Overhead: the World’s Longest Airline Flight

Singapore Airlines SQ21 over Connecticut
Singapore Airlines Flight #21 (SQ21) at 16,500 feet (5,030 m) flying 465 (750 kph) mph over Stamford, Connecticut, 11 minutes into its 18-hour flight from New York City’s Newark International Airport to Singapore’s Changi International Airport, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. Photographed from sea level, using a Sony A77 camera equipped with a Rokkor f/8 500mm with a 1.5X extender, 125th of a second shutter speed at aperature priority, ISO 800.

[If the color photo that heads this post doesn’t appear on you smartphone, click here to view it.]

Each morning at approximately 10:15 a.m. New York time (15:15 UTC), I can gaze upwards from my home a watch a jet airliner pass three miles over me and heading northeast. While that’s not unusual because I live 30 miles (48 kilometers), 40 miles (63 km), and 50 miles (96 km) respectively from the New York City area’s LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy (JFK), and Newark Liberty airports, this daily airliner is special. It’s approximately six minutes into the world’s longest non-stop airliner flight.

Even without binoculars, I can see the stylized gold dragon against a blue background on the tail of this mostly otherwise white aircraft: a new, twin-engine Airbus a350-900 ULR (Ultra Long Range) model. It’s Singapore Airlines’ legendary Flight SQ21 and will be aloft some 18-hour before it completes its 9,534 mile non-stop flight from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). Singapore Airlines flew this route, setting the all-time record for a scheduled jet airline flight, from 2004 to 2013, then relaunched SQ21 this past October. (By the way, Cable News Network covered the relaunch of the route as if no airliner had ever flown that far before. Didn’t anybody at CNN know that Singapore Airlines had flown it from 2004 to 2013?)

The earlier version of SQ21 used a long-range version of the four-engine Airbus a340 aircraft and carried a mix of coach and business class passengers. However, the route perennially lost money because these a350s had to be fitted with fewer than normal seats in coach due to the extra weight of the fuel needed to fly that long. By 2010, Singapore Airways had converted the a350s on this route to carry only 100 business class seats.  Nonetheless, that wasn’t economical.

The airline revived the route after Airbus Industries designed for it this special model of the new a350, which can carry both coach and business class while using less fuel than the a340s did.  The a340 versions of SQ21 usually headed due north from New York City, flying over the North Pole, then south across Siberia, China, and Southeast Asia to Singapore. Depending upon the jet stream in the northern hemisphere, the a350 new versions of this flight will use that same route or follow a much more divergent route: using the jet stream to give the aircraft a tailwind throughout much, if not most, of this extremely long flight. For example, today’s a350 will fly from New York, across the Atlantic to Europe, then across the Middle East to the Arabian Sea, then across India and the Bay of Bengal, and south down Malaysia to Singapore.  When I see it pass overhead at 10:15 a.m., I know it will be over London when my clock says 3:20 p.m., near Istanbul around 6:00 p.m., Tehran at 8:30 p.m., Mumbai at midnight, and land in Singapore at 5:00 a.m. the next morning according to my New York watch.

While SQ21 is the world’s longest schedule airline flight by duration, its return leg (at least from New York perspective) Flight SQ22 is the world’s longest scheduled airline flight by distance. Using the same a350 ULR aircrafts, it flies 10, 357 statute miles (16,600 km) in 17 hours and 45 minutes non-stop from Singapore’s Changi Airport back to Newark Liberty Airport.  SQ22 heads from Singapore northeast across the South China Sea along the coasts of China, Japan, and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, turns eastward across the Bering Sea, then gradually southeast across Alaska and Canada and upstate New York before landing at Newark. In other words, the combination of SQ21 and SQ22 travels around the planet in little less the 36 hours.

Because most of the world’s airline passengers fly coach (economy) class and many on discount airlines, they’d think that a 17 to 18 hours non-stop flight would be torture. Not at all! For four of the past ten years Singapore Airlines has been ranked the Number One among the 334 airline in the world by Skytrax in its poll of 20 million air travelers; and during the past 20 years, Singapore Airlines has never been ranked less than fourth in the world among those 334 airlines.  Its superb cabin service and comparably huge seats endear it to frequent travelers. I’ve been fortunate to have flown SQ21 & 22 thrice between 2006 and 2010. A few days before those flights, the airline contact me and ask if I’d like to select ahead of time from a menu my many meals during the two 17-18 flights. How many other airlines offer lobster thermidor with silverware?

I look forward to flying SQ21 and SQ22 again.  I hope you have an opportunity to fly it, too.

Lobster Thermidor on Singapore Airlines

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