Over the Really Long Haul

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Just call me an aviation lab rat. My experiment was to fly on the world's first nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Singapore: more than 18 hours, the longest regularly scheduled commercial jetliner flight ever. In coach. Could I survive such stress? Would I be stricken with deep-vein thrombosis or catch a nasty bug, confirming the health concerns about long-haul flights? Would my brain turn to mush? I submitted

myself to this trial on your behalf, dear reader, because you may be doing likewise soon. The Singapore Airlines flight promises to be the first of an increasing number of ultra-long-haul flights on planes like the new Airbus A340-500, some using over-the-pole routing. Continental Airlines, for example, flies from Newark, N.J., to Hong Kong, a 16-hour ride, which until recently was the longest. (There are already dozens of flights in the 13-hour range.) Next up: Emirates Airlines plans to start flying nonstop from New York City to Dubai later this year, a 13-hour haul. When Boeing launches its 777-200LR in 2006, it will be a marathon machine with a range of more than 10,000 miles.

When I boarded the Airbus for the flight to Singapore, I could see that the airline, renowned for its good service, has made some dramatic changes inside the cabin. It removed seats and even made the aisles wider to create an "executive economy" section (full fare, round trip: $1,665). Once the plane was at cruising altitude I spent the first hour or so just getting used to the surroundings — exploring the stand-up bar Singapore Airlines created at the back of the coach section, ducking into one of the two windowed rest rooms or longing for the plush seats in business class.

Not that our coach seats were cramped. The new Airbus is one of the world's longest airplanes and can typically seat 313 passengers, but the airline installed just 181 seats to allow more room. There are 117 in coach in a 2-3-2 layout. Not only is each coach seat 5 in. farther than usual from the one in front of it, it is 20 in. wide vs. the typical 17 in. Even the aisles are wider: 20 in. vs. 19 in. If these differences seem minuscule, they're not: they gave me enough space to change positions, stretch (I'm 5 ft. 6 in.) and put my book and earphones down next to me on the seat. The seat has a pitch of 37 in., reclines 8 in. and has an adjustable foot and leg rest, useful for sleep.

As I was drinking the first of 20 glasses of water to stay hydrated, a guy two seats away started coughing and didn't stop for 10 minutes. I thought, Can I handle 18 hours of this? Should I have bought that surgical mask? I was still getting adjusted to my surroundings when a beautiful flight attendant in a traditional Singapore kebaya handed me a hot towel. I got up, stretched and walked around, which every long-haul veteran knows is necessary to keep your blood moving. I chatted with a few folks who were doing the same. I started one of my books, Jarhead, by Anthony Swofford, a former Marine's account of life in the military. Then, three hours into the flight, it was time for dinner: a swordfish-and-rice combo, accompanied by some Piper Heidsieck champagne. Who needs business class anyway?

I turned my attention to the entertainment options: 29 video-on-demand movies (there will be 60 by the end of March), 77 TV shows, 102 CDs, 12 music channels and even Nintendo games and mah-jongg. As a big Denzel Washington fan, I chose his latest movie, Out of Time. He looked great on the relatively large, 9-in. video screen. After a couple of hours with Denzel, I got in some serious bar time — Singapore Airlines has done what no other airline has done for years, which is to devote a large expanse of space in the coach section for passengers to mingle. Here you can get a full range of cocktails and soft drinks plus a variety of snacks. But passengers went for camaraderie: they spent hours chatting and stretching. It was so popular that the swells in business class, who had their own area, nonetheless migrated to the hotter meeting place in the back. It was like the country-club set discovering the trendy new place downtown.

As they are on all trips and especially the long hauls, the flight attendants are trained to keep an eye out for passengers who aren't handling the flight well: then the crew will engage them in conversation, offer them a drink or something to eat — all designed to lower the travelers' stress level. My stress was so low I decided I had to sleep. I easily dropped off and caught a four-hour nap. The cleverly designed seats have a headrest that bends to form a kind of a pillow: no embarrassing head drops onto your neighbor's shoulder.

So after a meal, a movie, some mingling and a four-hour nap, that leaves you with, oh, my God, nine hours to go. I read Jarhead for a little longer, then switched my video channel to the moving map display. It showed nothing but the huge blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Where the hell was Singapore anyway? Then back to the movies! Intolerable Cruelty zipped by. Then a couple of hours more sleep.

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