Seat backs raised, tray tables folded, bags under the seat in front of you. Seeing the world from the comfort of a jumbo jet has never been easier, and worldwide aviation numbers are booming. A record 3.7 billion passengers undertook flights in 2016, according to International Air Transport Association (IATA) figures.
Flight lengths also continue to increase. October 2016 saw the Emirates Dubai-to-Auckland service become the world’s longest – at 8,824 miles. Yet this record was soon broken by over 200 miles, when Gulf competitor Qatar Airways launched its Doha-to-Auckland route in February. Competition over this prestigious title looks set to remain high, with Qantas planning to launch a 9,000-mile London-to-Perth flight, the first non-stop route between the UK and Australia, and Singapore Airlines expected to resume its 9,500-mile service to New York in 2018. Are these record-breaking flight paths indicators of a world becoming smaller and more globalised than ever before?
‘It’s only a relatively small number of flights,’ points out Lucy Budd, Senior Lecturer in Air Transport at Loughborough University. ‘If you look at the total number of departures, it’s tiny. And the aircraft themselves aren’t flying any faster, because they’re not going supersonic.’
“But the difference is they’re more fuel efficient; you can go further with the same amount of fuel. In that sense you could argue that it is accelerating time-space compression.”
Budd highlights that these record-breaking flights stand in sharp contrast to the boom in low-cost carriers, particularly across Europe and Asia. ‘The industry’s really interesting at the moment,’ she explains, ‘because you seem to have this polarisation between the rush to the very long-haul, point-to-point routes, which have been enabled by new aircraft such as the Boeing 777-200 LR [‘long range’] and Airbus as well, doing the really long-haul routes and breaking records. And at the other end, the low-cost airlines are much more about the short-haul; pack them in, operate loads of different flights, keep the fares down, and stimulate demand that way.’
She adds that while these new long-haul aircraft are now fully capable of flying well over 10,000 miles without needing to refuel, whether passengers would actually prefer to spend up to 18 hours in the air on a single flight is another question altogether.
This was published in the April 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.