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The Business of Tourism - Ultra-long-haul flights - the way of the future?

The longest time I have ever spent on a plane in the air is just under 14 hours. It was not intended, but the flight I was on between London and Dallas Fort Worth experienced a severe in-flight weather delay while an extensive storm crossed the Dallas region, causing us to fly a holding pattern for nearly an hour before beginning a long and slightly alarming final approach through the skirt of the storm.

For me, the length of that flight was at the very edge of how long I want to spend on a plane, but indications are that much longer direct flights may, in the coming years, become the norm.

According to industry publications, very soon, Emirates will introduce a non-stop service between Dubai and Panama City. The new daily service, which begins next February, takes 17 hours 35 minutes to cover around 8,500 miles and will, for a while, become the world's longest scheduled passenger service.

Despite this, what are to be known as ultra-long-haul flights are likely to become the norm as a new generation of lighter, fuel-efficient aircraft begin to come into service. These are the Boeing 777-8 and the Airbus A350-900ULR, which over the next five years will enable dramatically extended, longer non-stop services to operate for 19 hours or more.

This and the dramatic recent fall in the price of aviation is reportedly also leading to Singapore Airlines considering the re-introduction of a direct New York-to-Singapore service in 2018, and the Australian airline Qantas exploring the possibility of operating a direct London-to-Perth service.

The effect of these direct services without intermediate stops will be to reduce existing flying times on such routes by as much as eleven hours. However, an issue that is emerging is whether there are physical and mental limits to the endurance of the passenger. While previous experience and research shows that business travellers are prepared to fly for such long periods in premium cabins, it is less clear whether those who travel in coach will be as keen.

Possible new norm

That said, the airlines believe that if they can make the economics work, and if, as they expect, demand will increase across the board based on keen fare structuring, ultra-long-distance flying could become the new norm.

If this does happen, it potentially offers new opportunities for Caribbean tourism, opening up the possibility of encouraging visitors from populous non-traditional markets in Asia, the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East.

At present, the longest direct flights into the Caribbean are those from Moscow or St Petersburg on Aeroflot into Santo Domingo and Havana. However, very soon, Air China will exceed the flying time of Russian services into the region by introducing a same-plane service from Beijing to Havana, which is intended to catalyse tourism from China to Cuba and to the whole of the Latin American and Caribbean region. The flights will, however, not be direct, making a technical stop in Montreal, Canada, with the first flight due on December 27.

Whether over time direct China services may be possible if its travellers develop a taste for land-based or cruise vacations in the Caribbean remains to be seen, but for many, the possibility of being in the air on an airliner for more than 18 hours may be too much to bear, unless the nature of the experience can be adapted.

The problem is both mental boredom and physical, and while no end of entertainment, a larger space around each seat, especially in coach, may go some way towards making the experience acceptable, my sense is that something more would be needed; for instance, an arrangement whereby passengers, and children in particular, can more easily move around the cabin and have areas where they can associate with one another.

The latter, of course, already exists in first class on many airlines, but for those without the wherewithal to pay, the idea of 19 hours on a plane in a cramped seat is potentially a nightmare, and for some, it may be even fatal.

As for me, I intend to head in the opposite direction. Time permitting I am very interested in a new approach by Icelandair: They are offering low cost London to New York fares that include a lay-over in Reykjavik. 

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