Greetings! Before we get started, do you remember back on February 3 when I wrote how I had just seen the longest commercial flight in history land at LAX after a 8,760-mile journey from Singapore? I also said I was supposed to be on that flight, but canceled at the last minute. I didn’t say why, but it was mostly due to fear (more on that later).
I always believe things happen for a reason. As it turned out I’m happy I was not on that flight, because the record was short-lived. A few months later Singapore Airlines beat its own world record for the longest nonstop commercial flight — by a lot — and guess what? I was booked on that one. Yeah, baby! (I imagine everyone reading this is dancing with their hands in the air!)
It all began when I received an incredible phone call from my travel agent. The conversation went like this: “Johnny, how would you like to take the longest commercial flight in the world”? “That would be something. But how long is the flight?” “Eighteen and a half hours on a plane, nonstop.” “Wow, that’s long! How much?” “$3850.” “Ouch! That’s for coach?!” No, biz.” “That’s incredible. What’s the normal published fare?” “$5150.” “Dang! You da man! I’ll take it!”
In case you’re interested, the travel agents I use are John Dekker and Sam Hakim from CheapDutchGuy.com. They only do deep discounted international business and first class tickets. They can be reached at 800-564-6695.
The nonstop flight is Singapore to New York (Newark). That’s 10,335 miles — almost halfway around the globe (the earth’s circumference is 24,881 miles). It’s amazing a plane can travel that far.
That night I went to bed wondering what the heck I was thinking. Being stuck in a plane for that long is one of my greatest fears. That’s because between the ages of 18-21 you couldn’t even drag me on an airplane. Back then I was so full of fear from my over- prescribed asthma medicine that I could barely leave the house. My parents thought I would be a “homeboy” forever, so they brought me to all kinds of doctors and shrinks. Finally, the last one I visited — a homeopathic doctor originally from India, Dr. Currim gave me a new life by weaning me off my anxiety-provoking medication.
However, I must admit that even today I get a little nervous about flying “long hauls.” It’s not that I worry about mechanical or terrorist problems (though they do cross my mind). I’m more afraid of what my original asthma doctor said to me back in high school, when I was about to fly to Australia on a dream trip with my mom. I still can’t get “You might have a hard time breathing on such a long flight because the cabins are only pressurized to 8,000 feet” out of my head.
Now you can understand why long flights freak me out. In fact, this whole trip to Asia had a bit of a damper on it, because the entire time I was constantly thinking, How the heck am I going to get on this plane and fly 18 and a half hours home? I practically worried myself to the point that I wasn’t sure if I would even get on the plane.
I was packing for my return trip home when I realized I bought way too many gifts. I went down to the concierge and asked where I could purchase an extra bag. He told me not to worry; guests leave plenty of luggage behind. He went into the back closet and brought out a nice suitcase, at no charge (I tipped him well). How’s that for service?
Back in the room I had CNN on TV, and guess what they were talking about? The flight I was about to take. They called it a definite milestone for aviation. The commentator also said he wondered who in his right mind would take the flight. All I could do was gulp.
To answer that question: Many business travelers prefer nonstops, because they save four to six hours over existing routes that stop in either Europe or Asia. The flight does cost a bit more, but as you will see it’s well worth it.
I left my hotel at 10 a.m. and arrived at Changi Airport 15 minutes later. It was a short walk to the check-in counter. The airport was quiet except for the row for check-in for the New York flight. There was excitement in the air, probably because of the huge banner above the counter boasting about the historic flight.
I stepped up to the Raffles Class (Business Class) counter. Several minutes (and a few security questions) later I had my ticket. I watched my two checked bags labeled EWR (airport code for Newark Liberty Airport) go down the conveyor belt, and I was good to go.
The airport and airline really made a big deal out of the flight (as well they should have). There were signs all around Singapore, the airport, and in New York City, and the world travel press had talked about it for months. As I headed to passport control I (along with everyone else in the airport) was handed a little Singapore Airlines bag with an apple inside. It signified the new service – get it? Nonstop from Singapore to the Big Apple. Not a bad (and inexpensive) way to market the service.
All the passengers were invited to a cocktail party and press conference at the gate. However, before I mingled I wanted to check out the Changi Airport, about which I had heard so many great things. I now understand why this airport is constantly ranked one of the top airports in the world. It has everything a traveler needs: restaurants, shops, ATM machines, free internet … and more. The coolest thing was a free movie theatre for departing passengers. Not a bad way to pass time. (Just as important, the airport is also very efficient and clean.)
I made a few phone calls to loved ones just in case — God forbid — something happened. After all, this was the first flight, so how did they know the plane could make it that far? Everyone I spoke to was very excited for me — except my brother Frank. Who said “You’re what?! Taking the very first … What are you, crazy?! This thing has been all over the news. You know it’s a prime terrorist target! Can’t you take the second flight?”
I said, “Frank, whoa! Hold on, cowboy. First of all, it will be fine. Second, it’s too late — I already checked in. Third, this is something I not only have to do but want to, for myself.” He wished me luck, and said he loved me. I put my cell phone away, shook my head to keep my focus, then walked to the gate.
The flight departed out of gate F52, where they threw a big shindig. How many times have you seen a party at the gate? The place was packed with passengers, airline executives and members of the media, all enjoying free champagne and a buffet.
To get into the gate area I had to go through a secondary security check – but that was comforting, especially after the conversation with my brother. Once I cleared I was handed another gift by two pretty flight attendants. This one was a commemorative plaque. I also had a Polaroid picture taken in front of a Singapore-NY poster.
I arrived to the gate just in time. The press conference was beginning, and the heads of the airline and airport spoke about the new service. The highlight came when a contest winner officially said: “Singapore Airlines Flight 22 service to New York is now ready for boarding.” Everyone clapped, and they cranked “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra. That was a nice touch, and it got me pumped up to go back to the U.S.
As I boarded the plane I felt privileged to be part of such a momentous occasion. I asked to take a picture with the flight attendants using my camera underneath the boarding sign. Then all the photographers pointed their cameras at us, because I was the only passenger to pose with the flight attendants. A flight attendant whispered in my ear, “Wow, I feel like a movie star.” I did too.
Singapore Airlines uses two doors, so boarding was quick and painless. I walked to my seat without stopping. Boarding also went quickly because there was plenty of overhead luggage space.
Singapore Airlines uses specially outfitted A340-500 planes (they have five) that are used only for their Singapore-New York and Singapore-L.A. long-haul routes. They are brand spanking new — the one we were on was only three months old. What’s especially great is that these planes are designed for 313 passengers in a three-class configuration, but they have only 181 seats in two classes: 64 in business class and 117 in executive economy. How sweet is that?
The coach seats are the nicest and most spacious in the skies. They are configured 2x3x2. They are 20 inches wide, have 37 inches of legroom (six inches more than standard airlines) and recline 8 inches. They even have foot and leg rests.
The Business Class seating configuration is 2x2x2. These bad boys are 26 inches wide. Even better, the seat backs in front do not invade your personal space. Instead, at a push of a button your seat (called a space bed) slides down into a 6.6-foot bed (at an 8 degree angle). Now that’s comfort!
For takeoff and landing, I sat in seat 19A. That’s a window seat right above the wing. My seatmate (I called him my roommate) was a really nice pilot for Singapore Airlines. He was flying to NY so he could fly a plane back in a couple days (because it’s a new service they had to position pilots and crew members). The poor guy — I asked him every question I could think of. He was a great sport to answer them all.
I found out that crew members are specially trained to handle these long-haul non-stops. They are not allowed to fly for three days before and after one of these flights, and get the duty only once a month. During the flight they rest for five hours (I think they should get more). Each flight has four pilots, including two captains, so there is no need to worry about them getting tired.
The planes are powered by four Rolls-Royce engines which are nice, quiet, and smooth. I flew on an A340 before, on Air Tahiti Nui to Tahiti, and loved it. Everything is nice about these planes– even the bathrooms. Would you believe they even have full length mirrors?!
One of my biggest concerns about this flight was boredom, so I brought 15 magazines, two books, and a newspaper. Guess how many I read? Zero! It wasn’t because I slept the whole time, either – in fact, I slept only two and half hours. The only reading material I even glanced at was the newspaper, to see if there were any articles or ads about the flight. (There were.).
The in-flight entertainment can cure anyone of boredom. Every seatback had a nice big personal video screen. In coach the screens are 9 inches wide; in business, they’re 10.4 inches. There are 65 pages alone in the entertainment guide, with over 350 (that’s not a typo) options to choose from. They offered 60 movies (from recent releases like “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton” to classics like “Citizen Kane”), 83 television shows (from “Friends” to “That ‘70s Show”), 56 video games (Nintendo and other games, including Trivia, where you play against other passengers – I got my butt kicked by the passenger in 39A), 12 channels of pre-programmed music, and 205 CD albums (from Jessica Simpson to Yoon Gun — a Korean singer).
The best part — get ready for this – is that they are all on-demand. You can start, stop and rewind whenever you like. And check this out for the on-demand audio: Passengers can make their own favorite list of music that will continuously play, or listen to album after album.
They also have a bunch of kids’ albums and movies. Speaking of tots: I was shocked to see how many there were on the flight. I would think a flight that long would be torture for the little ones, but they all behaved well. Thank God for the in-flight video system. As if that wasn’t enough, they even have books on tape, text news, personality tests, destination guides, and in-flight exercises to help prevent DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis is a blood clot in the leg).
In case you are one of those people who need to be in touch, each seat had a phone. Calls could be made from almost anywhere. I’m sure the prices were out of my budget, so I didn’t even check. Besides, I had a great time talking to the cool passengers and crew members.
When I wasn’t socializing, listening to music, or watching a movie, I was using my laptop. I worked for six hours – four hours longer than my battery lasts. I could have worked the whole flight, because there were AC plugs in every Business Class seat — and no special adapter was required. I was told that in economy they are in every other seat. There was no internet connection, but it will be available (for a small price) this fall.
I switched seats for the middle part of the flight, because my AC adapter wasn’t working (fortunately there were a few empty seats in business, though none in coach). I sat next to another airline employee, who was monitoring the in-flight entertainment. Get this: She was just flying to NY for the DAY! How crazy is that? She had to do the same flight back in 30 hours. That has to be some kind of record.
I also bumped into Joe Sharkey, who writes the business travel column for the New York Times. Although we had never met before, we knew of each another (he has been kind enough to write about JohnnyJet.com on several occasions – thanks, Joe!). He was sitting across the aisle from me, and we started talking. What a small world.
Every passenger received a little bag of amenities: socks, blinders, ear plugs, toothpaste and a toothbrush. That’s pretty much all you need. Still, I was surprised the kit wasn’t a bit more fancy, and included other toiletries like lip balm and moisturizer.
It’s pretty crazy to see the in-flight map 90 minutes into the flight read “17 hours and 14 minutes until landing.” Wow! The flight took us over the Aleutian Islands, which meant we were over land most of the time. (From Newark to Singapore, the flight travels over the North Pole). Our route took us over Japan (I never knew how exotic their southern islands look), the Aleutians, Alaska, Canada, and the Great lakes. Every couple of hours I switched my TV channel to see where in the world we were, and how much time we had left. It was so cool to travel so far in one day.
To remember the occasion I purchased a commemorative model plane from onboard duty-free. It came with a certificate signed by the pilot.
Everybody always raves about Singapore Airlines’ in-flight service, and they are always voted one of the best international airlines. Now I know why. The service was amazing. Our flight attendants worked their tails off. They constantly cruised up and down the aisles and addressed passengers by their names. They started while we were still on the ground, serving juice, and Champagne. Once we took off they gave us a multi-page menu, and hot towels before each meal service.
We were fed three main meals, and a light snack. The first service, lunch, came an hour into the flight. Appetizers were chicken and lamb satay. Then came duck foie gras, and a mizuna salad. There were four choices for the main course (and everything was always available). I had the seared beef with spinach and warm shell bean salad. Dessert was a choice of cheese, fruit, and the best chocolate ice cream I ever tasted. I could barely move after that – but they came around with designer mini-chocolates.
A few hours later they served a snack that I wasn’t into, because it was sushi and something made with pigeon. Yuck — two things I don’t eat. Who the hell eats pigeon, anyway?
That was okay, because throughout the flight light snacks were available. I could have ordered a sandwich, pizza, pasta or soup at any time. They also offered chips, cookies, and a nice selection of fruit. I must have had a dozen lychees, two dozen cherries, a honey kiwi, and a white peach. All were available on a counter table near the lavatories. That was where most passengers congregated, stretched, and chatted.
The second meal was dinner. The appetizer was orzo roasted vegetable salad with marinated lobster. For my main dish, I had chicken stuffed with artichokes, tomatoes and basil pesto, ragout of mushrooms with potato gnocchi, and rice vermicelli. It was tasty.
The last meal, breakfast, was served at 6 a.m. Singapore time — but 6 p.m. New York time. It was just a couple of hours prior to landing. I think they should have served the meals the reverse way, so our bellies would be on New York schedule. I had poached eggs with spinach, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and chicken sausage. The food was excellent — probably the best food I’ve ever eaten on a plane.
The highlight of the entire flight was definitely landing. It still blows my mind that a plane (with me on it) was able to travel this great distance. When we came into Newark we flew alongside to the New York skyline. It was a beautiful sight, and brought back memories of the Frank Sinatra song.
When we landed at 6:56 p.m., I was surprised no one clapped. I said to myself, What the heck – so I did. Once the ice was broken, everyone followed. The pilot got on the PA and said, “Don’t be alarmed, but there are two fire trucks on the runway. They’ll spray the plane with water as a welcome.” There were also 100 media and airport workers taking pictures of the flight from the tarmac. It was pretty cool to see even the baggage handlers working the flight snapping pictures.
When we got off the plane a bunch of Singapore Airline employees high-fived the passengers as we walked to passport control.
After I cleared customs (I was one of the first), I was asked by the Singapore Airlines PR person if I would comment on the flight to the all TV, radio and print media who were there. Of course I said yes, but first I had to put on a JohnnyJet.com baseball cap. There’s nothing like free publicity, is there?
The record could be short-lived – another airline could come up with a longer route — but what won’t ever die is the significance the flight has to me. Taking it is one of my greatest achievements ever. I just wish my mom was around physically to share it with me. She would have been the first person I would call when I landed. I would have said, “Mom, I did it!” She would have been so proud. I’ve come a long way — and I’m not just talking about distance.