The coronavirus just resulted in the world’s new longest flight

Mar 17, 2020

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The coronavirus pandemic has snarled flight schedules everywhere, and in the process has created the new longest scheduled flight in the world — at least for one day.

Air Tahiti Nui, a small long-haul carrier based in French Polynesia, has beat the Singapore Airlines record for scheduled flights with a one-off nonstop from Papeete to Paris on Sunday, at 9,775 miles. Singapore to Newark, the daily nonstop on Singapore Airlines, is only 9,534 miles. The reason behind the Papeete to Paris nonstop is simple: The Air Tahiti Nui flight usually stops in Los Angeles, both ways, to refuel and pick up passengers. But now, with the travel ban due to the pandemic, that’s not possible. So the airline got creative, and decided to send the 787-9 Dreamliner nonstop to Paris instead, taking advantage of favourable winds and light passenger loads.

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Flight TN64 took off at 3:10 a.m. local time on Sunday, 15 March, and landed at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris at 5:54 a.m. local on Monday after 15 hours and 45 minutes in the air.

According to flight-tracking site Flightaware, the flight was actually planned at 9,995 miles, longer than the minimum distance between the two airports, and ended up covering a staggering 10,022 miles. That’s because jetstreams, the high-altitude winds blowing west to east, often make it more fuel-efficient to fly a longer distance but take advantage of tailwinds that can blow as fast as 200 mph. That saves a lot of fuel and flight time, even if the plane does cover more miles.

Those winds surely played a part in the airline’s decision to go nonstop, something which could not be done in the opposite direction, against the jetstream. The Paris to Papeete flight, which used to stop in Los Angeles, will now stop either in Vancouver, Canada, or Pointe à Pitre in the French Caribbean, as the coronavirus outbreak affects U.S. travel. According to the airline, in a statement quoted by a French news site, the Canadian stopover may be eliminated soon, since Canada may ban flights to Europe as well, while the French overseas territories in the Caribbean are formally a domestic destination for any French airline.

Another factor that made the nonstop possible is the scarcity of passengers. A fully loaded Boeing 787-9 just wouldn’t have enough gas to make it 10,000 miles; it has a maximum range of around 9,000 at full payload. But with the current slump in air travel, many flights are going out almost empty, and with less weight on board the 787 can go very far. For example, Qantas has recently flown a lightly loaded 787-9 on nonstop research flights from New York and London to Sydney, Australia; the former was 10,260 miles. According to Tahiti-based news site TNTV, the flight left with 150 passengers on board, about half the seating capacity of Air Tahiti Nui’s 787-9s.

It should be noted, however, that while the French carrier’s flight was the longest in the world by direct distance, Singapore Airlines still takes the cake for actual distance covered. On the same day that TN64 left Papeete for CDG airport in Paris, Singapore’s nonstop SQ22 from Singapore to Newark covered 10,253 miles, or 231 more than the Air Tahiti Nui flight. This month, SQ22 went as far as 10,324 miles according to Flightaware — again, a consequence of those jetstream winds. The Singapore flight is on an Airbus A350-900 ULR, which has a longer range than the 787 and can cover the route with a full load.

There is however one record that Air Tahiti Nui snatched and that won’t be beaten anytime soon, if ever: The longest nonstop domestic flight. That’s right: Passengers who spent 16 hours in the air did not need a passport. How? French Polynesia is a so-called “overseas collectivity” of the French state. Formally, it’s as much France as anywhere on the mainland, although it is not in the European Union. So, TN64 to Paris was a domestic flight, just like a 45-minute hop from Marseille.

What about the longest regularly scheduled domestic flight? That record belongs to France too. From Paris to the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion, a French overseas department, it’s 5,809 miles, flown nonstop by Air France, French Bee and Corsair.

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In the U.S., the longest flight is on Hawaiian Airlines, whose Boston to Honolulu service covers 5,095 miles over six time zones. We’ve reviewed that flight both ways, in first class and coach.

Featured image by Zach Honig/The Points Guy

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