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The Joy of a 19-Hour Flight

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The good life: Singapore Airlines' business class on the Dreamliner 787-10 

Courtesy of Singapore Airlines

The good life: Singapore Airlines' business class on the Dreamliner 787-10 

So much attention is being paid to improve the ultra-long-haul experience that your time confined at 35,000 feet actually feels blissful.

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Over the years, thanks to extended stints living in Australia and Singapore, I’ve ping-ponged around the world on flights that cross the North Pole and last longer than a calendar day. It’s extreme travel, to be sure, but in an age of “flight shaming”—when we’re encouraged to take trains rather than fly to reduce our carbon footprint—I would boldly go ultra-long-haul if given the opportunity. Here’s my dirty secret: I adore a super-long flight.

A bit of background: I’m an overextended mom of two kids under the age of three with a full-time office job and required travel—all of which I love—but which doesn’t leave me much time to, you know, watch a movie. Or go to the spa. Or eat a meal not standing up. So nearly a full day of Me time? You could put me in a cardboard box with an iPad and a Netflix subscription and I’d be happy. Thankfully, that’s not what we’re talking about on the world’s longest flight: a 9,535-mile route that clocks in around 18 hours, 30 minutes (depending on flight paths and wind speed) between Newark and Singapore on Singapore Airlines. 

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Those visions you have of being trapped in a cramped seat, a stranger snoring in your face and knees banging into a germy tray table . . . for 19 hours? Replace that with images of a Bloody Mary delivered not long after takeoff; dreamy purple-blue overhead lighting; a roasted cauliflower steak with tahini garlic sauce; and a flight attendant circulating with a basket of amenities like Fabric Fresh sprays from the Laundress and an eye mask by luxury spa brand Canyon Ranch. Yes, it sounds like an advertisement for some fictional Good Place populated by 1 percenters, but it’s actually the future of modern aviation: a combination of aircraft upgrades and creative customer service to help us enjoy flying again. And not just if you can afford business class.

Not all in-flight meals are created equal, but on ultra-long-haul, airlines have gotten creative.

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This new wave of flying 18-plus hours nonstop isn’t actually that new. Singapore Airlines had a Newark-to-Singapore direct, popular with business travelers and globetrotting expats (it’s me!) until 2013, which it discontinued because it burned a lot of gas and costs were on the rise. Thanks to advancements at Boeing and Airbus, a line of ambitious new aircraft—notably the Boeing Dreamliner 787 and Airbus A350-900ULR—built of lighter composite materials have extended the fuel range up to 9,700 nmi, which means you can get from the U.S. East Coast to Southeast Asia in less time than it takes to drive from NYC to Miami. These planes aren’t just designed to be speedier and more eco-friendly; they also have the customer in mind. Cabin pressure has been reduced, to make it feel like you’re at 6,000 feet rather than 8,000 feet, and air re-circulation has been manipulated to improve cabin humidity. Windows dim to simulate night and day at the appropriate times, so you can sleep better, longer, and hopefully ward off jet lag. Admittedly, this technology hasn’t banished jet lag for good—if the five-hour nap I usually have to take on arrival is any indicator—but the changes are noticeable. 

For once, instead of feeling like an animal ushered onto Noah’s Ark every time you board a plane, flying ultra-long-haul is more like an exercise in self-care.

While much has been made of the so-called competition to have the world’s longest flight—Qantas may best Singapore Air with its London-to-Sydney nonstop on a Dreamliner, slated for 2022, with its forthcoming Chicago-Brisbane flight (April 2020) not too far behind—travelers actually win out in the (ultra) long run. For once, instead of feeling like an animal ushered onto Noah’s Ark every time you board a plane, flying ultra-long-haul is more like an exercise in self-care. Sure, some people might prefer to pace an airport during a layover, or free themselves from the confines of a capsule of human body odors, but ask those people if they’ve actually experienced these upgraded planes—and the level of hospitality these flights demand.

The Singapore Airlines flight attendants go through 15 weeks of rigorous training (to meet both safety and experience standards) and as a result, the cabin crew can seemingly intuit your wants and needs, like a waiter at a Michelin-starred restaurant. To this day, I still remember how a Singapore Airlines flight attendant swooped in to turn on my reading light as my hand started to rise toward the ceiling. How did she know? I wonder. Did she see my book out? Is she psychic? 

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The answer is attention: to the details of the passenger experience, to empathy, to improving our ability to see the world without being made to feel subhuman. Ultra-long-hauls are akin to embarking a cruise ship, where you don’t have to fret about loading and unloading your luggage, or gathering your life up in your arms every time you board and deboard. You can kick back with 1,200 hours of content to watch—even custom exercise videos to get you moving in between seasons of The Great British Bake Off—and know that you will be well cared for (or left alone if you prefer). The Washington Post argued in an op-ed that “if you’re flying coach, these flights aren’t really aimed at you.” I disagree. Fiscally, the airlines make more money by adding more business-class seats, but in my experience on Singapore Airlines, Qantas, and Air New Zealand, to name a few, the customer service on these new routes extends to row 36 and beyond. It has to. It’s what sets airlines apart, in addition to a desire to innovate, to take risks (like Qantas’s “Project Sunrise”), and god willing, help us enjoy the journey as much as the destination. 

Now, if you’re looking for me, check under the fleece blanket and noise-canceling headphones in premium economy. I’ll be on my fourth movie.

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