Wow: 11 Passengers On The World’s Longest Flight

Filed Under: Singapore

There’s a Tweet getting a bit of attention in the aviation world today that I figured would be fun to highlight.

How empty is the world’s longest flight?

The longest nonstop flight in the world is Singapore Airlines’ service between Singapore (SIN) and New York (JFK), which is an ~18 hour flight that covers a distance of 9,537 miles. This flight is so long that it has to be operated by a specially configured A350-900ULR with extra fuel capacity.

Well, a Twitter user who is currently on SQ24 bound for New York shares that there are a total of just 11 passengers on the entire plane.

https://twitter.com/JTTsteve/status/1381654856285495305

For context:

  • There are 13 crew members (nine cabin crew and four pilots), so that means crew members outnumber passengers
  • The A350-900ULR features a total of 161 seats, which is an especially sparse configuration, since the plane doesn’t have economy — instead it has 67 business class seats and 94 premium economy seats

Business class on the Singapore Airlines A350-900ULR

Is this route usually so empty?

Singapore Airlines currently operates the world’s longest flight daily, so is it normal for there to be just 11 passengers on this flight? While actual flight loads aren’t public info, we can look at seatmaps for flights. Seatmaps in advance aren’t a 100% accurate indicator of how full flights are (since people can book without selecting seats), but they give you a good sense, and in this case I’d say it’s mostly accurate.

Looking at the Singapore to New York flight over the next few days:

  • Wednesday’s flight has 20 seats assigned — 10 in business class, 10 in premium economy
  • Thursday’s flight has 33 seats assigned — five in business class, 28 in premium economy
  • Friday’s flight has 25 seats assigned — six in business class, 19 in premium economy

And just to look at a flight a week from the current one that’s so empty, it has 14 seats assigned — four in business class, and 10 in premium economy.

So while 11 passengers is definitely on the low side, it does appear that this flight is consistently less than 20% full. Ultimately that’s not too surprising:

  • Singapore has among the tightest entry requirements of any country; most foreigners aren’t allowed to enter, and Singaporean residents and nationals need to quarantine upon arrival
  • While passengers can transit Singapore enroute to certain destinations, Singapore Airlines’ route network is fairly limited at the moment

Singapore isn’t open to most foreigners right now

Why is the airline bothering to operate this route?

Some logical questions emerge about this:

  • If this flight is consistently pretty empty, why is the airline operating this?
  • Is the airline losing as much money on this route as we’d assume?
  • Is it completely unconscionable to waste this much fuel flying a dozen people halfway around the world?

The reality is that while domestic US flights are packed nowadays, most flights between countries with border restrictions don’t have many passengers on them. Rather these flights are operating primarily to transport cargo, which still needs to get between countries. In some cases airlines are transporting vaccines and other essential, time-sensitive goods.

Singapore Airlines had suspended this route at the start of the pandemic, and resumed it in November 2020. When the airline resumed this route, it noted that cargo was a major motivator:

SIA also anticipates significant cargo demand from a range of industries based in the New York metro area, including pharmaceuticals, e-commerce and technology firms. The new service will provide the only non-stop air cargo link from the U.S. Northeast to Singapore, which serves as a regional distribution hub for many major U.S.-based companies.

So it’s clear this route is largely about cargo, though I’d still be fascinated to learn more about the logistics:

  • Under normal circumstances this flight couldn’t carry much cargo because it’s close to the maximum takeoff weight with just passengers and fuel
  • With fewer passengers there’s room for more cargo, but how much cargo are we talking about?
  • Is this cargo lucrative enough to make the route profitable even with just a couple dozen passengers?

Bottom line

Singapore Airlines continues to operate the world’s longest flight daily, even though it has very few passengers.

Many international flights nowadays are primarily transporting cargo, but this flight is unique for a few reasons. It’s the world’s longest flight, and it’s operated by a specially configured plane that usually can’t carry much cargo due to weight restrictions. I imagine the impact of cargo on this route has changed significantly in recent months.

Anyone have a better sense of how much cargo Singapore Airlines can carry on this route with so few passengers flying, and if that’s enough to make this route profitable (or at least not lose bundles of money)?

Comments
  1. I flew this back in the day on the A340-500 in the all J config. Only the front cabin was used, and about 50% full at that. The other cabins were empty. Maybe 20 of us on the flight? So not necessarily a new thing.

  2. I would jump on opportunity to take this long AF flight again ASAP but who know when Singapore will loosen up restrictions.

    Flew this route 3 times and I love it. Let me Netflix binge without distractions. Also I love Singapore, and waiting for moment to celebrate at marina bay sands pool again!

  3. What we need to consider and it can also be part of the light load :

    1) Business class passenger who transit cannot use the lounges in Singapore, you are parked in the airport concourse and cannot move/shopping/shower/sit with a comfortable chair….
    2) Singapore Airlines still sell Business class ticket without any flexibility, no thanks I just pass and pay more for Qatar Airways last week, even less convenient about timing, but easy to cancel.
    3) Singapore Airlines removed “book the cook” last year, so what the F&B offering actually ?
    4) Star alliance partners don’t have anymore SQ Award.

    How to make a great airlines/experience to become just OK.

  4. I flew to South Korea last Thursday from JFK. Only 40 on the plane. I regretted wasting points to fly in the front when I could have had a whole economy row to myself. Crew member said they fly mainly for cargo.

  5. So they just use their luggage storage to transport cargo? It does not seem they put the goods in the passenger cabin…

  6. 11 pax on an international longhaul flight these days aren’t exactly uncommon unfortunately…

    Some flights made up for it with cargo, while other flights are definitely loosing huge money.

  7. I flew SIN-SFO last week. Probably four pax in business, maybe two dozen in premium economy.

  8. @James if you want to fight global warming, stop using the internet. In absolute terms, using the internet accounts for a higher CO2 footprint than flying.

  9. Perhaps this route might be used for fear of losing the rights to keep this route, or clandestine reasons? Just saying!

  10. @ Henry
    The fright area on widebody aircraft is designed to and uses certain standard containers. These containers can contain suitcases or freight. I have been in the import business and sometimes one or more containers are reserved and sealed, being all freight from one freight company.

  11. Remember, SQ traditionally also flew a 744 or a 380 daily between JFK and SIN. This was direct service, not a non stop but also carried a lot of freight.

  12. I flew this a few times in 2019, and it was fairly full. I’d guess about 75%? The cargo aspect explains why the plane is relatively light in terms of seats.

    Speaking of seats – I really enjoy the J product, though the flip-over bed, which I find quite comfy, is a bit of a pain to use in practical terms.

  13. I think I stand corrected. Interestingly, the only option when I’ve been looking to book this fall is EWR. Haven’t come across the JFK option.

  14. 11 pax on a flight during covid. Big deal! So what? What other international routes, particularly long hauls and ultra long hauls on widebodies currently have 100% loading? None. I like SQ sticking to its schedule, regardless of pax load. That shows a commitment to customer service. If folks start ‘flight-shaming’ airlines based on number of pax and then airlines cancel flights as a result, can you imagine the mayhem of ‘flight lottery’? Will my flight take off today or not?! Cry babies should wake up and smell the roses (or in this case the exhaust fumes).

  15. Yes, par for the course these days. I was one of 6 pax (5 J, 1 Y) on an SQ SIN-LHR flight a few months ago. The return LHR-SIN had about 70 pax.

  16. I think the real bummer here is that, in premium economy, all the arm rests are fixed. So you wouldn’t even be able to sleep across a row of 3 or 4 seats. That would be a real downer over those 18 hours!

  17. @Joe you must have been living in a different age. The EWR flight was canned some time back when border closings commenced. JFK flights don’t even carry the same number, SIN-EWR was SQ21 and 22, SIN-JFK SQ 23 and 24.

  18. It’s interesting SQ switched the equipment back to a URL. As your previous post in October noted, SQ was relaunching the route with a standard -900. This made sense at the time since the forward cargo hold is deactivated on the URL so they would be able to carry substantially more cargo with such low load factors. Seems odd to swap back to the URL with reduced cargo capacity unless they took the time to “reconfigure” their URL back to a standard -900.

  19. @chris whilst often a critic of many things to do with the current global meltdown are you seriously criticising SIA for doing what 90% of airlines are doing and having a go at them as the lounges are closed which will be an airport operator/ Gov law/ Decree in the cast majority of cases. Whining about the ‘book the cook’ not being available right now is tbh just laughable.

    Yes for those flying up the pointy end not getting access to the things we would normally is absolutely a bummer and flying right now sucks but in this case it’s hardly unique to SIA or their fault.

    I think we need to have some perspective on things

  20. For those who booked Premium Economy, are they making them stay in PE or are they letting them move into J? I can see it from both sides – I’d be ticked off if I had paid for J and the people in PE were being allowed to move up, but at the same time there are 11 people… let them sit wherever.

  21. As someone who lived in Singapore till Nov 17.

    I am sure they have to sit in PE. SQ doesnt give free upgrades and Singaporeans are notorious for following the rules.

    As to why they are flying. The Singapore government is doing massive stimulus for such a small country. One thing they said is they will always support SQ as their flagship. So they gave a huge bailout, which was neccasary as flights were down so much. Now, however they are just flying as a round about stimulus to the pilots, crew and airport staff. I am sure they do some cargo but honestly thet could be done several more efficient ways.

    BTW this is not to be critical. The Singapore government did a realky good job of managing various impacted businesses and did not use a one size fits all approach to stimulus. The result is the mo ey went to people in need.

  22. Well it can’t be THAT much cargo, because the A359ULRs have an inactive forward cargo hold, with only a relatively few LD3 positions in the rear cargo hold.

    I wonder why use the ULR at all if they’re interested in cargo capacity?

  23. I flew LHR-LAX a few times over the past few months on various BA 777 (including the most recent F variation with doors which is really nice). Of the approximately 300 seats, the passenger count was 31, 57, and 19. F had 2-4 passengers per segment. My 4th flight was on a BA 789 to DFW, which had around 20 passengers out of 250 seats.

    The entire experience was surreal, with LHR feeling like a post-apocalypse ghost town. For nearly two hours on Saturday we were the only people in the BA Concorde Terrace (the makeshift first lounge).

    Keep in mind these light flight loads were after the majority of BA’s flight network was cancelled. The cargo on each plane was filled to the maximum.

  24. I agree that this has a lot to do with Singapore’s limited network at the moment. I was trying to go from LA to Bangkok and was facing an 8.5 hour layover in Singapore. My connection was canceled twice and I was then given an 18 hour layover. So I finally switched to an ANA flight connecting through Tokyo.

  25. @Endre – that’s interesting. Do you have a source for that statement? As from what I’ve read long-haul flying is indeed very polluting to the scale of one long-haul flight is as bad as one year’s driving. Producing cement, burning coal and others are worse still but using the internet I didn’t know.

  26. Although I am from India, I feel Singapore Airlines is doing a yeoman service by operating this flight. With the constant changes in lockdown restrictions and time based Covid testing rules which are impossible to comply with, getting a flight to reach your destination on time for your task is a blessing.

  27. I’m hereby ordering everyone into the business class for the remainder of this flight. Please fasten your seatbelt as we are now approaching our landing. Thank you for a wonderful 18 hours, it was a pleasure. This is your Captain.

  28. Doesn’t this flight have two full sets of cabin crew who work in shifts? So that would be 18 instead of 9. In any case the crew rest area on the A350 has 8 bunks.

    If it’s just 9 cabin crew how are they rotated throughout the flight? Do they all serve during meal/duty-free times and then take shifts throughout the rest of the flight?

  29. eat maps don’t even give a “good sense”, especially when an airline charges to select a seat before check in. I recently flew SFO – IST on the TK 787-9 and three days out, 8 seats were selected in economy. 8 hours before the flight there were only a few middle seats.

  30. I have to think the load factors are at least partially pandemic-related. While you can transit Singapore, the majority (if not all) of the lounges are closed. Entry into Singapore is still tightly controlled. If you are going through Singapore, you either are in the lounge holding area, or the airport hotel – which you cant leave once you check-in until your flight. Also have to believe the flight is at least partially subsidized

  31. Flew sq23 and 24 in last 2 months – i think 15~30 pax is pretty normal these days. Even more interesting imho is that we flew eastward on both legs – i guess to catch the jetstream and save fuel – probably the low number of aircraft in the air allows it during these times…

    I’d agree with Hal P that this is about keeping JFK slots – just my 2 cents

  32. @ Mangiafica

    You’re right, during normal times they operate this route with two separate crew compliments. I’d imagine they’ve reduced staffing due to such light loads. At my airline, we’ve reduced staffing to FAA minimum and are blocking extra business seats and are only using half of the crew bunks to socially distance. Crazy times.

  33. In Feb I flew EWR-CPH and on to London with Scandinavian.

    6 pax 2J 0W 4Y and A330 with 6 exit doors so 6 crew and apparently 3 pilots.

    This is not unusual.

    Back was a UA 787 with 25 on board.

  34. @James S and @Stuart

    Do you consume animal products? Animal husbandry’s carbon output is multiple times that of air travel. The carbon pollution isn’t even the only form of environmental degradation associated with farming animals. And the cruelty? If you eat meat and/or wear leather, kindly quit the virtue signaling and shut the front door.

  35. A flight with 11 people is making news, while near empty buses and commuter trains are running around us every day and every hour for the better part of the past 12 months, many of them run on diesel. I’m sure a mini-van can carry the same passenger load with a lot less carbon footprint than a bus or a commuter train. Heck, Uber is probably more carbon friendly than bus, and cheaper to operate.

    Why are flights being singled out?

  36. As a former SIA Cargo employee the company operates a express cargo product that is called Swiftrider on many of their international flights. The rates to use this service are published IATA rates and depending on weight and destination can exceed the cost of a first class ticket and the company will offload a first class passenger if so required but in most cases they would start with Economy, Premium Economy or Business Class first. It is a guaranteed service. There are no weight restrictions but it must be able to be loaded on a standard airline pallet or baggage container. This service is purchased by aircraft part suppliers, governments , medical supply providers or any other product that must arrive on a certain time and date. SIA started this service in the early 90’s and has been a very profitable product and used when service and upload is limited to a destination.

  37. Please note that this aircraft used on SIN-EWR can hold up to 6 lower deck pallets with a maximum of close to 44,000 kgs on a good day with minimal weight restrictions and passenger load. Given the current backlogs at US shipping ports and current high demand SQ must be making a mint as there are few if any that would fly cargo directly from SIN to EWR on a direct service.

  38. going out to IST from LAX about 3 weeks ago it was pretty much a full flight. coming back from FRA J was 70% full and economy probably 80%. just americans and permanent residents and maybe a few exceptional european or foreigner cases. LH and euro airlines would be dead if it werent for Americans…

  39. I flew this route two weeks ago. Most of the passengers were from Mainland China, who had to quarantine for 14 days in Singapore, as there is still an executive order banning non-US citizens and permanent residents who have been in mainland China in the last 14 days from entering the US. Singapore is one of the most convenient countries for them to transit as there are practically no restrictions on them entering Singapore.

  40. I will never fly SQ. Pandemic or no pandemic they are the worst service airline. Their staffs has the sort of take of leave it face. Not the most welcoming or even approacble.Once given a complimentary upgrade as fare paying passenger on gold pps than only to see a comment than I requested to be downgraded.Since when?Even they forgot to give me and my family a meal on PEN/SIN flight.Told the manager and he gave only a pathetic meal voucher! I swore to myself no more this mickey mousey airline. Now am happy and my family happy with AirFrance and VN and DL. Always get the prefrential treatment from AF.This SQ is a joke these days.

  41. @Nah

    You do realize the topic in this thread relates to 11 pax on a very particular SQ flight and not your happy family holiday??

  42. @Milo Buses, Uber – they have solutions on the way with electrification but the air industry is a long way from that and is just starting to take SAFs more seriously. I think the flight industry is getting more stick than it deserves and there are yes bigger areas to look at when it comes to climate, like @cargocult eating less meat. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a topic that is worthy for the air industry to look at and discuss. If we are to reach carbon zero by 2050, then flying greener has its part to play.

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