There's an old adage about the journey being the destination. Late last month I had the opportunity to put that maxim to the test by flying cross country, from the east coast to Los Angeles, purely for the sake of taking another flight. The journey, you might say.
And this was a pretty special journey: I was to take the inaugural flight on United's brand-new non-stop route between Los Angeles and Singapore. Oh, and, at 8,700 miles and an estimated journey time of 17 hours and 55 minutes, it would be longest flight to or from the United States. Fact fans and aviation geeks will note that the service beats the previous record holder (Qantas' Dallas to Sydney route) by 200 miles. Having first flown on the world's shortest scheduled flight (1.9 miles from Papa Westray to Westray in Scotland) just about a year ago, it seemed like a nice symmetry, if not test of endurance.
"The worst thing about air travel is that the flights just aren't long enough." Said no one ever. But if you do lean toward masochism in your travels, you might be pleased to learn that a stiff global battle for bragging rights is seeing a bunch of airlines tussle over various angles to the "longest flight" claim. Qatar Airways' Auckland to Doha route is said to currently be the longest flight in the world, while United's boast of operating the longest from the U.S may be short lived if, as has announced, Singapore Airways soon re-establishes its 19-hour Singapore to Newark route.
Two points I should note to dampen any illusion of being a hardened, seasoned flyer. First, the gods were on my side that night I flew out of LAX en route to Singapore, blowing a tailwind that pushed the travel time down to 16 hours, 20 minutes (still the U.S's longest flight as it's the mileage, rather than time, that counts). Second, and probably most important: I was traveling in Polaris, United's new business class, which is currently being rolled out across the brand. I can't tell you what it would be like to travel this route in economy, but I can show you the two cabins for comparison:
AV geeks again take note: United has just retired its Boeing 747 aircraft (the "Queen of the Skies") so, as an additional bonus, Polaris passengers get a commemorative amenity kit with 747 memorabilia alongside the usual Cowshed spa products.
Here's how the journey went down.
9pm (Los Angeles)/12 p.m. (Singapore)
Just before 9 p.m., after a little bit of a celebratory ribbon cutting and hurrah at the gate, we all board. Making my way to my seat, I glance to the right and give a silent thanks I'm not in coach. I toast my good fortune with a glass of Champagne. Because, if you're not drinking heavily in business class, why are you even in business class?
11 p.m. (LAX)/ 2 p.m. (SIN)
A long travel day (I got up at 5 a.m. EST) has me nodding off, but I push myself to stay awake for dinner. I rarely fly business class so you bet I going to milk it. To accompany a surprisingly (for airline food) spicy prawn dish, I accept the flight attendant's offer of a wine flight. (And, I'll note, she looked as polished at the beginning as she did 17 hours later. How do they do it?) Purely for help with sleeping, you understand.
1 a.m. (LAX)/4 p.m. (SIN)
Evidently having fallen asleep before dessert (which I'm later told, to my deep feeling of FOMO, consisted of a cheese trolley and ice cream sundaes) I wake up for just long enough to spread of my super plush Saks 5th Ave blanket and duvet and pop the bed open. Luckily I'd had the foresight to change into by United-branded blue cotton PJs beforehand.
5 a.m. (LAX)/8 p.m. (SIN)
I wake up with a splitting headache. I'd been reading about this type of plane's (the Boeing 787 Dreamliner) supposed health benefits but I'm not feeling them (the cabins are pressurized at 6,000 feet, meaning passengers absorb more oxygen and have less risk of air sickness). My head feels like it's about to crack open. Admittedly, no word on whether drinking a wine flight negates the benefits of the Dreamliner. I ask a flight attendant for an Aspirin and he explains my condition as "atmosphere" and flying "for a long time." I'm not even halfway through but in my groggy state, this seems like as good an explanation as any, so I swallow the Aspirin, down a liter of water (I'm in a window seat but the booths are roomy enough I can jump out without bothering my neighbor) and fall back asleep.
6 a.m. (LAX)/9 p.m. (SIN)
I awake to see my neighbor hunched over with the soothing, smooth flight attendant perched on the side of his bed. He's suddenly been struck down with something inexplicable but apparently even less pleasant than my subsiding headache. I give another silent thanks and try out the entertainment system by watching Arrival.
8 a.m. (LAX)/11 p.m. (SIN)
Post-movie, I'm inexplicably hungry. I give up trying to respect what might be accepted as proper meal times and raid the spread — sandwiches, chips, gummy bears, and cookies — up for grabs in the galley.
10 a.m. (LAX)/1 a.m. (SIN)
I wake up again, with only a recollection of having seen the first five minutes of the next movie. Parched again. More water. More sympathetic looks toward my very sick neighbor. Back to sleep.
12 p.m. (LAX)/3 a.m. (SIN)
Time no longer has meaning. Is it night? Day? Something in between? I don't know, but I'm awake so decide to make headway into the reading material (four magazines and a book) I'd optimistically brought on board. Besides, breakfast should be coming around soon.
1:50 p.m. (LAX)/4:50 a.m. (SIN)
We've landed. Over the system, the purser reiterates the record-breaking qualities of our journey. Everyone claps and, maybe I'm imagining this, but it seems like the loudest cheers are emanating from the back of the plane. As we file off, we are greeted by the sound of a very noisy band. Because when you get off a 16-plus hour flight at 4:50 a.m., what you really want to hear is some ear splittingly loud drumming played by a group of brightly dressed and grinning musicians. To be fair, though, they've done the trick and I am now thoroughly awake and ready to start my day in Singapore.
In the snaking immigration line, I ask an economy passenger about his experience. "Good," he says. "Well, maybe not good, but OK. A few hours's sleep, watch a movie, then another few hours' sleep."
That sounds remarkably similar to my own experience and, let's be honest, not a terrible way to spend 16 hours and 20 minutes. And when you've made it this far, you can take comfort in the thought that the return leg is a mere 15-ish hours.
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