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Can 18 hours in the air be bearable? Airlines bet on ultra-long-haul flights

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Last Thursday, the world’s longest non-stop flight — a 15,343-kilometre , 18 1/2-hour journey from Singapore to Newark, New Jersey, on Singapore Airlines’ new Airbus A350-900 Ultra Long Range aircraft — touched down, raising the bar for super-long-haul travel, which most industry experts define as any flight more than 12,875 km one way.

New, lighter and more fuel efficient, dual-engine aircraft — including the Airbus models and Boeing’s Dreamliner — make flying for nearly a day economically viable as the number of ultra-long-haul flights increases.

A Singapore Airlines jet.
A Singapore Airlines jet.  (SINGAPORE AIRLINES / The New York Times)

Singapore’s new route, which takes 18 hours and 45 minutes in the opposite direction, is not the only rear-numbing new itinerary. In March, Qantas Airways launched a London-to-Perth route. It is the third-longest flight at about 14,485 km , according to the aviation industry consultancy OAG, after Qatar Airways’ Doha-Auckland route. In September, Cathay Pacific Airways began flying 8,153 miles, its longest route, between its base in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C. In late November, Air New Zealand plans to add service between Auckland and Chicago, its longest flight at a distance of about 13,200 km.

As flight times grow, carriers are experimenting with everything from healthy menus to onboard gyms to make almost 20 hours in the air more bearable. Business classes are the beneficiaries of most of the new investment. Some airplanes, like Singapore Airlines’ new craft, contain only business (a recent round-trip fare was $5,000 U.S.) and what are called premium economy seats ($1,498 round-trip in December), which are more spacious than standard coach. But across the industry, even regular economy passengers will find extra perks.

Healthier and better-timed food

Business-class flyers on Singapore Airlines from Newark can still get dishes by its partner chef, Alfred Portale, of Gotham Bar and Grill, but with its new Newark-Singapore route, the airline is introducing meal options created by the spa Canyon Ranch. Available in both classes of service, the dishes might include prawn ceviche (170 calories), seared organic chicken and zucchini noodles (370 calories) and lemon angel food cake (140 calories).

Working with researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Center, Qantas offers lemon and ginger kombucha, wake-up shots of probiotic-infused juice and sleep-inducing tea in its top two classes. In addition, meals are delayed upon take off to align closer to meal times at the destination to help travellers adjust to time-zone changes.

And then there’s food on demand. Rather than requiring passengers to climb over sleeping neighbours to reach the galley for a Coke midflight (not necessarily bad, from a movement perspective), Air New Zealand will allow passengers on its newest super long-haul flight to order snacks via the touch-screen entertainment system.

Relaxation, hydration, yoga and sleep strategies

Well-being exercises on some of the new long-haul flights go beyond the extend-and-flex directions of older exercise programs. In some cases, they are beginning before passengers even get on the plane.

When it launched its Perth-London route earlier this year, Qantas created a new transit lounge at the Perth airport for business class travellers featuring stretching and breathing classes offered every 15 minutes, bathrooms with light therapy in the shower suites designed to help travellers adjust to time changes, and a hydration station with fruit-infused water and herbal tea. An open-air terrace is open to flyers in all classes of travel.

Earlier this year, Cathay Pacific joined with the international yoga studio Pure Yoga to launch a new in-flight wellness program called Travel Well with Yoga. Six videos feature yoga and meditation exercises to improve circulation, mobility and relaxation.

Singapore Airlines’ partnership with Canyon Ranch extends to guided stretching exercises demonstrated by the spa’s exercise physiologists in videos on the seat back entertainment systems. The onboard e-library also includes suggested sleep strategies, and flyers who download the airline’s app may receive push notifications with the advice.

Gyms, bars and nurseries

As far back as 2005, according to reporting in the Guardian, Richard Branson touted the advent of casinos, gyms and beauty salons on aircraft, which never fully materialized. More recently, the Middle Eastern carriers, including Etihad Airways, which sells an apartmentlike suite, and Emirates, which offers showers, have offered deluxe amenities in their highest service classes.

Now Qantas aims to reimagine how aircraft cabins are designed to include, possibly, bars, children’s nurseries and exercise areas. Its new exploratory program called Project Sunrise has challenged aircraft-makers to design planes that could fly more than 20 hours between Sydney and London or New York by 2022. The airline is exploring how it can convert space not suited to seats into bars, stretching zones and work and study areas.

In part the efforts are motivated by Australia’s remote locale relative to other major airports. “We’re not a hub carrier, we’re an end-of-line carrier,” said Phil Capps, the head of customer experience at Qantas. “We have to take the customer more seriously than other carriers might in global hubs.”

Sleeping and sitting (more comfortably) in coach

The most exciting onboard amenities that have been proposed, such as gyms, tend to be restricted to business and first-class flyers, and most analysts think such offerings, if they can’t be monetized, won’t fly. But Qantas is also considering repurposing part of its cargo holds on long-haul aircraft, and converting them to economy sleeping bunks and areas for passengers to walk around and stretch their legs.

When Air New Zealand begins its service between Chicago and Auckland with the Dreamliner 787-9 V2, the 15- and 16-hour flights, depending on the direction of travel, will include two coach classes. In Premium Economy, 33 seats will offer 41- to 42-inch seat pitch, leg and foot rests. In the 215-seat economy cabin, the Economy Skycouch combines three seats sold together with leg rests that extend 90-degrees up to create a five-foot, one-inch couch for a more comfortable place to sleep.

The growth of long-haul routes has even revived dreams of supersonic travel 15 years after the Concorde was cancelled. In Denver, a company called Boom is building a supersonic 55-seat plane that it aims to begin testing next year that would eventually fly from New York to London in three hours and 15 minutes, rather than seven hours.

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Travel & Escape

Dealing with baggage on your trip

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(NC)Nothing is more embarrassing than having to unpack your baggage at the airport. It’s common to overpack because you want to make sure you have everything you need for your trip – the right shoes, a jacket in case it’s cold, a bathing suit in case there’s a pool. But you must be mindful of the baggage restrictions. So, how can you be smart with your baggage when travelling?

The first thing to do is talk to your TICO-certified travel agent about the weight restrictions and number of bags you are allowed to take. Some airlines charge per bag, while others may offer one bag for free depending on weight.

You’ll also need to know if there are security requirements for carry-on and checked baggage. For example, there may be prohibited items such as gels and liquids. These limitations vary from airline to airline and depends on if your flight is international or domestic, so you’ll need to check the policy of the airline you’re travelling with.

Naturally, you want to avoid incurring baggage fees, so talk to your travel agent, or contact the airline directly. You can also visit their website to review the luggage policy.

Here are a few more tips to help you manage your baggage when travelling:

  • Clearly label all baggage with your name, home address, and contact information
  • Place an identification tag inside the baggage in case the outside tag is torn off
  • Lock bags with CATSA/ACTSA travel locks
  • Put a colourful ribbon or other identifying marks on your bags so they are easily recognizable
  • Carry valuables in your hand luggage; jewelry, money, medications, important documents, etc.

You can’t carry everything with you, so be smart when you pack. Take only necessary items and focus on your trip.

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Travel & Escape

What travellers need to know if a destination wedding is cancelled

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(NC) It’s two weeks before you’re scheduled to attend a destination wedding and then you get the call. The wedding has been called off.

Sure, you’re upset for the couple, but now you’re faced with plane tickets and hotel reservations. So, what can you do?

There’s no reason why you can’t go and enjoy the trip, but bear in mind you may face a price increase, especially if this was part of a group booking. Group bookings often include a minimum number of travellers to get the discounted price, as well as terms and conditions regarding changes or cancellations.

You could ask other travellers to come along to keep the group discount. But name changes often count as cancellations based on the terms of the vacation package and premium charges may apply. If you booked with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour company, it’s better to contact them and ask about options before making any decisions.

While it’s devastating for the couple who planned the destination wedding, the fact is that the cancellation affects all the confirmed guests. So, it’s important to know your options so you can salvage an unfortunate situation. Always book with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour operator so you can circle back and find out what they can do for you.

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Travel & Escape

Be safe not sorry when booking travel online

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(NC) With so many travel websites available these days, many people are choosing to book their vacations from the comfort of their own home. Many travel websites are easy to navigate, and offer great vacation packages, so it seems to make sense.

But before you hit “submit”, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Here are a few tips that can make you more aware when booking travel online:

  • Look for the TICO registration number or logo. All Ontario travel agencies and websites must be registered with TICO, the provincial travel regulator that provides consumers with protections if they don’t receive travel services. The registration number or logo is usually found in the About Us or Contact sections of the website.
  • Know where your credit card payment is going. Some websites are only search engines or booking agents for other providers.
  • Review the terms and conditions, particularly those that relate to cancellation, changes to bookings and refunds. Know what the travel agent or tour operator’s responsibilities are.
  • Keep a paper copy of your transactions, correspondence and confirmations.
  • Double check which currency the prices are quoted in. You could be paying in Euros instead of Canadian dollars.
  • Keep in mind that tax amounts can vary in travel advertisements. Ontario travel agencies and websites can display their taxes in four different ways:
    • A total price
    • A base price plus total taxes, fees and additional charges
    • A base price with a detailed breakdown
    • All taxes, fees and additional charges.
  • Research your destination to find out if there are any travel advisories, which can be found on the Government of Canada website.
  • Check the online travel agency’s website for a live-chat feature, email address or toll-free number to talk to a travel agent. Travel agents are a great resource to answer any questions you may have to ensure you are making an informed travel purchase.

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