Surviving a 19-Hour Flight: How Singapore Airlines Is Making the World’s Longest Flight Bearable for Crew and Passengers

The first A350ULR rolls out of the paint shop in Toulouse (Photo: Airbus)

With all the technological advancements in the aviation industry, more and more cities are being connected by non-stop flights operated by the world’s newest aircraft. Distance is no longer an issue for most aircraft, as we’ve seen with Qantas’ Perth-London route and Qatar Airways’ Doha-Auckland route, and our global village is getting smaller and smaller by the day.

However, with the distance between two cities connected by a non-stop flight increasing, so does the flight time. Just because two cities on opposite ends of the world can be connected with one flight, doesn’t mean that taking flight will be an easy feat. With Qantas’ flight to London taking 17 hours and 20 minutes and Qatar’s flight from Auckland taking 17 hours and 40 minutes, you’ll be spending nearly an entire day on an airplane.

With Singapore Airlines’ new flight from Singapore to Newark, travel times are well over 18 hours. SQ21, the return flight from Newark to Singapore, is scheduled at 18 hours and 45 minutes, 5 hours and 15 minutes short of a full day. 18 hours is a long time to spend doing anything, let alone being sedentary on an airplane, or lying flat if you’re in business class, in a vicious cycle that consists of watching movie after movie, eating and sleeping.

Passenger Amenities

In a video from The Straits Times, Singapore Airlines explains how passengers will be kept comfortable on the A350-900ULR as it traverses the 8,285 nautical mile route from Singapore’s Changi Airport to Newark Liberty International Airport.

Premium Economy Seats

According to the video, the airline believes that three things are critical for the flight to be a success: food, rest and in-flight entertainment. As the aircraft flying the route is tailormade for the route, Singapore Airlines customized the seats for maximum comfort. The aircraft will be configured in a two-class configuration consisting of premium economy and business class seats.

Ng Yung Han, Singapore Airlines’ vice president of product innovation, describes in the video how the 19-inch width premium economy seats are not the standard premium economy seats found on many of the world’s widebody airliners. First, Singapore installed a calf rest mechanism, similar to a recliner, on the seats for increased comfort. Next, the airline chose a single-piece tray table instead of a bi-fold table for increased stability.

To increase shin space, the seatback pocket has been raised, giving the passenger more space in the leg area. For the armrests, the airline went with a covered armrest to give the seat a premium feel with a modicum of privacy. The seats will also include a personal reading light as to reduce the disruption caused by an overhead light to your neighbors.

Food

Arguably the most important part of the flight, the airline has planned out its food offerings for the 19-hour haul. According to Betty Wong, Singapore Airlines’ divisional vice president of in-flight services and design, three meals will be served throughout the duration of the flight, each specially chosen to be lighter and easier on passengers’ stomachs and reduce potential discomfort.

In between meals, snacks will be offered to passengers via the galley. Instead of being distributed to passengers via the crew, placing the snacks out in the galley gives passengers a reason to get up and stretch out, a necessary aspect of any long-haul flight to increase blood flow and prevent deep vein thrombosis.

In-Flight Entertainment

As is the norm for all modern airliners, in-flight entertainment via seatback screens will be offered to passengers in both classes. However, the long-range aircraft flying the route will be specifically outfitted with an extra 200 hours of in-flight entertainment not found on the airline’s standard aircraft.

Sleep

Despite the extra in-flight entertainment options and carefully curated food options, the airline knows that the key to this flight is sleep. To help induce sleep and adjust to changing time zones, mood lighting will be used extensively. Red, orange and yellow will be used to relax passengers and encourage sleep and blue and white will be used to wake you up and make you feel more alert and refreshed.

In business class, two pillows and a mattress cover for the lie-flat seats will be provided for extra comfort. In both classes, amenity kits will be provided with necessities including socks, dental kits and eye masks. In the lavatories, facial mist will be available for passengers to freshen up.

According to Wong, the airline believes sleep is important to passengers taking the route and the extra features will help them to sleep uninterruptedly.

How the Other Half Lives

While many wonder how passengers manage to make the trek and live to tell the tale, the crew undoubtedly have it worse. Not being able to enjoy the same amenities as passengers, as they’re working during the flight, crew are often the forgotten component of ultra-long-haul flights. However, in another video from The Straits Times, flight crew talk in-depth about tackling the near-19 hour flight and the necessary precautions taken by the airline to ensure the crew remain rested and ready to make the haul.

Flight Crew

In the video, Deputy Chief Pilot for the Airbus A350 for Singapore Airlines, Captain Indranil Ray Chaudhury, details his excitement for being able to fly the aircraft on the first flight between Singapore and Newark.

“I went in the toilet, I locked the door and I screamed ‘Yes!,” said Chaudhury upon finding out that he would be the first to fly the historic flight. “I’ve been with the company for 30 years. This time, I get to participate in this historical event and it is historical. We are reclaiming back the longest flight in the world and we are the first one to have this ultra-long-range aircraft. It’s something that you can’t dream about.”

Singapore Airlines previously operated the route using an Airbus A340-500. In order to maximize range, the aircraft was configured in an all-business configuration catering towards business passengers who wanted to fly straight to Singapore, an economic and business hub, in as short amount of time as possible.

The video then discusses the crew rest requirements for the ultra-long-haul flight and the special precautions that the airline takes. According to the video, the airline maintains a strict rostering system that gives the crew working the flight 48 hour of rest before the flight, 3 nights off after the flight and 4 nights off after returning to Singapore. The crew rest requirements help alleviate fatigue as concerns are enhanced on an endurance-based flight as this one.

Keeping in line with other long-haul flights, an alternate crew is placed on the flight to relieve the main crew for certain parts of the flight so that they remain within duty limits and don’t have to sit in the cockpit for 19 hours straight. The primary crew, which performs the takeoffs and landings, is called the command set while the relief crew is the deputy set.

The work shifts are as follows: The command set performs pre-flight, taxi and takeoff, then rests for about 5 hours. While the command set takes their first rest, the deputy set flies the aircraft for 5 hours. The two then alternate two more times with the command set working 5 hours after resting 5 hours then resting for 3 hours before its time to prepare for landing.

After working its initial 5-hour shift, the deputy set rests for 5 hours, works for 3 hours and then rests during landing. The deputy set only works for 8 hours out of the 19 while the command set works the brunt of the flight, working the remaining 11 including pre-flight, taxi, takeoff, landing and post-flight.

When the crew are resting, they have two options in terms of accommodations according to Captain Chaudhury. First, the crew bunk is a room with bunk beds for crew to lie-down and sleep in with a modicum of privacy away from the hustle and bustle of the plane below. Second, the crew can sit in cabin-style seats, better for meals and entertainment.

The crew bunk area is preferable during long rest periods where the crew can catch a few hours of sleep. Having experienced the tight crew bunk area on a Boeing 747-8i, I can say that the A350 crew bunk area looks more spacious and inviting.

Cabin Crew

For the cabin crew perspective, Singapore Airlines’ lead flight attendant Ashley Tan detailed what precautions she takes for a 19-hour flight. Tan, who’s equally as excited to take the flight as Captain Chaudhury, has worked the flight before when it was flown by the A340-500.

“I still remember that flight. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep before the flight,” said Tan in the video.

In the video, Tan states that she would need to get an adequate rest the night before of around 7 to 8 hours. If on a long break, Tan says she likes to change into comfortable clothes for a more relaxing rest period. In addition, she would not consume a lot of caffeine. Caffeine has heightened effects at altitude, including jitteriness and possibly nausea and heartburn. While most professionals rely on coffee, Tan is better off without a pre-flight cup.

Caffeine, however, isn’t the only thing to avoid before a long flight. According to Smarter Travel, fried foods, certain vegetables, alcohol and carbonated beverages can lead to an unpleasant flight. The website, however, does mention that fasting will help reduce symptoms of jetlag, which may be helpful in fighting the 12 hour time difference between New York and Singapore.

While the near-19 jaunt from Singapore to Newark will be the nervous flyer’s worst nightmare, its good to know that the crew, responsible for the safety and well-being of the passengers, are excited about the return of the historic flight and are well-prepared to deal with working the long hours that the flight requires.

You can find the link to The Straits Times videos on the passenger aspect here and the crew aspect here.

Thomas Pallini

Tom has been flying for as long as he can remember. His first flight memory was on a Song Airlines 757 flying from LaGuardia to Orlando. Back then, he was afraid to fly because he thought you needed to jump off the plane in order to get off. Some years later, Tom is now a seasoned traveler, often flying to places just for the fun of it. Most of the time, he'll never leave the airport on his trips. If he's not at home or at work as a Line Service Technician at Long Island MacArthur Airport, he's off flying somewhere, but only for the day.
Thomas Pallini