Seats are still available for the first departure of the world’s longest passenger flight. For £1,447, you can buy a return London-Auckland ticket, departing from Heathrow at 3.05pm on Saturday afternoon for a flight to Doha, where it touches down shortly after midnight.
The timing for the next leg of the journey looks extreme. The Qatar Airways jet will leave Doha at 5.10am on Sunday 5 February, and will cross 10 time zones. It doesn't arrive in Auckland until 7.30am on Monday. Yet the journey time is “only” 16 hours 20 minutes. Because of the prevailing jet stream, the passengers will enjoy a faster journey than their counterparts waiting for the westbound return trip.
Ahead of the departure of flight QR920, Air India may re-state its claim that its Delhi-San Francisco route is in fact the world's longest because of the course taken. But the only baseline on which rationally to compare extreme distances is the “Great Circle” route: the shortest distance between two points on the surface of the Earth. In the case of Doha to Auckland, that is 9,032 miles.
In practice, the actual distance flown is significantly longer for reasons of wind patterns, minimising overflight fees or geo-political sensitivity.
The most direct track for this particular flight is refreshingly clear of conflict zones. The Boeing 777 passes more or less directly over Dubai, then slices across northern Oman, before a long oceanic stretch to the southern tip of India. Those in the window seats will get the only chance to see anything much of interest during a 20-minute transit across Sri Lanka.
By the time the plane crosses the rest of the Indian Ocean and reaches the coast of Western Australia, it will be dark, and some of the passengers may be wishing they had spent £3,689 return on a business-class ticket.
Few lights will decorate the vast expanse of Australia until the plane nears the eastern shore, when the lights of Sydney should be visible. At this point there is still around three hours to go. The descent finally begins around 16 hours into the journey touchdown on Monday morning as the Auckland rush-hour begins.
The passengers boarding flight 921 at New Zealand’s largest airport for the return trip to the Gulf will endure perhaps the longest afternoon and evening in history, departing at 2.40pm and arriving at 10.10pm the same day in Doha. Shortly before touch down, they will fly over Dubai — destination for the current longest flight in the world, again from Auckland.
Qatar Airways is likely to stay ahead of the long-distance competition for a year, but by 2018 Singapore Airlines will wrest back the crown for the world’s longest flight. The carrier has ordered seven ultra-long-range Airbus A350s, which will allow it to restart non-stop flights from Singapore to New York.
This 9,529-mile link launched in 2004, but closed four years ago when the fuel-heavy A340-500 made it uneconomic. Singapore Airlines will also bring back a link to Los Angeles, which would be in the top five of ultra-long-routes.
Ultra-long-haul flights depend on relatively cheap oil for profitability. They burn much more fuel per mile than shorter hops, because so much is consumed carrying kerosene for later in the journey. They also demand heavy crew resources, with a minimum of four pilots.
Qantas has promised the first non-stop scheduled flights from the UK to Australia will start in March 2018, with a service from Heathrow to Perth using a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. But at 9,010 miles, it will fall short of the Doha-Auckland link.
Looking at the likely top 10 in 2018, seven of the longest links will begin or end in the US; Los Angeles is the leading target city, with three. Four will start or finish in the Gulf, and four in Australasia (two to Auckland, one to Sydney, one to Perth). All three Asian flights are to or from Singapore, while Europe and Africa have just one representative each: London and Johannesburg respectively.
Longest 10 air routes by Great Circle route (includes *links starting in 2018)
1 Singapore-New York*: 9,529 miles
2 Doha-Auckland: 9,032 miles
3 London-Perth*: 9,010 miles
4 Dubai-Auckland: 8,824 miles
5 Singapore-Los Angeles*: 8,770 miles
6 Dallas-Sydney: 8,578 miles
7 Johannesburg-Atlanta: 8,439 miles
8 Singapore-San Francisco: 8,434 miles
9 Abu Dhabi-Los Angeles: 8,387 miles
10 Dubai-Los Angeles: 8,333 miles