Boeing 777-200LR Paine Field Exclusively For Emirates Air by Erik Hildebrandt utilizing his own proprietary MachPod aerial imaging system mounted on the Wolfe Air Aviation, Ltd. Lear 25B camera ship.

MIAMI — True to Emirates’ style, one’s best is never good enough. Less than six months after it announced it would overtake the title of operating the world’s longest commercial route, from Dubai to Panama City, the Middle Eastern behemoth carrier is taking it a step further by launching nonstop service from Dubai to Auckland, New Zealand. The new nonstop flight to Auckland will effectively displace Qantas as the designate of the world’s longest route operator, as Qantas currently flies an 8,578 mile flight from Dallas/Ft. Worth to Sydney, on an Airbus A380, based on distance flown.

Qantas’ DFW-Sydney flight will hold the #2 slot for a mere 30 days until its ranking is bumped down again on March 31, the day Emirates’ Dubai – Panama City operation takes flight. The Panama City service was originally slated to commence on February 1, 2016, but the inaugural date was pushed back an additional two months. Henceforth, effective March 31, 2016, Emirates will operate the world’s 1st and 2nd longest flights, with Dubai – Auckland measuring 8,824 nautical miles, and Dubai – Panama City measuring 8,588 miles, while Qantas’ DFW-Sydney route will hold the #3 position at 8,578 miles.

Of course, it is important to distinguish that these flights are ranked based on distance, rather than actual flying time. The relationships between distance and actual flight time on ultra long-haul flights are not directly proportional, as “block time” on flights can vary day-by-day depending on wind conditions (favorable vs. non-favorable), the overall weight of the aircraft (full passenger load + cargo, fuel, luggage, etc), and of course, the flight routing. As such, distance flown tends to be the lead “qualifier” due to the fact that these figures are published in airline scheduling data as fixed, rather than variable, figures. As such, per the table below, Emirates’ flight to Auckland will officially become the world’s longest route based on distance flown.

The world's longest flights, based on distance, effective June 1, 2016. (Credits: Author)
The world’s longest flights, based on distance, effective June 1, 2016. (Credits: Author)

However, based on flying time, Emirates’ Dubai – Panama City flight will still rank #1 as the book. Though not as “official” as nautical miles, block-time generally is the more fashionable discussion point as customers like to think about it in terms of time spent with “butts-in-seats,” to phrase it bluntly.

The world's longest flights, based on block time, effective June 1, 2016. (Credits: Author)
The world’s longest flights, based on block time, effective June 1, 2016. (Credits: Author)

Ultra long-haul (ULH) flying has been, and remains, a hot, yet controversial topic of discussion since the early 2000’s. The excitement first started when Russia opened up the polar airspace in the early 2000s to commercial carriers. Then, things gained speed with the advent of longer-range capable aircraft such as the 777-200LR and Airbus A340-500 in the mid-2000’s, specifically designed by Boeing and Airbus under the mission of being the longest-range aircraft missions. More recently, the 787 and Airbus A380 have also been deployed on ULH sectors, connecting far-flung corners of the world, reducing journey times and becoming symbols of pride for global carriers.

Of course, the latter factor can muddle the business justification behind operating ultra long-haul routes. It’s no coincidence that airlines tend to be hushed about disclosing profit-and-loss figures of their longest routes in an effort to avoid public scrutiny, as operating expenditures can become very cost-prohibitive on such long legs. During the late 2000’s, soaring oil prices and the global financial crisis forced many global carriers to shut-down these routes. Many hyped-up ventures were canned within a short operating period, such as Air Tahiti Nui’s nonstop service from New York to Papeete, Thai Airways’ flights from New York and Los Angeles to Bangkok, and Singapore Airlines’ “all business class” configured planes from Singapore to Newark and Los Angeles.

However, the 787 and up-and-coming Airbus A350 has, to some extent, minimized the risk associated with ULH flying. Additionally, a more favorable global economic outlook and lower fuel prices have also created a renewed sense of hope in fulfilling the ULH dream as highly as it was anticipated a decade ago.

But the landscape is not entirely rosy – just yet. It’s noteworthy that Emirates announced its new Panama City – Dubai flight with major fanfare in August 2015, opening reservations and inventory well in advance only to postpone the inaugural date several weeks before launch (originally scheduled for February 1, now pushed back to March 31). Presumably, Emirates’ success on the route largely depends on formulating extensive codeshare agreements with locally-based Latin American carriers – namely Panama’s Copa Airlines – in order to stimulate higher load factors for this route. The Emirates – Copa codeshare unfortunately did not activate until late January 2016, with further extensions to Copa’s Colombia services activated early February 2016. Without the codeshare and connectivity options in place, Emirates likely struggled to fill the flight to Panama City on a standalone basis and therefore rendered the initial startup date as moot until the technical pieces were out of the way.

In other words, such decisions require careful planning and development in order for the routes to function successfully upon go-live, even for airlines such as Emirates who are well-versed in the ultra long-haul flying space (many of its North American routes fall within this category). Of course, there are some salient differences between Emirates’ Auckland service versus Panama City, the most obvious being that Emirates already serves New Zealand and has served the Auckland market with 3 daily flights operated 1-stop over Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. It also serves Christchurch, which was added in 2004, served as a 1-stop flight over Sydney.

But its more than that: it actually has more commercial value other than just claiming fame to the title of world’s longest route: it entrenches its presence in a distant market place with limited foreign carrier presence, eliminates a stop in a country that adds additional hours of transit time, and finally opens doors in a region where the presence of Qantas in the trans-Tasman market can be leveraged for further market share.

As-is, Emirates has an extensive partnership with Qantas that covers Trans-Tasman routes between Australia and New Zealand, as well as between Asia, Europe and the Middle East to Australia. It is actually a pretty massive agreement in scope, covering passenger and freight revenue share as well as codeshare terms, essentially allowing the two entities to function as one airline. It provides Qantas an offline link between New Zealand and Dubai, on Emirates’ metal, which can connect to Qantas’ London Heathrow flights operated from Dubai. In summary, the creation of 1-stop itineraries over Dubai to connect Auckland with Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia is a huge boon for Emirates’ nonstop route to Auckland.

The 777-200LR will also likely be a placeholder aircraft for Emirates until the carrier takes further action on a medium-sized widebody aircraft order, namely, the 787 or Airbus A350. The 777-200LR is still highly fuel-inefficient compared to the 787 or A350, and presumably, it features Emirates’ most dated premium class product. This will be a tougher sell on a route that is over 16 hours in duration.

Regardless, the movement into Auckland on a nonstop basis is a sound decision, and will of course require significantly less lead time than Panama City as it is an entrenched market where demand to reach other corners of the world on reduced travel time itineraries is highly needed, and appreciated. The needle has moved, and Emirates now has two thrones at the highest helms: who will overtake them next?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article, as well as any of Rohan’s published articles on Airways, are strictly his and do not reflect opinions of his employer in any capacity.