LONDON: When the tired passengers climbed off the inaugural Qantas direct flight from Australia to London on Sunday (Mar 25), 17 hours in the air had earned them one distinction.
Their Boeing 787 had flown further than a Gulfstream G650, the fanciest of private jets, can reach.
Among the privileges of owning a private jet is the freedom to bypass large airport hubs and fly directly to your destination.
For this brief period in history, before the aviation elite obtain bigger engines for their Cessnas and Gulfstreams, the economy class has the ultra-long distance edge.
So it was puzzling to see the Qantas passengers being treated as if they were climbing Everest or travelling to the moon, needing to be served special hot chocolate on board to boost their melatonin levels and lull them to sleep.
Yes, it is uncomfortable to be stuck in an economy seat for hours, but have you hung around an airport recently? It is preferable to get the journey over with as soon as possible.
PEOPLE WOULD RATHER FLY WITHOUT A STOP-OVER
Ultra-long distance trips such as Perth to London, or Singapore Airlines’ planned 19-hour flight from Singapore to New York on an Airbus A350-900, may turn out to be failures, but I doubt it.
History teaches us that it is airlines which prefer to route passengers through airport hubs, not the passengers themselves. If the choices are similarly priced, the latter would travel point to point every time.
This was the original allure of human flight and futurists who attempt to disrupt the industry tend to favour air taxis. “It travels in a straight line and it will never have to stop at a traffic light,” marvels one executive about the autonomous electric aircraft being tested in New Zealand by Kitty Hawk, a start-up backed by Larry Page, co-founder of Google. Nor will it have to detour through Schiphol or Dubai.
AVIATION COMPANIES HAVE TAKEN BETS
There are few examples of incumbents making such contrasting bets on the future as Airbus’s investment in the double-decker A380 while Boeing developed the 787. The first was a wager on airlines continuing to channel passengers through their favoured hubs in large aircraft; the other on direct flights between cities.
The outcome was clear: Airbus faced weak demand for its A380 and has cut production.
The industry’s difficulty is that flying commercially is not much fun, wherever you are sitting.
I have flown first class on a couple of legs and it was a lot better than being in the back, but no matter how much lobster, champagne and hot chocolate you are served, it is inferior to being in an armchair at home.
You may be reclining in a flat bed or have your knees crammed against a seat back, but the essence of commercial flights is ineluctable. Everyone is packed into a long, cramped tube, drying out at the air pressure equivalent of 8,000 feet, and there is no escape.
The 787’s appeal is that it improves conditions for everybody, not just those in front. It has lower cabin air pressure, better lighting and larger windows.
Having regrouped from its A380 mistake, Airbus has followed Boeing’s lead with the new A350, which is smaller than the A380 and has a composite fuselage that permits moister air.
RISE OF THE LOW-COST CARRIERS
The wonder is that airlines fought against the obvious for so long. Instead of point-to-point flying, the first two decades of US air transport following the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act were dominated by the legacy airlines’ attachment to hub and spoke.
Passengers routinely had to take short flights on regional jets to hubs such as Chicago O’Hare Airport, connecting through to destinations on larger aircraft.
The hub-and-spoke era was a fine example of companies adopting the approach that suited them rather than customers.
The theory was that by routing more passengers via hubs, they could reduce their costs and lower fares, thus exploiting a network effect to ward off competition. In practice, low-cost airlines such as Southwest beat them on simplicity and price.
Low-cost carriers have steadily raised their share of the market by flying point to point between cities — they now provide 30 per cent of capacity in North America and Europe.
The approach is being extended to long-distance international flights on fuel-efficient twin-engine aircraft such as the A350 and Boeing 777-200. Norwegian Air Shuttle is flying 787s across the Atlantic and defying heavy losses.
Given the choice, people save time. A study by economists at the University of Barcelona found that the introduction of non-stop connections such as Berlin to Miami and Milan to Delhi can more than double traffic.
The fact that many non-hub cities are not linked by direct flights “suggests that the interests of airlines may not be coincident with those of cities”, they tactfully note.
Ultra long haul to the far side of the earth could be a flight too far. Passengers may opt to land at hubs and stretch their legs after 10 hours before boarding another plane to their destination.
But if Boeing and Airbus keep on improving the comfort of cabins, the direction of travel is unmistakable.
It took seven stops to fly from Sydney to London on the Qantas Kangaroo route in 1947 and it may soon require no stops at all. Whatever the in-flight service, that is progress.
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