Long Flights vs. Layovers: The Pros and Cons of Flying Nonstop

The world’s longest commercial flight — nearly 20 hours from Newark to Singapore — is taking off next month, and seasoned travelers aren’t all convinced that being on a plane for that long is best.

Long Flights vs. Layovers: The Pros and Cons of Flying Nonstop

Economy seats on Singapore Airlines’s A350-900ULR, which starts flying a 19-hour route between Newark and Singapore next month

Courtesy of Singapore Airlines

When Singapore Airlines’s 19-hour flight between Newark Liberty International and Singapore launches next month, it will not only be the world’s longest commercial flight but also the latest in what has been a steady stream of super-long-haul flights recently announced by several airlines.

Australian carrier Qantas just launched a 14-hour nonstop flight between Melbourne and San Francisco, which comes just months after the company introduced a 17-hour flight between Perth and London Heathrow in March. The airline has also reportedly placed an order for commercial aircraft that will be capable of making the 20-hour flight between London and Sydney by 2022—which would take the top spot as the longest flight if and when it does launch.

Economy seats on Qantas’s Boeing Dreamliner planes

Economy seats on Qantas’s Boeing Dreamliner planes

Courtesty of Qantas

At the start of the year, United launched an 8,596-mile, 17.5-hour flight from Houston to Sydney, which is in addition to its routes from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Singapore, comprising the three longest flights offered by a U.S. carrier.

And it isn’t just international flights that are going the distance. Earlier this month, Hawaiian Airlines announced a new, nearly 12-hour nonstop service between Boston and Honolulu, a 5,095-mile flight that will be the longest in the United States when it takes off on April 4.

Some travelers are cheering this trend, while others feel that that many hours is simply too much time to spend on a single plane.

The Benefits of Super-Long-Haul Flights

For many jet-setters, the more direct the better, even if that means spending numerous hours on a single flight.

“I will always choose a super long-haul flight instead of a layover,” said Michael Meyer, an author and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who frequently travels between the United States and Asia to give talks on his nonfiction trilogy about China. He said his biggest issue with layovers is that they increase the risk of missed flights and can cause further delays to an already very long journey.

Meyer also runs marathons, and he said the same mind-set applies to super-long-haul flights.

“Mentally divide the journey into quarters. I’ll read a book I’ve been saving for the first four or five hours, then take an Advil PM and sleep for four or five hours, then watch two movies for the next quarter, and then go back to reading,” said Meyer, adding that this approach makes it feel much more like a relaxed journey rather than an endless struggle.

Nicola Farinetti, CEO of Eataly, and a frequent long-haul traveler as well, said that regardless of the distance or duration of the flight, he always prefers to fly direct because it’s less stressful for him, and it helps him maintain his schedule.

Singapore Airlines’s super-long-haul flights take place on the ultra-long-range Airbus A350-900ULRs.

Singapore Airlines’s super-long-haul flights take place on the ultra-long-range Airbus A350-900ULRs.

Courtesy of Singapore Airlines

Why Long Hauls Aren’t for Everyone

While few would debate the convenience of a single, longer flight, there are some health concerns to consider, according to Sheryl Hill, executive director of Depart Smart, an organization that advocates for travel safety.

“Flights, in general, have health risks. Flying at high altitudes [there is] thinner oxygen, more air pressure, and less humidity,” said Hill. “You are more likely to get sick on a flight. So, building up your immune system with exercise, rest, and vitamins is a good defense.”

She recommended that long-haul travelers get their flu shots, bring their own bottled water on board, and use disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer liberally.

“We all think long direct flights are best, but they may not be best for you,” said Hill, noting that those at risk for blood clots or with certain medical conditions should perhaps consider shorter flight options instead.

Others admitted that where they are sitting on the plane makes a big difference as to whether they can withstand a marathon in-flight experience.

“I will personally only undertake a super-long-haul if I am in the front of the plane where it is possible to stretch and walk about,” said George Morgan-Grenville, the founder and CEO of luxury travel company Red Savannah, who was referring to traveling either business or first class. When traveling a longer distance in economy, Morgan-Grenville said he prefers to break up the trip, spend a night on the ground, exercise properly, and then continue on.

Sangeeta Sadarangani, founder and CEO of London-based Crossing Travel, who has family, clients, and employees based all around the world and frequently travels long distances herself, said she will almost always choose a flight with a stopover. According to Sadarangani, this gives her a break so that she can walk around and stretch her legs, make calls and check work emails, and have a healthier meal and use a nicer restroom than is available on board.

Carriers Working to Increase Comfort

While some flyers may never take to the idea of seemingly interminable flights, Singapore Airlines and other long-haul carriers are making numerous efforts—from jetlag-reducing lighting to more nutritious food being served on board—to ensure that these longer jaunts are as comfortable as can be.

Singapore Airlines’s 9,000-mile flight between Newark and Singapore will take place on the ultra-long-range Airbus A350-900ULR. (Singapore Airlines actually offered the Singapore-Newark route until 2013, when service was suspended after the aircraft it used at the time, A340-500s, were sold back to Airbus.)

The A350-900s, a version of which already fly Singapore Airlines’s existing San Francisco–Singapore route, are outfitted with features such as higher ceilings, larger windows, an extra-wide body, and lighting designed to help reduce jetlag. The interior cabins are pressurized to a lower altitude (6,000 feet versus 8,000 feet), and an airflow management system that replaces cabin air every two minutes provides improved air quality in these aircraft, according to the carrier.

Singapore Airlines has partnered with wellness brand Canyon Ranch to develop nutritional meals for its long-haul flights.

Singapore Airlines has partnered with wellness brand Canyon Ranch to develop nutritional meals for its long-haul flights.

Courtesy of Canyon Ranch

Last month, Singapore Airlines also partnered with wellness brand Canyon Ranch to develop nutrition- and hydration-focused menus, as well as guided stretching exercises that passengers can access via their seatback entertainment systems, which will be available on the carrier’s long-haul flights.

The super-long-haul flights offered by United and Qantas are carried out by Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, aircraft that feature bigger windows and enhanced ventilation systems; they also have cabins pressurized to a lower altitude.

Love ’em or hate ’em, there is a good chance we will continue to see a few more super-long-haul flights launch in the near future, not least because of advancements in aircraft technology that are making these epic journeys possible.

“The real focus of these flights is a combination of some saving in flight time and the convenience,” said John Grant, partner with aviation consulting group MIDAS Aviation, explaining why we have seen an uptick in these long-haul flights launching.

But, he added, “Those 14-hour-plus sector lengths are stretching both passengers’ service requirements and the creativity of airlines’ in-flight services.”

Add to that the fact that oil prices are on the rise and that the commercial success of these flights has yet to be seen, and, said Grant, the long-term future of these journeys remains up in the air.

Correction: This post was updated on Oct. 11, 2018, with the most recent and accurate information about Singapore Airlines’s 9,000-mile flight between Newark and Singapore and its A350-900 aircraft.

>> Next: Everything You’ve Always Wondered About Flying, Answered

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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