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Long Haul Flights

Air India boeing 787-8 dreamliner

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Getting to far flung parts of the world has been a challenge to mankind for as long as history stretches back. Knowledge of riches and resources beyond what can be found locally has driven us to find new ways and routes to far distant corners of the planet. What virtually anyone can achieve on today’s long haul flights in a matter of hours would have taken months, if not years in the not so very distant past.

Whether it was the Vikings setting off for lands unknown, the Chinese doing the same, or the Portuguese circumnavigating the Earth. We have always been driven to new horizons by the prospect of the exotic worlds that lie beyond and how they could enrich our lives.

We still live by those same principles. Instead, however, of intrepid explorers setting off for journeys that may take them from their homes for years at a time, or forever, in many cases. We have business travellers completing those same journeys in a matter of hours and making trade deals. We have holiday makers making those same journeys to find the sun, or a great shopping deal not available at home.

Those journeys are now so common as to seem mundane to many. While travelling over routes that were once only for the brave and those willing to risk life and limb, we now quibble over the quality of food, the entertainment system or how much leg room we have. How quickly we adapt.

Today we are seeing records tumble every few weeks as airlines propose and begin ever longer “non-stop” routes. These are made possible by the latest long range airliners, such as the Airbus A350, the Boeing 787,  Airbus A380 and the Boeing 777. Emirates launched their super long range route of Dubai to Auckland, initially with the Airbus A380 but now with the Boeing 777-200LR (LR=Long Range), a distance of 14,200 kilometres. That is around 16 hours, depending on the wind.

The Emirates flight is impressive but that record is set to tumble as Qatar Airways are about to launch a Doha to Auckland non-stop flight which is 300 odd kilometres longer than the Emirates flight. Also announced are United Airlines non-stop flights from San Francisco to Singapore, Singapore Airlines flights from Singapore to Los Angeles.

So how did we get around the world before the advent of today’s modern airliners?

The simple fact was, that travel was for the rich in most cases. Yes, there was the opportunity to travel relatively cheaply by ship if you travelled in the lowest class. This kind of travel was usually once in a lifetime as you emigrated from one country to another. Long distance aviation was another story.

The difficulty for early international travel was to create an aircraft that could carry a usable payload for a long enough range. There has always been the trade-off between carrying enough fuel to reach the destination versus carrying enough payload (passengers) to make the trip profitable for the airline.

Flying Boats

During the 1930s on both sides of the Atlantic, aircraft makers like Boeing and Short Brothers

Boeing 314 Clipper

decided that the future of long-range passenger air travel lay with the flying boat. These large chunky machines were generally powered by four propellers affixed to a huge wing atop the fuselage. Inside the accommodations were laid out as if the travellers were on a first class sea journey.  Cabins could be set up for seating during the day-time, and as sleepers for night-time. There were even dining rooms so meals could be taken in a civilised fashion.

Little wonder that a trip from the UK to Australia would cost as much as an average annual salary. The cabin may have been first class, but it was quite an adventure never the less. One of the reasons for choosing to land and take off from water was the ability to fly to places, or via places, where no adequate runway was prepared. These lumbering behemoths may have been able to lift a luxurious cabin and it’s occupants into the sky, however, their range was severely limited by today’s standards. At little better than 1,000 kilometres, they had to hop their way across the globe which made for very long journey times. For example a trip from Sydney to Singapore which today takes between 7 and 8 hours, involved a journey time of four full days with three overnight stop-overs. This was not too dissimilar to travelling by ship where you got to see some of the world on your way.

Land Based Propeller Airliners

War always brings advances in technology and for aviation this was certainly the case. A new generation of land-based propeller airliners emerged making use of advances in engine reliability as well as many more airfield that were now available.

War always brings advances in technology and for aviation this was certainly the case. A new generation of land-based propeller airliners emerged making use of advances in engine reliability as well as many more airfield that were now available.

These airliners started to resemble what we see today as far as cabin layout is concerned. Gone was the cavernous and opulent interior of the flying boat to be replaced by a more practical cabin seating both economy and first class passengers in most cases. Airliners of this age were more streamlined and were capable of higher speeds than the lumbering flying boats.

A preserved Super Constellation “Connie” come in to land. The long nose-wheel and curved fuselage was designed to keep the longer propeller blades clear of the ground, whilst the triple lower tail enabled it to still be stored in the standard hangars of the day.

Perhaps the pinnacle airliner of this age was the Lockheed Super Constellation, a very sleek aircraft almost resembling a dolphin in shape. With a cruising speed of 295 knots (547 KPH) she had a maximum range of 4,700 Nautical Miles (8,700 Kilometres). For the princely sum of around 2.5 times the average annual salary, one could travel from Sydney to London in no less than 64 hours. The journey would involve 8 stops, such as; Darwin, Singapore, Calcutta, Karachi, Cairo, and Tripoli. The journey, lasting 3 days, would involve overnight stops in Singapore and Cairo.

Engine reliability was still an issue and it was not uncommon for delayed propeller airline to arrive with only 3 or its 4 engines running.

In addition, these aircraft were all susceptible to weather conditions. The Super Constellation had a service ceiling of 24,000 feet which means it was not able to climb above weather as we expect today’s jets to do. This could lead to delays as pilots awaited weather systems to pass over, manoeuvring around them if they were already airborne

A New Sound in the Sky

The late 1950s saw the introduction of the Jet Airliner age. Aircraft like the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC8, each with four jet engines mounted beneath their swept back wings, started to be the mainstay of intercontinental travel. With a much higher speed than the propeller  airliners, these jets dramatically cut down travel times. The Sydney to London trip could be done in half the time at around 30 hours.

The jet airliner age brought faster speeds as well as the ability to fly above most of the weather. This QANTAS Boeing 707 sported the V Jet insignia were the V stands for vanna, the Latin for fan. It was powered by the newer generation fan jets.

The problem of range, was still there though. These jet flights, while being faster, still required multiple stopovers along the way to refuel. The Sydney to London route would require 5 to 6 stops along the way.

Enter the Jumbo

In 1969 passenger aviation changed dramatically. Boeing launched their most audacious design yet, the Boeing 747. This aircraft, dubbed, the Jumbo Jet enable several hundred passengers to be carried all on one aircraft. One result was a drop in the cost of flying which brought it within reach of the common person.

Pan Am Boeing 747 May 1985. Pan Am was the driving force behind the development of the Boeing 747.

Whilst the size and carrying ability of the 747 was impressive, one of the great features that attracted airlines was its range ability and speed. It could fly further and faster than the DC8 and 707 at a cheaper seat / mile cost. This opened up the ability for intercontinental airlines to offer faster and cheaper journey times to far away destinations. If we go back to our Sydney to London route, the early 747s reduced the stopovers to 2 which were typically Singapore and somewhere in the Persian Gulf like Bahrain. The journey time was now in the low 20 hours.

There was even a shorter version of the 747, 747SP (Special Performance)  which had an increased ranged due to the reduced weight. This was requested by Pan Am and Iran Air so that they could service some of their longer non-stop routes such as New York to the Middle East and Tehran.

It’s Twins!

Jet engine technology has now reached a point of reliability where a shut down during flight is almost unheard of. An aviation standard called ETOPS (Extended Operations or Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim) governs the certification of twin jet airliners to fly long distances over water or remote territory. These certifications have been gradually granted to the large twin jets we see in our skies today.

It took a while to gain acceptance that twin jets could be used on long over water intercontinental routes. Airbus had an each way bet with their A330 and A340 models. They are essentially the same airframe, but one has four engines and one has two. Their adage was, “four engines for long haul”. The A340 proved popular at first and boasted a long range model that flew some of the longest routes in the world. It was quipped that it was a flying tanker with a few passengers along for the ride.

Once ETOPS approval was given to the large twin-jets such as the; Airbus A330, Boeing 777 and more recently the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350, the economics of the four-engined airliner just didn’t stack up anymore.


Today it seems to be the age of the twin-engined airliner which is capable of meeting and surpassing the performance, reliability and economics of all previous airliners. What used to take 6 weeks by ship, 4 days by flying boat or 3 days by Super Constellation is now possible in around 17 hours.

Airbus A350 XWB is the new high tech twin jet airliner from Airbus.

When we expect to be able to go and explore any part of the world in the few weeks holiday we are allocated, or go and close a business deal on the other side of the world, this is a huge step forward.

On the other side of the coin, one has to wonder what is lost when you no longer stop along the way. Have we lost the adventure that makes travel exciting? Will we no longer look forward to the journey itself as we complain about the food and watch the same shows we watch in our own living room?

It seems long haul flights have become as exciting as a trip to the mall.

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