Singapore Airlines’ world’s longest flight: What it’s like to fly 18 hours in the back of the plane

Singapore Airlines’ world’s longest flight: What it’s like to fly 18 hours in the back of the plane

SQ22 passengers
Premium Economy passengers on board the inaugural SQ22 flight to New York. (Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

SINGAPORE: It’s past midnight on Friday (Oct 12). Singapore Airlines is making history bringing back what's arguably the world's longest flight, and I’m going along for the ride.

I’m on board the inaugural flight of SQ22, SIA’s new non-stop service to New York. It’s the first time the national carrier is serving this route in five years, after deeming it unsustainable - due, in part, to rising fuel prices - and axeing it in 2013. 

When it lands in Newark Liberty International Airport in around 18 hours, SIA can once again claim to operate the “world’s longest flight”.

I’m also one of the first in the world to travel on the Airbus 350-900ULR (ultra-long-range) aircraft, which replaces the A340-500 that operated SQ22 all those years ago. 

Speaking to journalists at the SIA Training Centre the morning of the inaugural flight, Captain S L Leong said the A350-900ULR, which is more fuel-efficient than its predecessor, is as quiet as the A380 and a “dream” aircraft. 

“It is everything that a pilot wants in an aeroplane,” said the veteran aviator, who was behind the stick during take-off and will take it again during landing.

The flight in a nutshell: There are 17 crew members, including four in the cockpit and 13 in the cabin. There are 150 passengers in two classes - Business and Premium Economy. 

I’m in the latter and here is my story.

10.30PM - B8 GATE HOLDING ROOM

After buying a neck cushion at WH Smith (I’ve been told it’s an essential accessory if I’m holding out any hope for a nap in Economy), I head to the boarding gate, where there is a reception for SQ22 passengers. 

Here, SIA's performing arts troupe performs a medley of New York-themed songs including Etta James’ At Last and of course Frank Sinatra's New York New York, with so much pizzazz that I wonder if they don’t all moonlight as wedding singers too.

11PM - BOARDING SQ22

I was one of the last passengers to get a confirmed seat on this flight, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn at check-in that I had gotten 32K, an aisle seat closest to the window - the best of both worlds, in my opinion. 

Upon boarding, I find out that the window seat is vacant, which is a really lucky thing because I was just wondering how on earth I was going to manage moving all my gear in and out of the overhead bin. Now I can just dump it all on the extra seat.

HOUR 1 - CHANGI AIRPORT TARMAC

I settle in in time for pushback. The taxiing is a long one - about 15 minutes - but soon, the wheels come up and we’re in the air. There’s a smattering of applause in the Premium Economy cabin.

HOUR 2

My pre-ordered Muslim meal arrives ahead of everyone else’s - as special meals do - and it’s beef stew with mash potato. 

I was planning to eat very lightly so I could sleep better later, but the potato is so creamy-delicious I scoff it all down in 10 minutes. Afterwards, I feel guilty and don’t touch dessert, which is a fruit crumble.

SQ22 diary meal
Beef stew with mashed potato on SQ22. (Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

As it’s the inaugural flight, media representatives including myself have been invited to cover it from beginning to end. 

As a result, the official supper meal service that ensues is the busiest I have ever seen. 

Every time a cabin crew member is about to do something, say pour wine or pull out a tray table, they’re asked to freeze for a photo. 

Meanwhile, a passenger is asked to poke gingerly at their food for another photo opportunity. There’s heavy camera equipment pointing into the cabin from every corner. I take a few shots with my teeny iPhone and slink back into my seat.

A few minutes later, the leading stewardess assigned to my zone, Ashley, comes by with a tray, even though she knows I’ve already had my supper. 

“I heard you asked about the Canyon Ranch dish. Would you like to try it?” 

Canyon Ranch
The cauliflower steak from Canyon Ranch's wellness menu was a popular choice on the inaugural SQ22 flight. (Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

Canyon Ranch is the wellness company SIA has partnered with to address the health element of an ultra-long-range flight and one of its recommended dishes appears on the menu each sector. 

For this sector, it’s roasted cauliflower steak with Tahini garlic sauce. Of course I had to try it. It was really good - thick and savoury with a quiet crunch. But I only eat half.  

HOUR 4 - SOMEWHERE OVER THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

It’s way past my bedtime and I’m ready to sleep. 

I know some people recommend sleeping a little later (and longer) so you wake up fresh and synced to New York time, but I believe you should sleep while you can. You never know what can happen on such a long flight. There may be bad turbulence or a baby may decide to cry and not stop. 

SQ22 bedtime
(Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

Just as this thought crosses my mind, the plane starts shaking and the seat belt sign comes on.

When it finally goes off again, I make a beeline for the restroom, wash up and change into some comfortable clothes, which include bedroom slippers I nicked from my last hotel stay.

HOUR 5

Back in my seat, I put on a face mask and hope I don’t give anyone a cardiac arrest, but one of the cabin crew pokes a cup of water in my face in the dark and I’m the one that gets a fright.

Hidayah face mask
(Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

Free SIA eyeshade and ear plugs - check. Vicks Vaporub (I don’t go anywhere without it) - check. Heavy-duty moisturiser for my neck and hands - check. Neck pillow - check. I’m ready to sleep.

HOUR 5 - NEAR KAGOSHIMA, JAPAN

I can’t sleep and it’s making me agitated because I hear we may get some daylight in the next couple of hours and I’m hoping to wake up to it. 

There’s intermittent turbulence and contrary to what I’ve been told, the A350 isn’t that “quiet”. 

The engine is roaring somewhere beneath me and the ear plugs keep popping out. I notice some of my neighbours have thrown their blanket over their head like a little tent and I do the same. 

Ooh this is lovely. Goodnight, world.

HOUR 9 - NEAR ADAK ISLAND

I toss and turn a little bit, but manage to get about three hours’ sleep, which is a miracle for someone who never sleeps on the plane.

I must credit SIA for the 38-inch seat pitch and eight-inch recline, which along with the calf rest and foot bar, give me the illusion that I’m somewhat laying down.

I would’ve slept longer, but one of the babies in the cabin is screeching. I hear his mum tell someone: “He’s fine, he just needs his breakfast.” Really? Well I just need a bit more sleep.

At this point, a thick, sulphurous odour fills the cabin. Ahh … The inevitable in-flight flatulence. I dig out a chocolate cake I saved from the Canyon Ranch meal earlier and eat it under my “tent”.

HOUR 10

I can’t find a movie I’m particularly interested in, so I do what everyone else seems to be doing and watch Ocean’s 8. Besides, I’ll watch anything that has Sandra Bullock or Sarah Paulson.

Sandra Bullock SQ22
(Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

The cabin crew are giving out hot snacks from the “refreshment” menu, but the galley steward already passed me a chickpea masala croissant after my nap earlier so I pass. 

I also say no to the mango mousse cake, but when the steward comes around again with an agave lemonade that’s “only available on this flight”, I cave.

HOUR 11

I’m starting to feel lethargic, even though I’ve been taking a walk every hour, mostly to go to the toilet. 

On this particular break, I linger a little longer in the restroom to study myself in the mirror and this is when I notice the static flyaway hairs. For some reason, they’re all white hairs. 

And I don’t know why, but I spend the next 30 minutes slowly plucking them out. I get to three before it occurs to me that I might be hallucinating.

HOUR 12

To save myself from growing bald, I go back to my seat and watch the Canyon Ranch exercise video. They’re all exercises you can do in your seat, like rolling your shoulders backwards and forward, and raising your arms over your head to stretch your back.

HOUR 13

I’m just staring into space now. 

When I snap out of it, it’s to go on another toilet break. While there, I see the cabin crew having a briefing in the aft galley and I catch the words “early meal service” and “bad weather”. 

Later I find out they’re shifting the breakfast service forward in case the flight gets hit by turbulence from Hurricane Michael. I can’t decide if I’m excited to eat again or worried about Mike.

HOUR 14

While watching the flight map (it’s really quite hypnotising), my head starts to hurt so I pop some painkillers, get my water bottle refilled and guzzle the lot. 

I read somewhere that you should drink around five litres of water on a flight that’s 18 hours or more. I think I’ve only had two litres since boarding and am a little dehydrated. Ooh I smell bread rolls - the food should be out soon.

HOUR 15

Ooh, they were mini croissants. I get one with my Muslim meal, which is a chicken frittata and some fruit. 

There’s only one Canyon Ranch offering per flight and the cauliflower steak was it, so I have only one meal this time, like a normal person. 

SQ22 meal service 2
Breakfast of chicken frittata on SQ22. (Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

HOUR 16 - SOMEWHERE BETWEEN TORONTO AND MONTREAL

I need a shower badly. 

It’s starting to get warm in the cabin and I’m sweating. I’m also starting to crave the sun, but that’s probably because I can’t seem to find any of my stuff, even with the personal reading light on. 

I’m not the only one. 

A passenger in front of me has been searching high and low for his earphones, which he says he was “just holding” and a few others have shone their phone torchlights on me looking for goodness-knows-what. 

My lips are so chapped it’s like they’ve got paper glue on them and I don’t know where my lip balm is.

5.29AM (US EASTERN TIME) - NOW WE'RE IN NEW YORK...

Touched down after a total flight time of 17 hours and 52 minutes. 

I’m in New York and not suffering from cabin fever or deep vein thrombosis - some of the conditions associated with long-haul flights. 

My verdict: 18 hours sounds like a lot and in fact, it is, but despite some interesting experiences, the time flew by for me. 

SQ22 is a great deal for travellers looking to save time and avoid transfers. And with the right seat and some pre-flight planning, it could be a dream - even if you're not flying Business. 

READ: Operating the world's longest flight: Singapore Airlines crew give a behind-the-scenes account

World's longest flights Singapore Airlines
Graphic on the world's longest flights. (Graphic: Rafa Estrada) 

Source: CNA/hs(rw)

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