Airlines Push Limits with Long Non-Stops

Heading for India aboard American Airlines Flight 292 -- A subdued crowd gathers at the airline gate at Chicago's O'Hare.

They speak in hushed tones. They sit quietly and wait. There's no sense of urgency, no gaiety -- not like the festive folks across the aisle who rush in at the last minute to jump on a short flight to San Diego, or is it Cancun?

The fliers on American Airlines' new USA-to-India flight know they are facing a long haul -- the longest that American offers worldwide -- and they're steeling themselves for it. Fifteen hours on a plane. Fifteen non-stop hours. On a plane. With no stops.

"I knew it was going to be a long flight to begin with, so I had that kind of 'how-much-longer attitude' right from the get-go," says Josh Robins, a musician from Austin who is making his first trip outside the USA.

Robins and about 240 others on this recent flight are part of a new breed of traveler -- the endurance flier. They're among the growing number of people who are willing to pay 30% to 40% more for a flight with no stops that saves them hours on cross-global journeys.

"I asked for this flight specifically," says Seema Khurana of Memphis. "This literally shaves 10 hours from my travel time."

Long flights are hot trend

As more Americans travel frequently to destinations such as India, China and Japan, more airlines are beginning to offer non-stop flights. The ultralong, non-stop flight is the fastest-growing length category of flight, according to a USA TODAY analysis of airline schedule data from Back Aviation Solutions. This month, an average of 30 daily flights departed from the USA with flight times of 14 hours or longer. This compares with an average of 18 daily departures four years ago. American and Continental are the only two U.S. carriers offering non-stop flights to India.

And now another U.S. carrier, Delta, plans to begin non-stop flights in November between New York JFK and Mumbai, India, a route connecting the nations' largest cities.

Nearly 2 million Americans travel to India each year, either for business or pleasure. In April, the U.S. and Indian governments dismantled 50-year-old laws and opened the skies for non-stop service between the two countries.

Business travelers say they want time-saving flights so they can hit the ground running when they land. "I prefer this to stopping for a layover in Europe," says Michael Diminich, an international trade consultant from Long Island, N.Y., who makes 10 trips a year to Asia. "I'm always working the day after I land, because clients demand it."

As for China, airlines such as Northwest and United have long offered non-stop flights there, thanks mostly to previous aviation rules that govern flights between the countries. But with U.S.-Chinese restrictions loosening, U.S. carriers are eager to add routes to the world's most-populous nation. Competition has been intense among U.S.-based carriers the past few years as rights have come available to fly new non-stop routes to China.

American and Continental were the most recent carriers awarded rights to fly to the Chinese mainland, with American adding new service between Chicago O'Hare and Shanghai, and Continental adding service between Newark, N.J., and Beijing.

Suspended animation

Once onboard the flight to India, an eclectic group of fliers settles in.

Some are Indian citizens, Sikhs or Hindus dressed in turbans and saris, who are returning home. Others are Indian-born Americans visiting relatives back home. Still others are tourists or business people dressed in sweat pants and comfy clothes they can sleep in.

After dinner, a kind of suspended animation overtakes the cabin.

The lights dim. The atmosphere is subdued. People are sleeping, or simply zoning out. Some watch the movie shown on seatback video screens. Others pop open their laptops to watch their own flicks or play poker or video games.

A few walk around quietly. Some are reading, some working. Others have sound-dampening headsets on. "I look forward to it because I get to read and don't have to answer the phone," Diminich says. "You have 12 hours -- sometimes 14 -- all to yourself."

The seats on the Boeing 777ER are typical of trans-oceanic flights; slightly bigger than domestic seats, but not first-class size.

Down the coach aisle, passengers can get a peek at the lucky business-class and, beyond them, first-class passengers who get lie-flat seats, double the menu options and handheld personal entertainment devices that offer a choice among 20 video titles.

Some risks for the industry

International routes have become more important to U.S. carriers in recent years because they are more profitable, and competition isn't as stiff as it is on domestic flights. For American, 35.8% of its mainline capacity through July, measured in available seat miles, is flying to international destinations. That number has steadily been rising since 2003, when 29.4% of the carrier's capacity was committed to international routes, according to numbers provided by the airline.

Both India and China are "emerging markets," says American spokesman Tim Wagner. "We see a lot of opportunity there right now."

Airplane manufacturers, too, see growth. Both Boeing and Airbus have jet designs that are set to hit the market during the next few years. The Airbus A380 is a superjumbo model that will carry upward of 500 passengers and have a range of 8,800 miles. The Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" will be smaller -- carrying 200 to 300 passengers -- but will have a range of about 8,500 miles. Both jets are expected to enter commercial service by 2008.

And Airbus plans to roll out the A350XWB, a competing model to Boeing's 787, by early next decade.

But at some point, any benefits of the ultra-long-haul flights may be overruled by practicality, say some aviation experts.

"You're putting people in a metal tube for 17 hours," says Henry Harteveldt, chief travel analyst at Forrester Research. "You have to consider issues like passenger comfort. If you don't take care of that, people aren't going to buy the product."

Some risks for passengers

Of some concern to endurance fliers is a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), where blood clots form in people who sit still for long periods of time. Those clots can travel to the lungs and cause death.

"All (airline) passengers are at some risk of developing DVT on long-haul flights, although the risk for most is low," says Pan Ganguly, director of the Thrombosis and Hemostasis Program at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md.

Experts advise airline passengers to be sure they get up from their seats, stretch and walk around many times throughout the flight. And flight attendants on the Chicago-India flight encourage passengers to do just that.

Still, boredom and ennui are most passengers' biggest worries.

Robins of Austin, visiting his wife who's working on a months-long contract in New Delhi, has read a book, watched a movie, eaten dinner and taken a four-hour nap.

But "somewhere over Iceland or Moscow," he realized he still had six more hours to go before the plane landed.

"That's when it really started to seem like: 'I'm ready to get off the plane!'"



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