Why Russia’s war could lead to the world’s longest passenger flight

THE NEED to avoid Russian airspace—an area of ​​26m square kilometers—has turned airlines into collateral victims of the war in Ukraine. It has proved a particular headache for some carriers flying between parts of Asia and Europe. On March 4th a Japanese Airlines flight from Tokyo to London, which would previously have traversed great swathes of Russia, instead flew over the North Pole, adding about 3,500km and three hours to its journey. The war and the immensity of Russia’s territory are also stretching some Asia-America flights. Should travelers expect more ultra-long-haul trips?

Cathay Pacific may soon route its New York-Hong Kong service, which resumed on April 1st after a three-month ban, across the Atlantic, rather than as usual traveling north-west. (Hong Kong halted air traffic from nine countries, including America, in a fruitless effort to keep covid-19 at bay.) At 16,618km that would make it the world’s longest scheduled non-stop passenger route. The airline says it is monitoring the strong tailwinds that are prevalent at this time of year before making a final decision. The oomph those winds would provide means that Cathay could cover the distance in 16 to 17 hours, with similar fuel consumption to its transpacific flight. That is about an hour less than the current longest flight, the 15,349km covered by Singapore Airlines between its home airport and JFK in New York.

Even before vast tracts of Eurasian airspace were declared out-of-bounds for some carriers, long-haul flights were getting longer and more common. The “hub-and-spoke” model, in which thousands of passengers are channelled through busy connecting airports, and then on to their final destination, is being superseded by more direct flights. Following airlines’ lead, the big aircraft manufacturers are now stopping production of jumbos, such as the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380, which, with their huge passenger capacities, were perfect for delivering travelers between such hubs. In their place have come smaller fuel-efficient aircraft that can travel enormous distances on a single tank of gas. The trend towards ultra-long-haul flights will continue. This year new services are planned between, for example, Auckland and New York, and Melbourne and Dallas. If nothing else, that is good news for purveyors of sleeping pills, DVT socks and, indeed, lengthy Russian novels.

More from The Economist explains:
How the war in Ukraine is accelerating Russia’s brain drain
Why Russian radios in Ukraine are getting spammed with heavy metal
Why are so many Russian generals dying in Ukraine?

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