Nonstop Vs. Direct Flights: What’s The Difference?

Nonstop Vs. Direct Flights: What’s The Difference?

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Is there a difference between a nonstop flight and a direct flight? If you ask the average person, they’d probably assume there isn’t. Meanwhile if you ask a frequent flyer, they probably do know the difference. I wanted to take a closer look at this topic — let’s first talk about nonstop flights, and then we’ll talk about direct flights.

What is a nonstop flight?

A nonstop flight is exactly what you think it is — it’s a single flight that takes off and lands once. The flight doesn’t make a stop on the way. In other words, if you fly without a stop from Tampa to Chicago, or from New York to Tokyo, or from Los Angeles to Paris, those are all nonstop flights. Pretty simple, right?

A nonstop flight doesn’t stop at an intermediate point

What is a direct flight?

You’d think that a direct flight would be the same thing as a nonstop flight. After all, the word “direct” is defined as “moving from one place to another by the shortest way without changing direction or stopping.” For whatever reason, airlines decided to redefine the word altogether.

A direct flight is a single flight number that includes one or more stops along the way. When you book a direct flight:

  • You have the same flight number for the entire journey
  • You generally have the same aircraft for the entire journey, so there’s no risk of misconnecting
  • You may or may not have to get off the plane at the connecting airport, as it depends on the specific airline and airport
  • For us mileage geeks, you typically only earn miles for the distance between the origin and destination, and not for the connecting airport (this only matters for frequent flyer programs that credit miles based on distance flown rather than dollars spent)

This differs from a standard connecting itinerary, where you typically have two or more flights with different flight numbers, operated by different aircraft, with the risk of misconnecting.

For example, Singapore Airlines flies between Los Angeles and Singapore. The airline has up to two daily nonstop flights, which operate between the two airports without making any stops, and take around 17hr10min. Then the airline also has a “direct” flight, which operates via Tokyo with the same flight number the whole way, and takes 19hr55min. Passengers do have to get off the plane in Tokyo.

Singapore Airlines’ nonstop vs. direct flights

Southwest Airlines is also known for its direct flights, though in the case of Southwest, you can stay onboard during any stops. For example, flying between Tampa and Baltimore, there are some flights with connecting itineraries, and some with “direct” flights, where you have the same flight number and aircraft all the way through. The below example shows a direct flight through Providence.

Southwest Airlines’ nonstop flights

What’s the point of airlines operating direct flights with one or more stops?

  • They’re typically operated either because the economics are better of making a stop along the way, or due to general limitations with how far an aircraft could fly; for example, Qantas operates from Sydney to London via Singapore with a direct flight, which is because there’s not currently an aircraft that can operate that route nonstop
  • Direct flights are often used as a marketing technique, both to make consumers feel like an itinerary is efficient, and also to give them the peace of mind of knowing that they won’t misconnect
Qantas operates direct flights from Sydney to London

Are nonstop flights also direct?

Here’s a topic that tends to divide avgeeks. Is it wrong to refer to a nonstop flight as direct? If you ask me, it isn’t wrong. After all, a nonstop flight is basically the very definition of “direct,” which is to move without changing direction or stopping. Yet that’s not how the term is generally used in the airline industry, where direct has a completely different meaning.

So if you ask me:

  • Technically it’s not wrong to refer to a nonstop flight as being direct, since it meets the very definition of the word
  • However, it’s more precise to refer to a nonstop flight as nonstop rather than direct, given the other meaning of direct; and if you’re talking to people who know a lot about the airline industry, referring to a nonstop flight as direct will perhaps make you seem a bit less knowledgable
Are nonstop flights also direct? It depends who you ask…

Bottom line

Nonstop and direct flights aren’t the same thing, at least as the airline industry views it. A nonstop flight goes between two places without stopping, while a direct flight goes between two places with one or more stops.

Unlike a standard connecting itinerary, though, a direct flight is typically operated by the same aircraft the entire way through, limiting the inconvenience of having to change planes and minimizing the risk of misconnecting.

What’s your take on the nonstop vs. direct flight distinction?

Conversations (23)
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  1. DWalker07 Guest

    Some comedian, I think it was George Carlin, questioned the term "nonstop flight". He said he preferred that his flight would stop -- preferably at the destination. A nonstop flight would go on forever.....

  2. Sharon Dougherty Guest

    The problem with direct flights or transfer flights is that it can take 7 hours for a 2 1/2 trip. Even the example used going from Tampa through RI to go to Baltimore makes little sense. You fly past Maryland to get to Rhode Island. Talk about going out of your way!

  3. Alan Diamond

    I ended up on a direct flight in China without even knowing it. The plane stopped en route and we had to deboard. I must have asked one of the stupidest questions ever to customer service - "where are we?" The inflight announcements had been made in Chinese and I literally had no idea where we were.

  4. Steven E Guest

    Ive been commenting on this all the time and get tired of not only airline executives but also aviation bloggers using the term incorrectly

  5. iamhere Guest

    I think you are missing a couple of important points.
    First many airlines operate direct so they can operate to and from more destinations. For example, people could just go on the one leg of the trip depending on how the route is structured.
    Second generally when this happens internationally you need to get off the plane. For example I flew Delta from Asia to Atlanta direct with a stop in Seattle. We...

    I think you are missing a couple of important points.
    First many airlines operate direct so they can operate to and from more destinations. For example, people could just go on the one leg of the trip depending on how the route is structured.
    Second generally when this happens internationally you need to get off the plane. For example I flew Delta from Asia to Atlanta direct with a stop in Seattle. We had to deplane in Seattle to complete immigration and customs procedures.

  6. Mike C Diamond

    Qantas used to operate SYD-LAX-JFK as QF11 (and back as QF12) with a change of gauge (A380 TPAC to B787 transcon). The first time I flew it I had the same seat number on both sectors, and one boarding pass for the entire trip. The (AA) agent at the re-checkin point at Bradley terminal was confused but a colleague told them it was fine.

    Qantas has or will have direct flights MEL-PER-LHR, SYD-PER-FCO and SYD-AKL-JFK...

    Qantas used to operate SYD-LAX-JFK as QF11 (and back as QF12) with a change of gauge (A380 TPAC to B787 transcon). The first time I flew it I had the same seat number on both sectors, and one boarding pass for the entire trip. The (AA) agent at the re-checkin point at Bradley terminal was confused but a colleague told them it was fine.

    Qantas has or will have direct flights MEL-PER-LHR, SYD-PER-FCO and SYD-AKL-JFK as well as SYD-LHR. I don't recall them referring to any of them as 'direct' flights.

  7. Gravitar Guest

    Don't forget about COG (change of gauge) a term that originated with the railroads.

  8. John bamforth Guest

    I fly swa quite a bit so am used to their direct flights. However, I struck a weird one with them earlier this year. I had a direct flight from tpa to lax with a stop in Hou and it was on a max8. The leg to Hou was as planned but then we were told we had to depart as there was a change of planes. It was confusing as we were in a...

    I fly swa quite a bit so am used to their direct flights. However, I struck a weird one with them earlier this year. I had a direct flight from tpa to lax with a stop in Hou and it was on a max8. The leg to Hou was as planned but then we were told we had to depart as there was a change of planes. It was confusing as we were in a separate line in Hou from the people boarding there. Fortunately we were allowed to board immediately after the people in wheelchairs - there were almost a dozen of them and before the a,b,c's. The plane from hou to lax was a 737-800. I was told the reason for the plane change was they needed the max8 to fly over water as the 800 wasn't certified to do so. That was a first for me.

  9. Mike C Guest

    I agree with George Carlin's take on the subjects -- I don't care for non-stop flights. No, I prefer that my flights stop. Preferably at an airport, because it's those unscheduled cornfield and housing development stops that tend to put a kink in your day.

  10. GBOAC Diamond

    Ben states "You generally have the same aircraft for the entire journey, so there’s no risk of misconnecting"
    Some of us veteran flyers recall a different type of direct flight, one in which there was a scheduled (as in planned) change of aircraft at the intermediate stop (usually a hub city). TWA did this regularly in St Louis and that typically involved a change of gauge (eg narrow body from SFO to STL and...

    Ben states "You generally have the same aircraft for the entire journey, so there’s no risk of misconnecting"
    Some of us veteran flyers recall a different type of direct flight, one in which there was a scheduled (as in planned) change of aircraft at the intermediate stop (usually a hub city). TWA did this regularly in St Louis and that typically involved a change of gauge (eg narrow body from SFO to STL and wide body continuing on to LGA).
    I was told the reason this was done was that direct flights appeared before connecting flights in airline computer systems so this was a way to raise the visibility of a what was really a connecting itinerary.
    I don't recall how the issue of seat assignments were handled.

    1. Sean M. Diamond

      @GBOAC - I remember doing this on a TWA flight from LaGuardia to Houston Hobby via St. Louis in the mid-1990s. We were on a 757 from LGA-STL and an MD80 from STL-HOU. We got two boarding passes at LGA - one each for LGA-STL and STL-HOU but with the same flight number. Those old TWA boarding passes were also something weird!

    2. GBOAC Diamond

      @SeanM. TWA appeared to do this a lot in the LGA market and I'm thinking it was a way to make it look like TWA had a lot of direct flights to cities that were outside the LGA flight perimeter.

    3. MJ Guest

      American still does this - a worker there told me once that they have too many daily flights and they run out of flight numbers to allocate. Thus, you'll frequently see the same flight number used for both the outbound and return legs of the same flight (e.g. JFK-SEA-JFK), or for two entirely unrelated flights in the morning and afternoon. About ten years ago American still was selling "direct" "same flight number" flights on some...

      American still does this - a worker there told me once that they have too many daily flights and they run out of flight numbers to allocate. Thus, you'll frequently see the same flight number used for both the outbound and return legs of the same flight (e.g. JFK-SEA-JFK), or for two entirely unrelated flights in the morning and afternoon. About ten years ago American still was selling "direct" "same flight number" flights on some routes, including SJC-BOS via ORD, however you still had to deplane in ORD, and the layover was over two hours and you connected onto a different aircraft than before. So, while technically a direct flight, possibly even on the same aircraft type, you still in reality were just connecting like any other connecting itinerary.

    4. TC Guest

      Years ago, I flew UA direct flight from JFK to HKG via either SFO on a single flight number. We were supposed to change plane at SFO. The first leg was delayed, and by the time I arrived at SFO, the flight to HKG has already departed, despite having the same flight number as the one I was coming in with. Don’t know if they still do it now but there is no guarantee they will wait for you even if you are on the same flight number.

    5. JJ Guest

      I was on a WN flight last month that was supposed to be SAN-LAS-BZN, I was getting off in LAS but the flight was so delayed. The FA announced for through passengers to stay on for Bozeman, but I checked flightaware and it had been assigned a new plane and left! Funny but disappointing I'm sure for the Pax. So this is even a risk on southwest.

  11. JS Guest

    If you take a direct flight with one stop, do you accrue miles for both segments combined, or only for the distance of an equivalent nonstop flight? Does it count as two segments or one? (For loyalty programs where that might matter)

    1. GBOAC Diamond

      In my experience you got the mileage between the departure airport and destination regardless of any intermediate stop

  12. Morgan Diamond

    I feel like you didn't really touch on the different types I.E. how some like QF SYD - SIN - LHR you could either leg, each time you get off the plane is cleaned, in others words it almost are 2 separate flights as opposed to another one where you may not get off.

  13. George Romey Guest

    Haven't seen one of those flights in years. Many years ago on Saturday AA had LGA/ORD/SNA. I was able just to stay onboard under my comfy blanket (when you still got blankets in F) and snooze for about an hour.

  14. James K. Guest

    I had an argument about this with a pedant the other day. "Direct" is increasingly used by airlines themselves for nonstop flights. I have seen Kenya Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Norse Atlantic, and Lao Airlines all refer to nonstop flights as "direct." Simultaneously, I have seen Ethiopian's "direct" flights with fuel stops called one-stop, Expedia lists the JFK-FRA-SIN as one-stop, Southwest lists their "direct" as one-stop or two-stop, etc.

    The words have changed. Regardless...

    I had an argument about this with a pedant the other day. "Direct" is increasingly used by airlines themselves for nonstop flights. I have seen Kenya Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Norse Atlantic, and Lao Airlines all refer to nonstop flights as "direct." Simultaneously, I have seen Ethiopian's "direct" flights with fuel stops called one-stop, Expedia lists the JFK-FRA-SIN as one-stop, Southwest lists their "direct" as one-stop or two-stop, etc.

    The words have changed. Regardless of whether you support the change, it's silly to pretend that DIRECT means what it used to when the industry is very clearly moving away from the term's traditional meaning

    1. BenjaminKohl Diamond

      Well sites like EXPEDIA and Google Flights don't have options for direct flights, they don't have the possibility of displaying that. So they display direct one stop flights as "one stop" even if the flights use the same number.

    2. Sean M. Diamond

      @James K. - exactly. The term "nonstop" has negative connotations in some parts of Africa, so most airlines avoid it in marketing targeted to those consumers.

      I remember the first time I realised this - a passenger was telling me how he would never book his parents on a non-stop flight because they were elderly and had mobility problems, so getting off a plane that didn't stop may be a problem for them.

      English is a strange language!

  15. Sean M. Diamond

    Nonstop flights are subsets of direct flights. Every nonstop flight is also direct, but the opposite is not the case.

    That said, the use of "nonstop" is not common in many parts of the world. I remember having issues with consumers in Africa not being fond of flights advertised as "nonstop", because it implied that the aircraft would not actually land at its destination. In cases like that, "direct without intermediate stops" is sometimes used...

    Nonstop flights are subsets of direct flights. Every nonstop flight is also direct, but the opposite is not the case.

    That said, the use of "nonstop" is not common in many parts of the world. I remember having issues with consumers in Africa not being fond of flights advertised as "nonstop", because it implied that the aircraft would not actually land at its destination. In cases like that, "direct without intermediate stops" is sometimes used in narratives like press releases and PR.

    IATA defines "direct" flights as those that carry the same flight number between two points, which may or may not have intermediate stops.

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Sean M. Diamond

@James K. - exactly. The term "nonstop" has negative connotations in some parts of Africa, so most airlines avoid it in marketing targeted to those consumers. I remember the first time I realised this - a passenger was telling me how he would never book his parents on a non-stop flight because they were elderly and had mobility problems, so getting off a plane that didn't stop may be a problem for them. English is a strange language!

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Sean M. Diamond

Nonstop flights are subsets of direct flights. Every nonstop flight is also direct, but the opposite is not the case. That said, the use of "nonstop" is not common in many parts of the world. I remember having issues with consumers in Africa not being fond of flights advertised as "nonstop", because it implied that the aircraft would not actually land at its destination. In cases like that, "direct without intermediate stops" is sometimes used in narratives like press releases and PR. IATA defines "direct" flights as those that carry the same flight number between two points, which may or may not have intermediate stops.

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Sean M. Diamond

@GBOAC - I remember doing this on a TWA flight from LaGuardia to Houston Hobby via St. Louis in the mid-1990s. We were on a 757 from LGA-STL and an MD80 from STL-HOU. We got two boarding passes at LGA - one each for LGA-STL and STL-HOU but with the same flight number. Those old TWA boarding passes were also something weird!

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