Ask the pilot

From Hong Kong to London, the long way around. The world gets smaller, again.

Published November 18, 2005 11:30AM (EST)

On Nov. 10, for the first time in a while, an airplane made news for reasons other than crashing.

That plane was a Boeing 777-200LR Worldliner, the newest variant of Boeing's highly successful twin-engine wide body. The LR, if it doesn't jump out at you, is short for "long range." Living up to its moniker, a prototype Worldliner, carrying eight crew, 35 guests and 54,000 gallons of jet fuel, completed a remarkable 22-hour and 43-minute flight from Hong Kong to London. The 11,664-nautical-mile trip marks an all-time world record for distance traveled nonstop by a commercial jetliner. The folks from Guinness were on hand at the arrival ceremony for official certification.

This might seem confusing when you consider that Hong Kong-to-London nonstops are nothing new. Daily flights by British Airways and Cathay Pacific connect the two cities in a little more than 12 hours. The difference is in the flight path. A normal HKG-LHR routing, which is to say the shortest distance between the two, goes northwesterly, up through China, Kazakhstan and Russia. (Or, to quote the Associated Press' Dummies version: "Hong Kong-London flights usually fly over Russia.") Captained by Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann, a Boeing flight test pilot since 1985, the Worldliner went the long way -- not only eastbound but due east, avoiding any Great Circle shortcuts at higher latitudes. From Hong Kong, the jet crossed the northern Pacific, eventually making landfall over Los Angeles. From there it passed near Chicago and New York before traversing the Atlantic for a midafternoon arrival at London's Heathrow Airport. The plane, decked out in Boeing's spiffy blue and white house colors, touched down with more than 2,700 gallons of fuel left in its tanks.

Seven other pilots assisted Darcy-Hennemann, and no doubt she welcomed the company. Twenty-three hours aloft is prone to induce a certain circadian madness: Along the way, passengers and crew were able to witness two separate sunrises.

All very impressive, but in essence a publicity caper. Aircraft manufacturers are known to do this sort of thing now and again, setting out to break existing distance records during demo or delivery flights. Only eight years ago another 777 made media rounds after completing a 10,823-nautical-mile Seattle-Kuala Lumpur delivery flight for Malaysia Airlines. (Quibblers beware: With respect to these records, published distances between cities is not necessarily the same as mileage actually flown.) In 1993, an Airbus A340 took off from the Paris Air Show and flew 10,307 miles to Auckland, New Zealand. Back in 1976, a South African Airways 747SP made history on an 8,800-mile delivery run from Seattle to Cape Town, not surpassed until 1989, when the first 747-400 built for Qantas pulled off a slightly longer London-Sydney haul (more on that in a moment).

In nautical mileage, the Worldliner's accomplishment represents approximately half of the globe's circumference. Measured at its equatorial waist, planet Earth records 21,600 miles around. Thus, virtually any two commercial air markets in the world should now be linkable in a single fell swoop.

To wit: "Almost every major city pair on earth will be connectable with this astoundingly long-legged aircraft." That's a line from an old Ask the Pilot column, and appears in my book as well. "This amazing airplane will connect virtually any two cities in the world with nonstop service," echoed Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Boeing's commercial airplane division, at the plane's rollout party last February.

Long-haul stars like the 747-400 and A340 have been shrinking the world for decades now. Just how many city pairs, exactly, are left to claim?

The grail route, at 9,188 nautical miles, is probably London-Sydney. Don't be surprised to see the Worldliner, scheduled to enter service with Pakistan International Airlines later this winter, doing some predelivery, nonstop showboating on this route, possibly joined by its chief rival, the Airbus A340-500. Range specs for the four-engined Airbus, which entered service earlier this year with Emirates, run neck and neck with the Worldliner. For Boeing, elimination of a refueling stop along the old "Kangaroo Route" would be a major marketing coup. Already Qantas is studying the feasibility of buying and deploying 777s on England-Australia nonstops in an all-business-class configuration.

While Boeing and the airlines hash things out, bear in mind that just because a plane is able to complete a promotional stunt of more than 11,000 miles doesn't mean it can actually make such flights in scheduled commercial service. Boeing's listed data for the Worldliner show that with a maximum payload, its reach will be a more modest 9,400 miles. You also have EROPS (extended range operations) restrictions to deal with, local airspace constraints, seasonal weather variations and so on, all affecting range on a route-by-route, indeed flight-by-flight basis. London-Sydney and Sydney-London are, in a way, two very different journeys. The eastbound leg out of England is within the capabilities of existing aircraft like the A340-500. Consistent headwinds, on the other hand, make the westbound trip more challenging. In other words, it's somewhat foolish to measure an aircraft's range by a value of fixed mileage, as flight times along published routes can vary markedly. Endurance is the true determining factor.

Using a 747-400, Qantas once tinkered with the elusive Sydney-London route, and discovered it could, under optimum and fairly unpredictable conditions, make the run without having to pit-stop in Singapore or Bangkok or Bahrain. But this was so pushing the envelope that it proved a real teeth chatterer for the carrier's crews and dispatchers, who were forced to juggle the logistics of fuel, weather and diversion planning with utmost attention and accuracy. Not to mention its being untenable for advertising: "Qantas to London. Nonstop. Sometimes."

Whether or not it can close the "Kangaroo" gap, the Worldliner's capabilities are nonetheless astounding, clearing the way for pairings such as New York-Singapore at full-passenger loads and with revenue cargo down below. Many of today's longest hauls are forced to submit to payload limitations on days when headwinds are howling or the temperature soars. (Flying standby, I was once left stranded at the airport in Hong Kong while United's flight 896 to Chicago took off without me, weight restricted in deference to a temperamental jet stream.)

So, with all of this fine print in mind, the hoopla surrounding Boeing's recent aerothon doesn't terribly impress me (much as I'd have loved one of those onboard press seats the plane maker gave away for the event). I'm much more fascinated by the distance records held by active, scheduled flights. Here's a rundown of the lengthiest trips presently for sale, gauged in nautical miles:

1. New York-Singapore: 8,288 (Singapore Airlines)
2. Los Angeles-Singapore: 7,621 (Singapore Airlines)
3. New York-Bangkok: 7,525 (Thai Airways)
4. New York-Hong Kong: 7,014 (Cathay Pacific, Continental)
5. Los Angeles-Melbourne: 6,883 (Qantas)
6. Toronto-Hong Kong: 6,787 (Air Canada)
7. Chicago-Hong Kong: 6,773 (United Airlines)
8. Vancouver-Sydney: 6,741 (Air Canada)
9. Los Angeles-Sydney: 6,507 (United, Qantas)
10. Chicago-Delhi: 6,503 (American)

Note to nitpickers: Mileage tallies were computed with Karl Swartz's inimitable Great Circle Mapper, and needless to say routes are frequently swapped, dropped and restarted with short notice. Just off the list is Continental's Newark-Delhi, inaugurated earlier this month.

Nos. 1 and 2 were covered here previously and are new within the past two years. Thai Airways' JFK-Bangkok debuted last summer. Sadly absent from the list is South African Airways' JFK-Johannesburg nonstop, now discontinued. This route -- at 6,925 it would've placed fifth in the above list -- began in the 1970s with the advent of the 747SP, a short-bodied variant of the famous Boeing jumbo designed for what was then an ultra-long haul. Later, 747-400s were used. South African's flights are now one stoppers via Dakar, Senegal, using an A340.

The venerable JFK-Johannesburg was the only top tenner that I've experienced myself, on the way to Botswana in 2000. Our 747 that day was ZS-SAV, the Durban. Another book excerpt: "Total flying time was 14 hours and 46 minutes. I'm able to attest that it was exactly 14 hours and 46 minutes thanks to a digital timer bolted to the bulkhead, triggered by retraction of the landing gear to provide a minute-by-minute update. Watching the hours tick by seemed a torturous proposition until a certain passenger was bold enough to tape a piece of paper over the clock."

On the drawing board, as we already know, is London-Sydney. There's also the chance for a New York-Sydney route (8,646), though passenger volumes may be too low to support such a service. That two cities are technologically connectable means little to an airline unless there is an exploitable market to justify connecting them. London-Sydney is not the longest possible flight, but it may be the longest possible flight guaranteed to provide a steady supply of passengers. More formidable pairings are at least conceivable, marketplace depending. The most intriguing of these are São Paulo-Tokyo (9,984), Auckland-London (9,884) and Buenos Aires-Tokyo (9,910). Shattering the 10,000-nautical-mile frontier -- Buenos Aires-Seoul, anyone? -- remains, let's just say, a long shot.

Our ability to cover vast distances without refueling makes mincemeat of old notions of what constitutes short/medium/long-haul operations. Quaint seem the days when 707s would put down for fuel in Shannon, Ireland, or in Gander, Newfoundland, just to reach Europe from parts of North America and Pan Am's JFK-Tokyo flight sounded almost unbelievable. "Long haul" once meant New York-Paris. There are no official definitions, but I'll give you an "Ask the Pilot" parsing of en route tedium:

1. Minihaul: Any flight up to two hours' duration. Examples: Chicago-Cleveland, Orlando-Atlanta, Madrid-Barcelona

2. Short haul: Any flight between two and five hours' duration. Examples: New York-Miami, Denver-Boston, Tokyo-Seoul

3. Medium haul: Any flight between five and nine hours' duration. Examples: New York-London, Tokyo-Bangkok, London-Cairo

4. Long haul: Any flight between nine and 14 hours' duration. Examples: New York-Tokyo, London-Johannesburg, Paris-Hong Kong

5. Ultra-long haul, aka megahaul: Any flight over 14 hours' duration. Examples: New York-Singapore, New York-Hong Kong, New York-Boston (during weather delays).

If you're seated in category 1, chances are your ears are ringing and your knees are getting bruised. That's because you're wedged into a turboprop or a regional jet. If you're seated in categories 4 or 5, pray that you're in first or business class aboard a non-U.S. carrier.

To me, nothing better personifies the beauty of air travel than the advancement of long-range flying -- the idea, previously inconceivable, that distant, exotic continents are but a single, simple journey away. And for you, the consumer? A look on Travelocity shows that a super-saver from Singapore Airlines, on the longest flight in the world, is selling for as little as $815 round trip. To put it another way, that's about five cents a mile.

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Missed Approaches

Re: airplanes and opera

Dear Patrick Smith: Marc Blitzstein was hardly a "little known" composer. He was a major figure in musical and theater circles in the 1940s and 1950s. He was the person who brought the English translation of "The Threepenny Opera" to the U.S. in 1954, which starred Lotte Lenya, for example. He also worked with Orson Welles and John Houseman on "Cradle Will Rock," which was famous for being prevented from opening by the NYPD in 1937 and gave birth to Welles' Mercury Theatre.

-- Mike Friedman

Re: MGM Grand Air foiled by recession?

Dear Patrick Smith: You state "eventually MGM Grand Air fell victim to the mid-'90s recession." Actually, except for the recession of 1991, the '90s saw consistent economic growth. The lowest rate of real GDP growth during the Clinton administration was 2.5 percent in 1995. Yes, that was slower than the previous year's 4 percent growth, but a recession is when GDP actually declines, such as 1991. According to Wikipedia, MGM Grand Air was unprofitable by 1994, a year of healthy economic growth.

-- Michael Hagmeier

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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