Airports echo with the rage of passengers who discover their flight has been canceled or delayed or who wait for hours for baggage to reach the carousel. Ticket prices soar as fuel costs do the same. The reputation of airlines and the experience at airports have never been worse. Yet the hunger of Americans to be up, up, and away again to Europe this summer after two years of pandemic constraint is insatiable.
Indeed, one U.S. airline, United, is offering nearly 500,000 more seats across the pond this summer than it did in the pre-pandemic peak of 2019. What’s more, they’re adding more flights to more cities than ever before. And that was before the U.S. finally dropped requiring passengers from Europe to have a negative COVID-19 test before flying, a decision that will, almost overnight, fill a lot more seats.
European airlines are also adding flights. Analysis by Craig Jenks, of the New York-based Airline/Aircraft Projects, shows Aer Lingus upping flights between Dublin and Orlando from four to seven weekly, as well as new daily flights between Manchester, U.K., and New York. Air France introduced three flights a week from Paris to Denver, and British Airways has four new flights a week from London to Portland, Oregon. There are also scores of new flights to other non-coastal cities, like Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas, and Austin.
In fact, the route map of flights between the U.S. and Europe has become so fluid and dynamic that planning a European vacation is far more challenging—particularly if you want to find the most relaxing and sybaritic flight across the pond, given the mayhem that may lie in your path before you reach your seat.
To that end, the first thing to remember is that you’re not just choosing a seat. You’re also choosing an airplane. If you’re going to be in a cabin for between seven and 11 hours, depending on where you depart from and how far into Europe you’re flying, the comfort of the cabin will depend on the age of the airplane.
Nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century, only a handful of airplanes have optimal, state-of-the-art climate technology in their cabins—precisely the kind of details that can transform the experience of long haul flying. That includes higher humidity in the cabin to counter the physical effects of very dry air; better quality climate control that keeps even temperatures no matter what part of the cabin you occupy; individually controlled lighting to aid sleep and better sound proofing to reduce intrusive engine and aerodynamic noise.
There are just three widebody jets that embody those qualities: the Airbus A380 superjumbo; the smaller Airbus A350; and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. All of them have a cabin altitude of 6,000 feet, meaning that the pressure of air in the cabin is the equivalent of breathing at that height, and the air is more humid, while in all the older jets the cabin altitude is 8,000 feet, where the air is notably drier.
Dr. Paulo Alves, aerospace medical expert and member of the Aerospace Medical Association Air Transport Medical Committee, told the Daily Beast, “The otherwise healthy passenger should not expect any health problem at the 8,000 feet cabin altitude. However, there are quite a few studies and reports of improved well-being when flying modern jetliners, due to lower noise levels, lower vibration, better space. Of course, the longer the flight, the greater need for comfort.”
The most common discomforts, says Dr. Alves, are thirst, “not because of dehydration but dryness of our mouth. Dryness of the eyes is another problem, also people prone to nose bleeding can have an episode precipitated by low humidity. Good hydration and use of eye lubricants is useful to prevent discomfort.”
If you are flying on one of the three major U.S. airlines across the Atlantic this summer, the number of older airplanes greatly outnumber those new generation jets. According to data for July, provided exclusively to The Daily Beast by Cirium, an aviation analytics company, Delta has 212 flights flown by the A350, versus more than 2,000 flights operated with older jets; United has 651 flights using the 787, versus more than 2,000 flights with older jets. In contrast, American Airlines operates 1,018 flights, nearly half its European flights, with the newer jets, either the A350 or the 787.
The oldest of the jets are Boeing 757s and 767s, averaging between 22 and 24 years in service, approaching close to the point when maintaining them becomes too costly. American Airlines permanently dumped these two airplanes from their fleet during the pandemic because their gas-guzzling engines made them costly to operate. The sudden recovery of international flights has caught the airline with fewer jets than it needed, exacerbated by a delay in the delivery new Boeing 787s because of quality control issues at Boeing. As a result, American has dropped five European routes.
John Grant of the global airline data cruncher OAG provided The Daily Beast with new numbers that show United the leader in seats available across the Atlantic this summer, at just over 4 million, up from 3.5 million in 2019; Delta is second with 3.6 million, down from 4 million in 2019, and American third with 3.1 million, compared to 3.5 million in 2019.
Frequent business class travelers tend to be more savvy about the quality of the cabin climate when selecting flights. Leisure travelers are more cost-conscious but, remember, seats in newer jets don’t actually cost more than the equivalent in older ones (they guzzle far less gas, so they cost airlines less to operate) and the virtues of better air and climate are as apparent in the back of the cabin as at the front. Nonetheless, Mike Arnot, an airline industry commentator, says, “Most flyers won’t notice the difference in product between an older plane and the newest. United have retrofitted their older aircraft with a slick product, Polaris business class, and those seats are chock-full with people burning their long-saved miles for the experience.”
British Airways has introduced all three of the new jets deep into its American destinations; it now flies to the U.K. from 26 cities. It flies the A380 from four hubs, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Los Angeles, where there is enough demand to fill the 469 seats. (No U.S. airline ever bought the superjumbo, and many were permanently grounded at the onset of the pandemic, including those operated by Air France and Lufthansa. But BA remains committed to the goliath for hub-to-hub routes.) BA flies the very popular 787 Dreamliner out of Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Nashville, New Orleans, Pittsburg, Portland, Seattle and Washington Dulles. The larger A350 flies from Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando and Phoenix.
What’s odd about that list is that it excludes the busiest and most competitive route over the Atlantic, New York to the U.K. Before the pandemic, BA made a big splash of introducing the A350 on that route, particularly touting its new business class suites in a head-to-head contest with Virgin Atlantic’s A350 business class cabins on the same route. (With far fewer flights, Virgin Atlantic pushes its acclaimed Club House business lounge at Heathrow as part of its branding edge in sheer style.)
But now, at New York, BA has reverted to the Boeing 777, the oldest widebody jet in its fleet, averaging around 18 years. They have all been upgraded with the same business class suites as the A350, and new cabin lighting, but still have the drawback of higher cabin altitude. That’s not so much noticeable on the shorter flights between the East Coast and London, but it begins to be felt on the longer routes where the 777 shares the airline’s gates with the new jets, like Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where the flight can be as long as 11 hours.
United is flying even older jets on long routes. For example, it has four new flights a week from Newark to Dubrovnik, one of the best value European destinations because of the spectacular Dalmatian coastal resorts. These are being flown by Boeing 767s with an average age of 24 years, and the 4,500-mile flight takes more than nine hours. In the 1980s, the 767 pioneered long haul flights over the Atlantic when doing so with only two engines was controversial (jets with three or four engines were thought safer) and now every widebody except the A380 is a twin-jet, but these early 767s, however tarted-up the cabins are, are not only tired but, compared with newer jets, are notorious polluters.
Some budget airlines are flying the latest generation jets over the pond. Newcomer Norse Atlantic Airways, for example, flies 787 Dreamliners from New York to London (Gatwick), Berlin and Oslo; from Los Angeles to Berlin and Oslo; and from Fort Lauderdale and Orlando to Oslo. Norse has basically taken the place of Norwegian Airlines, which ceased flying the Atlantic during the pandemic because it had opened too many routes too fast and ran out of cash. Norse is being more prudent as it seeks to offer a budget alternative to legacy airline fares. Given the stresses on all airline and airport services this summer, Norse is as likely to be judged on its reliability as on its prices.
But people who can buy maximum comforts always will, and they like to live in their own rarified air. That’s never been more true than in air travel. The private jet crowd can fly on a new Gulfstream G700 with a cabin altitude of a mere 2,900 feet as the butler pours a glass of Dom Perignon.
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