Source: Getty Images

Emirates, Qatar Air in for the Long Haul as Flights Top 17 Hours

  • Dubai-New Zealand service poised to set world distance record
  • Gulf majors spar over record routes as growth options diminish

A Boeing Co. 777-200LR will touch down in Auckland, New Zealand, on Wednesday after journeying 8,824 miles from Dubai, grabbing the title of world’s longest scheduled airline flight for Gulf carrier Emirates.

Not to be outdone, Qatar Airways will this year offer services to Santiago in Chile, some 140 miles further again, as well as its own Auckland route, which by dint of Doha’s location west of Dubai will extend the record by 200 miles.

The leading Gulf carriers are adding performance-stretching destinations after largely exhausting the potential for new links between the biggest cities. Their desert hubs, located at the confluence of flightpaths between Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, are also drawing in enough transit passengers to deliver the critical mass needed to make once marginal services viable.

“We will not add a city before we have the network to support it,” Qatar Airways said in a statement to Bloomberg. “While the title of longest airline flight may move and shift between carriers, only a few airlines are competing in that space. That’s where the advantage of our geography comes in.”

Third-Tier Growth

Thomas Pellegrin, director of the PricewaterhouseCoopers aviation center in Dubai, said Gulf carriers are scouring the globe for opportunities as the biggest cities within an eight-hour radius become “increasingly saturated” with flights.

PwC calculates that Emirates, Qatar Air and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways already serve all conurbations with a population of 10 million-plus, factoring in code-share deals, and 87 percent of those with 5 million to 10 million people.

At the same time, their reach extends to only a third of cities with a populace of between 1 million and 5 million. While “the economics are less obvious,” those locations also include many of the fastest growing, Pellegrin said.

Emirates’s Auckland flight, departing 10:05 a.m. Tuesday, will capture the distance record from the Sydney-Dallas route operated by Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd. with an Airbus Group SE A380. The Gulf carrier, which ranks as the biggest airline on international routes, is also set to offer the service with the longest duration when it commences operations to Panama City on March 31.

Oil Factor

While its outbound Auckland route will take 17 hours and 15 minutes and the return just under 16 hours, the Central American service will take 17 hours 35 minutes when flying westbound as it heads into prevailing winds.

Ultra-long-haul routes are also becoming attractive with the lower oil price, since the jets deployed carry fewer passengers than planes used on shorter routes in order to eke out extra mileage, making margins thin. The 10 777-200LRs at Emirates can carry 266 people, compared with more than 350 in the same layout on the 100-plus 777-300ERs that form the backbone of its fleet.

Six of the world’s 10 longest routes were already offered by Mideast carriers prior to this week’s New Zealand inaugural, though unlike the new flights they serve global cities such as Los Angeles, a destination for Emirates, Qatar Air, Etihad and Saudi Arabian Airlines reachable with the A380 and 777-300ER.

The direct Auckland service, which Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said Jan. 28 “has been in our sights for some time,” will shave three hours from the current four-times-daily trip via Australia, and link with flights to 39 European cities. Adnan Kazim, Emirates’s senior vice president for strategic planning, said in an e-mail that the carrier is able to serve the “maturing market” directly as the arrival of new aircraft frees up 200LRs.

Singapore Strikes Back

Gulf carriers are also seeking new outlets as they run into roadblocks while targeting expansion in existing markets such as the U.S., where Delta Air Lines Inc. is campaigning for a review of air-service treaties to limit access, and Germany, where the number of destinations and frequencies is strictly limited.

The coming of new airliners such as Boeing’s upgraded 777X will further improve performance, making most of the planet reachable from the Gulf beyond 2020. Still, range improvements could also prove a double-edged sword, making routes such as London to Sydney possible for the first time and eliminating the need to change plane or refuel at a hub airport.

Singapore Airlines Ltd. is meanwhile likely to regain the longest-flight title with the reintroduction of direct services to the New York area once Airbus makes a lighter version of its latest A350-900 plane available in 2018. The Asian carrier once flew the 19-hour, 9,500-mile route using a four-engine Airbus A340-500 with 100 business seats before scrapping the service in 2013 after it proved non-viable, adding about five hours to the journey.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE