supply, flight paths, extra fuel, cargo capacity – all these factors have to be considered), so airlines have to make sure that the flights could be profitable and popular. Thus the number of ultra-long flights could still be limited even if aircraft are available.

A direct flight from Australia to England has long been considered the holy grail of aviation. Old timers can still remember the days when QANTAS, the Australian airline, used to fly to London from Perth, stopping at several destinations on the way, including Colombo and Karachi.

These “Double Sunrise” flights began in 1943, at the height of the war, using the famous Catalina aircraft (some of them landed at the RAF base in Koggala).

Later, QANTAS used the much more modern four engine Liberator planes to slash the Perth-Colombo flying time (30 hours by Catalina) by more than 10 hours. Every passenger carried received a colour certificate denoting their membership of “The Secret Order of the Double Sunrise” for experiencing the sunrise twice during their more than 24-hour flight.

The Perth to Sri Lanka section of 3,580 nautical miles or 6,630 kilometres established a world record for the longest-duration scheduled airline service ever. To date, the WWII era Perth-Colombo-London service is regarded by historians as ‘the most fascinating and romantic undertaking ever performed by Qantas”. Unfortunately, QANTAS no longer flies to Colombo, though SriLankan Airlines last year began flying to Melbourne from Colombo.

Aircraft have come a long way since the Catalinas. QANTAS recently revived the Perth-London link, though now it is a direct, non-stop flight.

The nearly 17 hour flight is operated using a Boeing 878-9 Dreamliner and recently it flew at a near supersonic speed to shave one hour off the flight time. QANTAS is now eyeing a direct Sydney to London flight (17,000 Km), which would be even more appealing.

But this record for the longest flight (by scheduled flying time) will not last long as Singapore Airlines (SIA) is readying to fly to Newark (New Jersey/New York) from Singapore non-stop using an Airbus A350 from October 11 this year. The 15,000 Km distance will be covered in around 19 hours. This is not all – SIA hopes to start an even longer Singapore-Los Angeles flight, though it is not known whether it will take the Eastern or Western direction.

Both flights will also eclipse Qatar Airways’ 14,525 Km Doha to Auckland flight, which is the longest flight measured in terms of distance, though not time.

There are plenty of other very long flights that have become commonplace, such as Dallas to Sydney (QANTAS), Houston to Sydney (United), Dubai to Auckland (Emirates) and Abu Dhabi to San Francisco (Etihad). Airlines will no doubt introduce more city pairs over the next few years.

The thorn on the side here is the sheer length of these flights. I have taken quite a few of these and know how hard it is to travel for so long, especially, in economy class (SIA’s flight to New York will not have an economy class, only Premium Economy and Business).

If you are squeezed in the window seat and have to clamber over two sleeping passengers 5-6 times to use the washroom, life gets difficult at 10,000 metres (Interestingly, scientists are investigating how a passenger on a recent Perth-London flight managed to stay in the seat for 17 hours without using the toilet). Sustaining oneself on airline food for 20 hours is also not an appealing prospect. The health effects of staying in a pressurized cabin at such a high altitude for nearly a day are not known yet.

At the end of the day (literally), it all boils down to two factors: Whether speed is of the essence or whether you can afford to take a bit of time to arrive at your destination. If you are in a hurry, opt for one of the new non-stop services.

If not, it is best to break your journey somewhere convenient and rejuvenate your senses. For example, if travelling from Australia to the UK, travellers can select Colombo, Singapore or Dubai to break the journey.

But, there could yet be a third option if everything goes well – supersonic aircraft that will cut flying times and eliminate the need for transit. Huge (think Airbus A350) supersonic aircraft may not be built at all – instead there would be smaller supersonic aircraft that can whisk around 50-60 passengers to any destination around the world in just a few hours – examples: Shanghai to Los Angeles in five hours, Tokyo to San Francisco in 5.5, Sydney to Los Angeles in 6.75.

Boom Technology based in the USA is on the verge of building such a plane with the support of many industry and airline partners. This would finally enable travellers to enjoy the best of both worlds – save flying time as well as transit time.