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.
- 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?
- 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?
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)?