Business travellers are reacting with enthusiasm to the new generation of comfortably equipped long-distance aircraft that offer nonstop flights to the other side of the world

A new breed of ultra long-haul aircraft are now beginning to reshape the airline route network, forging non-stop links between cities half way around the world. Almost every month it seems that the record books are being rewritten as new aircraft enter service and new routes open. Singapore is now linked with Los Angeles and also New York - some 15,350km (9,530 miles) away - while passengers can already fly direct between Hong Kong and New York, with a direct link to Toronto due to be added shortly.

Such new services promise substantial time savings for weary business travellers, shaving as much as six hours from a journey. The latest routings are also likely to shift the balance away from traditional hub flying on some high-yielding intercontinental routes.

The long-haul flights could also alter the fortunes of major hub airports, for example, bringing some lustre back to New York's JFK. The airport began to lose its position as a key gateway to Europe when liberal bilaterals allowed carriers to bypass New York and develop direct service to other US cities. Now, after billions of dollars in terminal and infrastructure improvements, JFK is restoring its role as a gateway helped by a number of the new long-haul nonstops.

For their part, Airbus and Boeing have long outlined the potential for market fragmentation and hub-bypass as airlines fly their premium customers direct. Both too are offering aircraft that now make this possible almost anywhere around the globe. Airbus has fielded two variants in its four-engine A340 family. The -600 can carry 380 passengers 13,900km, while the -500 can accommodate up to 313 passengers on 16,050km flights. Boeing has two new versions of its twin-engine 777 family. The new 777-300ER, first delivered this spring to Air France, can accommodate 365 passengers on journeys of 14,270km. The 777-200LR, available in early 2006, will fly up to 17,170km with 301 passengers.

Besides the capabilities of the aircraft, the new nonstops are being facilitated by the availability of new Russian Polar routes, shaving the time needed to operate between Asia and North America.

New services

The new aircraft and routings have opened up new service possibilities, particularly from the US East Coast to Asia, says Craig Jenks, president of Airline/Aircraft Projects. With one exception - the Singapore/Los Angeles nonstop begun in February by Singapore Airlines (SIA) - all new points served by long-range aircraft are east of the Mississippi River, Jenks points out. "Some of these new routes could have been flown by a Boeing 747-400, but were not because the airplane is too large," Jenks says. Others, including SIA's nonstops between Los Angeles and Newark, could not operate with anything but the A340-500.

To travel from New York to Singapore in the past, one might have flown on SIA with a stop in Frankfurt or from Newark via Amsterdam, or on other carriers with connections in Tokyo. Now, however, SIA offers daily nonstops. The 15,348km flights, which take around 18 hours in each direction, are the longest to date.

The Newark nonstop replaces a one-stop that SIA operated three times a week via Amsterdam. The Newark flight should attract corporate travellers from a wide catchment area, an official says, with flights timed to connect easily with Continental's extensive domestic network. Besides the nonstop, the airline is keeping its one-stop flights to Singapore from JFK via Frankfurt.

Assessing its Los Angeles nonstop, SIA says that it is encouraged that there has not been cannibalisation of business passengers from the one-stops it continues to operate through Tokyo and Taiwan. "It seems to be a real tool for potentially shifting new travellers to Singapore Airlines or growing the pie," says an official. The nonstop is used overwhelmingly by corporate travellers, he says, willing to pay the 5-10% premium SIA is charging for the nonstop for the two hours of time savings and enhanced space.

SIA has equipped its A340-500s with two classes - 63 lie-flat Spacebeds in Raffles business class and 117 seats in a dramatically enhanced "Executive Economy" section. The latter, designed to appeal to corporate travellers whose companies do not allow business-class travel, has wider seats with a 37in (940mm) pitch in a two-three-two layout and a new inflight entertainment (IFE) system. While there have been few holiday-makers on the nonstop, SIA is hoping to attract upmarket leisure travellers bound for Bali, the Maldives and Phuket.

Using Airbus A340-600s, Cathay Pacific Airways has begun daily nonstops between New York JFK and Hong Kong, saving passengers about 3h over its existing one-stop via Vancouver. To accommodate expected strong business demand, the aircraft has an expanded 60-seat business class cabin, plus eight first-class and 220 economy-class seats. The 12,990km nonstop will take roughly 16 hours each way depending on winds.

Cathay will also continue to operate its late-night one-stop to Hong Kong, using a 343-seat Boeing 747-400. "There is a fairly large segment of the market that likes the timing of a night departure and another segment - it's clear from bookings - who want the nonstop," says Tom Wright, Cathay's senior vice-president Americas. Some passengers using the one-stop probably will opt for the nonstop, he adds. "But I think the market is growing and given the product we have, we think we will draw passengers - now getting to Hong Kong some other way - because they want to go nonstop."

The nonstop connects in Hong Kong to eight key cities, but Wright says there seems to be "a distinct market" of travellers who want to go just to Hong Kong. Unlike SIA, Cathay is pricing the nonstop the same as its one-stop.

Although Continental Airlines pioneered a Newark-Hong Kong nonstop using a Boeing 777-200ER four years ago, Wright says Cathay's 777s do not have the range or payload it requires.

Continental's service started five months before the 11 September attacks and has undergone its ups and downs because of the economic downturn and SARS epidemic. An official says the loads have been improving - most of the passenger base is local point-to-point traffic - but admits: "We're not where we'd like to be." Continental now operates the flight five days a week.

Although the aircraft, with 48 business/first and 235 economy seats, operates to the limit of its range capability, Continental has not been hampered by weight restrictions or turned away passengers. "The 777-200ER is just what we need to do our long-haul flying for some time to come," says the official.

Emirates direct to New York

Emirates is using A340-500s on its new nonstops between New York and Dubai. Although the carrier is a large Boeing 777 operator, the Airbus aircraft offered fewer restrictions on the route which takes around 14 hours eastbound and an hour less westbound. The A340-500's payload is considerable higher than that of the 777, says Nigel Page, Emirates' senior vice-president, commercial operations, the Americas. "From a commercial point of view, the 340-500 was the better airplane to wait for." The payload allows a full load of 258 passengers and 14t of cargo, he says.

Emirates has equipped its -500s with 12 fully enclosed first-class suites, costing $175,000 each, with flat beds and sliding doors. Passengers can phone the galley to order "room service". It also has 42 business-class seats in a 2-2-2 arrangement and 204 economy seats. All access an IFE system with 500 channels.

Page says the new flights are doing especially well in first and business. "It will take a little time, but we're confident we will get to profitability," he says. Previously, travellers between New York and Dubai used London Heathrow as the primary gateway, followed by Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Emirates flights are timed to connect at Dubai for the Indian subcontinent, Middle East and East Africa.

The carrier is weighing its options for a second US service, Page says, and is looking at San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, or a second daily to New York.

Air Canada is also using the A340-500 for new daily nonstops between Toronto and Hong Kong next month. The carrier has used an A340-300 on the route, requiring a westbound stop in Vancouver but no eastbound stop. The A340-500s are being fitted with an enhanced executive first class, with 42 lie-flat beds, and a more spacious economy cabin, with 225 seats at a 33in pitch, and a new IFE system throughout.

Like Continental, Air Canada was a pioneer of sorts, launching the first nonstop between North America and India last autumn. On the Toronto-Delhi route, the carrier uses an Airbus A340-300, right at the limit of its range. It operates unfettered generally in the winter but can face weight restrictions out of Delhi, depending on temperature, loads and winds. When it has a problem, the aircraft can be routed over Stockholm or Halifax for a technical stop.

The airline is pleased with the Delhi service though, saying that it has attracted passengers who previously flew to India over Europe on Aeroflot, British Airways, KLM and Swiss. Some 30% of its bookings originate in the USA and the flights have been timed for maximum connections in both Toronto and Delhi.

Air Canada is also aggressively expanding services to Latin America from Toronto, allowing passengers easy connections to Asia. "We've found very strong demand for travel between Latin America and Asia via Canada to avoid transit visa requirements in the USA," says an Air Canada official.

Growing order books

Airbus is currently ahead of Boeing in the race to equip airlines with "these longest rangers", as Airbus has called them. The A340-600 has been in service since August 2002, starting with Virgin Atlantic Airways, which has seven of the type. Its longest route, at 10,920km, is London-Tokyo. The longest A340-600 route operated by Lufthansa, which has 10, is Frankfurt-Buenos Aires, an 11,490km trip taking just over 14h.

By the end of May, Airbus and Boeing had 46 of these new long-haul aircraft in service with airlines and another 128 on order (see table right), together with a handful of undisclosed deals and orders from lessors.

First delivery of the 777-300ER was to Air France in April; it began revenue service between Paris and New York in early May. The aircraft and two others are now being used for flights between Paris and Tokyo. The next three, to be delivered in the autumn, will operate on routes to Asia and the USA. Air France's new aircraft have an enhanced first-class section seating - or sleeping - eight; a more spacious business class accommodating 67, also with lie-flat seat beds; and 235 seats in an updated economy section.

All Nippon Airways will get the first of six -300ERs this autumn that will be used within Asia. When it gets its second aircraft in April 2005, both will be placed on an intercontinental route, either to the USA or Europe, says the carrier. Possibilities include Los Angeles, Paris, Frankfurt and San Francisco.

The first ultra-long-range 777-200LR, which will travel 1,110km further than the A340-500, will be delivered to Pakistan International Airlines in 2006. Manufacture is to begin in October, with roll-out in February 2005. To date, Boeing has five orders for the -200LR. Both new 777s are equipped with General Electric GE90 engines.

Despite being second to the marketplace, Boeing believes its newest 777s will find an increasing market. Randy Tinseth, Boeing director of products and services, points out that Boeing started bringing the two 777 variants to the market just before 11 September. "But we're very bullish on airplanes like this because it gives passengers the ability to fly nonstop to their final destination, bypass hubs and save time," he says.

He adds that the -300 is an ideal replacement for the same-size Boeing 747-200s but with more range. Tinseth also dismisses safety concerns about operating twin-engine aircraft on long-haul routes. "There have been more than three million twin-engine flights since the beginning - there are 55 daily flights across the North Pacific now with 777s," Tinseth says. "It's a better economic choice for airlines, and absolutely safe."

Absent from the customer list for the new aircraft are US carriers, which operate to Asia primarily through Tokyo Narita. Jenks notes that virtually all new nonstops to Asia bypass Tokyo, which is heavily used by United and Northwest Airlines. While United languishes in bankruptcy, limiting its ability to upgrade its fleet or interior fittings, Northwest is doing both, building up its Tokyo hub with seven new Airbus A330-200s, with 32 new lie-flat beds in world business class and 211 new economy seats.

The carrier has started nonstop flights to Tokyo from Portland, its eighth US gateway to Japan, and has increased frequencies on other routes. As it takes delivery of A330-200s between August and December, it will put them on flights between Tokyo and San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Bangkok, Beijing, Singapore and Seoul. In some cases, the new aircraft replace aging Boeing 747-200s and DC-10-30s.

Whether US carriers will opt in the future for new long-haul aircraft is an open question. Cathay's Tom Wright suggests a carrier like his has no option. "We don't have a domestic feed. We have to operate from Hong Kong so we're looking to expand to the USA, to Asia and Europe," he says. "US carriers have domestic feed, which may be more important to them." n


Source: Airline Business