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Rarefied Air for Flight 19

THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

An 18-hour nonstop route between L.A. and Singapore sets a record for regular jet service. Coming in 2006: 20 hours off the ground.

February 06, 2004|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

SINGAPORE — Luke Chittock, a travel agent from Perth, Australia, is a hard-core aviation buff. He's flown on the supersonic Concorde, taken a "joy flight" over Antarctica and hopped around the world in nearly 900 airplanes as part of his perpetual quest for what he calls "product awareness."

The veteran traveler says his biggest thrill was being a passenger on Singapore Airlines Flight 19 when it landed at Changi Airport here Thursday, 18 hours and 15 minutes after leaving Los Angeles. The flight, covering 9,298 miles, shattered the world record for the longest nonstop commercial air service by more than two hours.

"This is the record-breaking flight," Chittock said, as the airplane touched down and the cabin erupted in applause.

Touted as a new level of service for business travelers, the first L.A.-Singapore nonstop flight attracted many passengers who bought tickets just for the bragging rights.

Sanford Fung, a family practice doctor from Dallas, left behind his wife, who is five months pregnant, just so he could say he flew on the world's longest flight. "I would rather do this than save up to buy a BMW," he said.

Fung and Chittock each paid $1,100 for round-trip tickets in what Singapore Airlines calls executive economy class.

Flight 19 not only pushed the limit of passenger endurance, it also was the latest step by airlines and aircraft manufacturers to lure more customers by extending the boundaries of commercial flight.

Singapore Airlines' Airbus A340-500, also known as the A345, left Los Angeles International Airport at 8:20 p.m. Tuesday, crossed 10 time zones and passed the international date line before arriving in Singapore at 6:35 a.m. local time Thursday. The flight, with 151 passengers, went nearly halfway around the globe.

The service is being marketed to business travelers who want to cut hours off their travel time. Before the A340-500 was introduced, an L.A.-Singapore flight took 20 to 21 hours, including a refueling stop.

Continental Airlines' nonstop from Newark, N.J., to Hong Kong had been the longest regularly scheduled flight -- 8,060 miles in 16 hours using a Boeing 777-200.

Most of the longest nonstop commercial flights before Flight 19 lasted 15 to 16 hours, mainly on routes from the U.S. to Asia.

But more record flights are coming. In the fall, Singapore Airlines plans nonstop service from New York to Singapore that could match or beat the current endurance record as it flies over the North Pole. (Chittock plans to be on that flight too.)

Airbus rival Boeing Co. is developing the 777-200LR, which the company says will have a nonstop range of 10,500 miles nonstop, or about 20 hours, when it enters service in 2006. Aircraft designers have been able to accommodate ever longer flights by using composite materials that help reduce weight and by developing jet engines that are more powerful yet use less fuel.

With airliners flying 20 hours, it soon will be possible to fly nonstop between almost any two points on the globe. "We're getting to about the end of the road in terms of distance. That's about as far as you can go to reach any destination in the world," said Klaus Brauer, Boeing's project director for passenger revenue development.

To be able to fly nonstop from LAX to Singapore, the Airbus 340-500 was redesigned to hold about 10% more fuel, or an extra 5,100 gallons, for a total of 56,750 gallons for its four engines. And the number of seats was reduced from 313 to 181 to save weight.

During the flight, chief pilot Siew Leong walked the aisles and assured some passengers that if pushed, the aircraft could fly for 21 hours, plenty of leeway to make a detour in the event of an emergency.

To make the flight both mentally and physically more tolerable, Singapore Airlines altered the passenger cabin. Instead of three classes, the airline offers two: the more expensive "Raffles" class, with seats that can recline almost flat like a bed (typical round-trip fare: $5,000), and "executive economy," with seats that have about 5 inches more legroom and are 2 inches wider than typical coach seats. The aisles are also a bit wider.

Still, for all of the extra space, 18 hours is still a long time. To help make the time pass, plentiful food and entertainment were essential.

Flight 19 served three full meals in Raffles class and two in economy, with real silverware. Complimentary beverages, including champagne and other wine, flowed freely. The menu was 12 pages long. And the airline doubled the number of meals loaded onto the plane -- to about 1,000 -- in case everybody wanted chicken instead of pork or fish. Two bottles of water were packed for every passenger.

On any long flight there are some concerns about health risks. In recent years there have been a few cases of airline passengers who died from blood clots, apparently caused by sitting immobile in cramped seats.

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