LAST CALL FOR THE LONGEST FLIGHT: SINGAPORE-TO-NEWARK
c.2013 New York Times News Service
What seemed like a corporate holiday party had broken out near Gate B6 at Singapore’s Changi Airport.
White-coated waiters offered drinks on silver trays. Chefs whipped up a variety of small bites. Dapper personnel distributed gift bags loaded with leather wallets and certificates marking the occasion.
Singapore Airlines is reputed to treat its passengers regally, but not like this. Weeks after announcing that the Singapore-Newark, N.J., route that reigned as the globe’s lengthiest nonstop flight would be “retired,” the company was holding a retirement party for Flight SQ 22 on Saturday before the final takeoff.
The festive mood was tempered by an awareness among the travelers that the lone direct jaunt between the Southeast Asian city and the New York area would end with the touchdown of the exclusively business-class jet nearly 10,000 miles and 19 hours after departure.
For Michael S. Smith of Merion Station, Pa., this excursion on SQ 22 would be his first and last. Returning from a monthlong recruiting assignment in Asia for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he is an associate director of admissions, Smith agreed to serve as The New York Times’ onboard eyes and ears. His written and oral account, which included interviews with fellow fliers, provided much of the material in this article.
Smith’s travel agent, while preparing the itinerary, had urged him to book SQ 22 as the closing leg. “You are really going to enjoy this experience,” Smith was assured.
It became apparent to Smith before he sank into his beige window seat, 11K, and clicked shut his belt that the agent was prophetic. There was no rush to fill overhead storage bins. Attendants addressed him by name. The air was scented. “Hot towels, reading materials and drinks appeared almost magically,” he said, “all of this before we even left the gate.”
Smith struck up a conversation with two SQ 22 veterans, John Shettle and Joanne Lau. They assured him that accumulated stress dissipates because of the plane’s calming ambience and valetlike service. Shettle said he never witnessed even a hint of “air rage” from anyone on his numerous excursions.
Amenities aside, regular passengers embraced the route in either direction for delivering them as rested as one can be from spending more than three-quarters of a day in a winging capsule. (It helps that each seat converts into a close facsimile of a bed.) Alternatives require switching planes, which can tack several hours and fatigue onto the trip.
Why is such a beloved route being retired?
The airline’s explanation is that it is selling its small fleet of Airbus A340-500 aircraft, which also operated between Singapore and Los Angeles until last month.
Aviation analysts blame economic realities. A barrel of crude oil has tripled in cost since the inaugural voyage of SQ 22 in mid-2004. (For four years, patrons could choose between business and coach class, which was still upscale enough to serve buffet meals.)
“Ultralong-haul flights like this are essentially flying jet fuel tankers,” said Robert Mann, an industry consultant based in Port Washington, N.Y.
Filling up the tank, which has a capacity he pegged at 57,000 gallons, is expensive. A prescribed minimum must be carried in case of a delayed landing or diversion to another airport, usually because of inclement weather, Mann said. Less fuel is needed for international flights that involve a stopover for refueling or a change of planes.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
The recession surfaced around the time that the Airbus became business-class only, with 100 seats, discouraging companies from splurging on pricey fares. Passengers recalled that on some runs they were nearly outnumbered by the double-size crew. A one-way ticket lately went for $3,000 to $4,000.
Smith found seatmates who contended that any extra expense was worth it. Tom Ward, a frequent flier for 32 years, told him that longer journeys could result in reduced productivity for on-the-job travelers and complicate adjustment to time changes. To Ward, the halting of SQ 22 and its reverse route, SQ 21, was an ill-advised business decision.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
For Smith, bound for home after completing his mission, the flight was all about comfort and frills. From a selection of a few hundred movies, he watched “42” and “Pacific Rim,” along with three episodes of “Bob’s Burgers” cartoons. One meal, served with china and silverware on a starched tablecloth, featured salmon salad, another a Singaporean chicken rice dish, both from the menu. Smith wondered what would have happened had he ordered an unlisted entree, as Shettle once did to satisfy a sudden craving. The sausage and pancakes soon appeared on his tray.
Smith did test the crew with a less challenging request. They came through with cookies, brought on a plate.
The least-expected luxury was discovered in the restroom, which was stocked with fresh-cut flowers. “I looked around for a paper towel. No paper towel,” he said, surprised to find a supply of absorbent cloth for drying hands.
Some fliers Saturday might have used the towels to dab tears of sadness. Adding to the dread of regulars is that the best choice left, at least on Singapore Airlines, is a flight with a stop in Frankfurt that arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Ward told Smith that no sane business traveler wanted anything to do with JFK, while describing Newark Liberty International as easier to navigate.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Richard Maxwell, who has made the trek twice annually since 2005 and logs 100,000 air miles a year, deplaned at the dinner hour Saturday with a reservoir of fond memories, none greater than the freshest one.
Maxwell, who said he would miss the consistent service and the flight’s timing, which dropped him off ready for duty, learned en route to Newark that he had become a grandfather.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Shettle, who has long drawn amusement from acquaintances who mistakenly assume that such an extended stretch in the air is an ordeal, told Smith that he was rarely eager to leave the plane upon landing.
The farewell flight for him and others, while awash in nostalgia, ended with no fanfare. A few goodbyes were exchanged and, after 19 hours of pampering, they returned to what Shettle termed the “real world.”
Just outside Gate B6 at Changi, they can turn out the lights. The party is over.