Skift Take

As flights tip over the 17-hour mark, airlines need to be thinking about ways to raise the level of civility on these uncomfortable trips.

Series: On Experience

On Experience

Colin Nagy is a marketing strategist and writes on customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond.

You can read all of his writing here.

A new twist, ultra-long-haul flights, such as Qantas’ maiden 17-hour flight from Perth, Australia to London, have been dominating the headlines lately.

Ultra-long-haul flights go beyond traditionally long flights, including a 14-hour New York (JFK) to Hong Kong route, as they can push the limits into the realm of 18 hours. In addition to Perth to London, Qatar recently launched service from Auckland to Doha, and United started San Francisco to Singapore, all clocking nearly 18 hours for the one-way journey.

As frequent travelers know, even a 15-hour flight can be a killer in terms of wear and tear on the passenger. If you manage to sleep for eight hours, watch a movie, exhaust your stack of magazines and have a few meals, there’s still a bunch of time left in the flight.

These new flights are an entirely different ballgame.

The Financial Times wrote about Qatar’s inaugural flight from an economy class perspective, no less, and questioned if “it is worth almost a full day and night of confinement just to save a few hours?”

Outpacing Human Capabilities

The trend will continue into even more extreme routes: Qantas has challenged Boeing and Airbus to build a jet by 2022 that can fly fully loaded from Sydney to London without a break.

It appears we are reaching a phase where the desire for airlines to launch longer and more-profitable routes may be outpacing the human ability to handle this much time in the air.

After all, a connection can be an excellent pause, a time to re-set, stretch out, take a shower and recalibrate for the next leg. Sure, some business travelers may want to opt for these longer routes, but one questions if they will arrive in shape to actually to do the business they came to do.

While they might be moneymakers, these flights will test the limits of human endurance.

Rethinking Ultra-Long Haul

Here’s how airlines can make these ultra-long-haul flights bearable:

1. Business and first-class cabins should take a cue from Japan Air Lines its use of Airweave mattresses.

No matter how fancy your cabin looks, a shoulder poking into a reclined seat for this much time is sure to cause discomfort. A bit of softness is needed, and this is a considerable upgrade for super-long flights.

2. Travelers need some custom, pre-flight education before setting foot on the plane.

This briefing could be about everything from pre-flight hydration to stretching, and information about deep vein thrombosis and how to counter it. A co-marketing campaign with the likes of Comrades socks, compression garments that are made to address the issue, could work.

3. Surely for these types of flights, there needs to be slight tweaks to service.

In economy, Qatar continues to fly an old 777 on the Auckland to Doha route. More legroom, adjustments to meal services, and more touches such as hot towels and extra amenities to boost the level of dignity for passengers traveling on a budget would be great ideas.

4. Meal services should take into account this is an endurance event.

They can be customized to offer low-sodium options. According to the Financial Times, Qantas is studying how protein-rich ingredients in evening meals can have higher levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes sleep hormones.

5. Best-in-class aircraft can help.

The likes of the Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 should benefit all travelers, as humidity and pressure levels take away some of the dehydrating and pressure stresses that come with older metal planes.

While these flights will always be uncomfortable to some extent, these optimizations can put a bit more civility into the endurance event that is ultra-long haul.

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Tags: flights, On Experience, qantas, united airlines

Photo credit: A Qantas Airways aircraft at London's Heathrow International Airport. The airline started one of the world's longest direct flights, debuting a route between London and Perth, Australia. Max Nash / Bloomberg

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