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US airports have most ultra-long-haul flights in 2010, but emerging economies may shape the future

22-Mar-2011

As expected, Asian and Gulf airports performed best in 2010, according to Airports Council International (ACI) rankings of the world’s busiest airports, although there was some shift in relative standings. The 2010 ACI statistics provide clues as to the “busy-ness” of airports, but they don’t reveal the full nature of the business done there, or of the networks that they provide. US gateways rank surprisingly highly in ultra long haul sectors, while the Gulf airports show plenty of room for expansion - but finding the routes may take time.

See related report: World Airport Rankings 2010: Big changes to global Top 30. Beijing up to #2, Heathrow falls to #4 

In an age of 12-15 hour flights, the “reach” of air services can differ considerably. As global trade and tourism evolves, and aircraft technologies and airline business models develop, so the fortunes of the world's gateways fluctuate. But, as the system evolves, the rhetoric of ultra-longhaul operations can run ahead of the reality. For the time being the longest flights remain Singapore Airlines' New York Newark to Singapore service at nearly 10000 nautical miles and occupying a scheduled flight time of 18 hours 55 minutes. Fortunately all of the 100 seats are business class lie-flats!

Big domestic gateways still rank highly

Most of the airports ranked in the top tiers gain their status through domestic or short-haul traffic. Atlanta, for instance has certainly grown its international sector and continues to do so, but the bulk of its traffic is carried on flights within the US. The same is true of Haneda in Tokyo, which has only seen an influx of long-haul flights in the past few months.

Some airports, such as Denver, have very little international traffic but occupy a prime geographic location, making them logical points of connection. Others, such as Amsterdam, have virtually no domestic traffic but have an infrastructure and location that makes them natural hubs.

Like alliances, major airports try to avoid “white spots”; that is areas with little or no access that can diminish the airport’s connectivity and desirability. The advent of ultra long-haul aircraft has made it possible to connect to most destinations over a single hub and to circle the globe completely – near its middle – with only two stops (such as Singapore-New York-Dubai-Singapore), a feat unheard of just a few years ago.

In 1990, only a few services between Los Angeles and Sydney operated non-stop. Hong Kong to San Francisco, at about 6900 nautical miles, was just about the maximum distance possible with new B747-400s and a full payload was never guaranteed. Now, with their favourable geographic position, the Gulf carriers are able to link much more of the world with only a single transfer.

Wider net is cast by long-range aircraft

In 2011, such long distances are no longer a challenge, and the long awaited B787 holds the promise of connecting even more city pairs with non-stop flights. United (Continental) has already announced its intent to link Houston with Auckland and Lagos.

As it turns out, the beneficiaries of these ultra long-haul flights have so far been fewer than might be imagined, with most of them targetting points in the US and in Australia. To get a sense of just where you can travel on a 13-hour-plus flight, it is worthwhile looking at some of the world’s biggest airports and note their reach.

This short analysis also includes Sydney and the Gulf States, which appear to be prime movers in the connect-everywhere-to-everywhere movement. There are some surprises; some based on geography and others on probable demand.

US gateways show long sectors

The chart examines four of the primary gateways in the US and the long-haul destinations served from those cities.

US airports with services exceeding 6000 nautical miles

Between

9000+

8000+

7000+

6000+

New York (all)

SIN

 

BOM

AUH

     

DEL

BJS

     

SHA

DOH

       

DXB

       

JED

       

KWI

       

RUH

       

SEL

       

TYO

Los Angeles

 

BKK

HKG

AKL

   

DXB

MEL

BJS

   

SIN

SYD

IST

     

TLV

TPE

       

SHA

Atlanta

 

JNB

DXB

TLV

     

SHA

TYO

Chicago

   

AUH

AMM

     

DEL

BJS

     

HKG

SEL

     

SHA

TYO

However, Los Angeles is up there with Dubai in having three services that exceed 8000 miles, as well as a healthy list of 6000-mile-plus hops. In the grand scheme of things, New York slightly edges out Los Angeles; having 13 as opposed to 12 cities listed for LA with sector lengths of over 6000 miles, but Los Angeles is certainly holding its own in attracting distant points to its network.

Atlanta can thank Delta for its long reach and Chicago remains a battleground between American and United, with each trying to secure its position and network.

Europe - closer to many of its major markets

Europe is a lot closer to many of that continent’s major markets. There are a great many services that span 3000-5000 miles, which reach most of the world’s major cities. And some places, like Australia, are just too far for non-stops for current technology.

Because of its traditional standing as Europe’s longstanding primary point of connection - and a destination desired by almost every carrier - London is used as an example. And the result is that most of the world is accessible from London by flying less than 6000 miles.

European airports with services exceeding 6000 nautical miles

Between

6000+

London

BUE

 

CPT

 

MRU

 

SIN

 

TPE

Despite its long reach and high value market, it appears that the UK Government's Air Passenger Duty (APD), the decision against a third runway at LHR and other annoyances in the UK have resulted in Heathrow being the only major airport to lose in both movements and passenger throughput in the latest ACI world rankings. The airport was certainly affected by the Ash cloud and winter snow closures, but most of its neighbours managed to overcome these obstacles.

Asia - 7000+ miles sectors rare

The new geographic home of aviation’s “busiest” region is also relatively light on super long-haul services, other than to the US. The region’s preponderance of islands and lack of surface transport, along with rapid economic development, has caused air travel to boom. But few of the non-US points currently receiving direct service are far beyond 6000 miles. 

Asian airports with services exceeding 6000 nautical miles

Between

9000+ 8000+

7000+

6000+

 Bangkok     LAX  

Beijing

     

AKL

       

CHI

       

LAX

       

NYC

       

YYZ

       

WAS

 Delhi     NYC  
 Hong Kong     LAX  
      CHI  
 Mumbai     NYC  
 Seoul       NYC
        CHI
 Shanghai    

ATL

LAX
      CHI  
      NYC  
 Singapore NYC  LAX    
 Taipei       LAX

Tokyo

   

MEX

ATL

       

CHI

       

DFW

       

HOU

       

MIL

       

NYC

       

PAR

       

ROM

       

YYZ

       

WAS

Nonetheless, there are emerging markets that may soon warrant very long flights as links between Asia and Africa and South America strengthen. These are traffic flows that currently are travelling via the Gulf (or Istanbul) and may someday grow into nonstop connections. The high number of economic-driven US longhaul routes suggests that, as economic development occurs, these Asian gateways, already attuned to ultra-long flights, will see the bulk of the growth in this sector.

The Gulf - less ultra long-haul flights than conventional wisdom

The Middle East carriers do enjoy a great location. The vast majority of their flights are in the 3000-4000 mile range. Ultra long-haul flights are exclusively focused on the Americas and Australia.

Gulf airports with services exceeding 6000 nautical miles

Between

8000+

7000+

6000+

Abu Dhabi

 

CHI

YYZ

   

MEL

 
   

NYC

 
   

SYD

 
       

Doha

HOU

MEL

NYC

   

SAO

WAS

       

Dubai

HOU

ATL

YYZ

 

LAX

BNE

 
 

SFO

MEL

 
   

SAO

 
   

SYD

 
   

WAS

 

By operating to relatively few of these distant points, they have provided an alternative to the established routes via Europe and/or Asia. And while they consume a great many hours and aircraft, they are less prevalent that many assume. the other side of this story is of course that this leaves a great number of ultra long haul permutations still to be opened up.

Australasia - a long way from anywhere, but often too far for ultra-longhaul!

Along with Auckland and Melbourne, Sydney suffers from the tyranny of distance. But that very distance keeps the stage length for most existing flights under 7000 miles. Many of the other possible network points are simply beyond the reach of even today’s longest-range aircraft and there is much debate over whether or not routes like Australia-Europe or US East Coast could ever be profitably operated.

Sydney Airport services exceeding 6000 nautical miles

Between

7000+

6000+

SYD

AUH

JNB

 

BUE

 
 

DXB

 
 

JNB

 
 

LAX

 
 

SFO

 
 

YVR

 

So while Oceania is a long way from many of its destinations, there is a clear break point beyond which further flying is impractical. The one exception is Qantas’ new service to Dallas-Fort Worth, at about 8600 miles; desirable because it links QF’s passengers to the massive network operated at DFW by its alliance partner, American. This will initially be operated with a B747-400, requiring a return journey via the slightly nearer Brisbane; the arrival of the B787 should provide a both-way non-stop.

Where are the future ultra-longhaul sectors?

All of this begs the question as to just where additional ultra long-haul services might be deployed. There may be a limited number of options. Europe has few needs and the vast majority of intra-Asian growth will be regional.

Better links between Oceania and India will prove attractive, as that market grows. Also, there is considerable scope for increased direct service from China and other north Asian points to Africa and South America. Air China already connects Beijing with Sao Paulo but with an intermediate stop in Madrid. At a full distance of almost 11000 miles, that may be a one-stop service for a very long time to come. However Beijing-Lagos at 7100 miles or Beijing-Johannesburg at 7300 miles might be attractive with more efficient aircraft, if the demand develops. The carrier has also expressed interest in the past in establishing a base in the UAE, which could give it more permutations, some shorter, some longer.

But the world is becoming a different place. As long haul aircraft actually enable more effective trade flows, the sort of links that, for example, Incheon Airport established with Rio de Janeiro in 2009 may start to take on greater significance. The north Asia-Latin America market is underserviced and ultra-longhaul routes reduce the margins between travelling east (as for example the former JAL service linking with Sao Paulo over Vancouver) or heading westwards, via Europe or, more directly, via the Gulf, with daily Sao Paolo service. These respective sectors are "only" a bit over 7000 miles, but these are, after all, the trailblazers. Linking the emerging economy nations directly can be expected to become a feature of future world trade, as patterns shift.

And, as the global alliances become more powerful, linking the closed networks of their respective carriers, markets like South America may become more attractive for ultra longhaul non-stop operations of independent operators. Shorter sectors will necessarily dominate hub operations in the meantime, meaning that ultra long haul operations remain a relatively rare exception - at least for now.


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